We’re shaded from the piercingly hot sun by the jungle above and around us, overstretched plants adding to the shade from my hat and the breeze from our bicycles to keep us relatively safe. But that shroud is quickly torn away, revealing the cloudless blue sky, as we reach the edge of the three kilometer wide moat protecting Angkor Thom.
The city wall rises up eight meters from the jungle floor. The walls form a perfect square, and at the center of each of the four walls is an archway topped by four massive faces, gazing protectively in the four cardinal directions.
The one in front of us is the Southern Gate. To get to it we pass over a wide bridge before being funnelled through the comparatively narrow archway, flanked on either side by twin lines of Asara and Devas pulling back on forth on a Naga, wrapped around Mt Meru, to churn the Sea of Milk. It’s a recurring theme here.
We pass beneath the archway and keep pedalling north, and soon we’ve come to the center of the ancient city. At the crossroads of the city is Jayavarman VII’s masterpiece: the massive Bayon, representing (as so many things here do) Mt Meru, the mountain at the center of the multiverse. Adorned by no less than 216 massive stone faces, this temple is utterly unique. Its visuals are so striking that it defined an eponymous art style that continues to this day, as seen at the Terrasse d’Elephant hotel in Siem Reap.
The temple is huge, and was obviously a massively expensive undertaking. Laterite is used only on the core of the buildings; all the exposed stone is black sandstone. The entrance faces east, as is standard (Angkor Wat being the rare exception). Being at the exact center of the city of Angkor Thom, it’s a straight line path along each of the cardinal directions to the massive archways leading in and out of the city, which are also adorned with the same stone faces as here at the Bayon, the crossroads of the world. The faces are ostensibly Vishnu’s, though many scholars believe they bear more than a passing resemblance to Jayavarman VII.
The outer moat is small, more decorative than practical. Being inside the walls of Angkor Thom is protection enough against nearly any invader. Inside one has the choice of going in, up the standard stairs, or around to either side, where twin libraries stand. The libraries have some of the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen, and time and wear has eroded a few steps, making them even more treacherous than when they were first laid down.
We go up to the top of the library, where I spot some small rivulets, which after some discussion Allison and I come to agree were more likely to be for practical, drying purposes than ritual ones, given their location. We rest in the partial shade provided, then continue down slowly – the steep sides are even more treacherous going down than up.
The rest of the temple is a great example of the Mountain Temple design: a ring of walls and roof, stairs up to the next level, repeat. All are lined with magnificent bas reliefs, the outer area being more historical, the inner more mythic. The upper terrace is where things get really interesting.
This is home to 200 of the 216 stone faces. The central tower, originally a + shape, has had its number of shrines doubled, and is now octagonal. The terrace is crowded, jam packed with small, medium, and huge face towers. I can’t help but imagine a sword fight in here, leaping from ledge to rim to balustrade, and smile. The floor level of the upper terrace is at the same height as the exterior, inner gallery, and one could step directly from the terrace to the outer roof if one was so inclined.
We spend the entire day here, weaving in and out between pillars, climbing on stones, balancing and avoiding causing any rockfalls, before heading back to our hotel, the Terrasse d’Elephant. Done in the Bayon style, the entire hotel is a modern testament to the Khmer and their ancestry. The hotel is done entirely, throughout, in the Bayon style. There are face towers on each of the terraces, and in the rooftop garden, and in each room. What’s more, it maintains the Khmer tradition of water features: each of the heads doubles as a fountain, something the ancient Angkor builders would no doubt have approved of.