Photo: How the other half lived.

Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace

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Phimeanakas sits just about at the centre of what was once the Royal Palace compound, which likely began with the construction of the temple around the mid-10th century.

Attributed to either Suryavarman I, Rajendravarman II, or Harshvarman I, laterite walls surrounded by moats mark the boundaries of the palace area, within which sit several large ponds. While the palace remained in use till the mid-1500s, today little remains but the foundation work and a couple of ponds. The palace would have been made from wood, as would the living quarters of anyone else knocking about at the time, such as servants, wives and concubines. The exact position of the palace is unknown and, like all the wooden structures from the era, it has not survived.

A low key yet sprawling site well worth your time. Photo taken in or around Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace, Angkor, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

A low key yet sprawling site well worth your time. Photo: Mark Ord

Despite its largely ruined state, the royal enclosure remains a fascinating area to walk through as the setting is lush and overgrown, yet very accessible. Contrast that with an image of it teeming with life in its heyday—when there also wouldn’t have been any trees!

The three-level Phimeanakas (meaning “flying palace” in Sanskrit) soars more than 30 metres high and is close to the centre of the complex—located just off to the south—and from its apex there are good views over the surrounds and to neighbouring Baphuon. Believed to have once been covered in gold, all four stairways are guarded by stone lions and the corners bear elephants typical of 10th century design. Legend has it that King Suryavarman used to sleep here with his lover, a serpent woman. The Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor in the 13th century, called this the “Tower of God”.

Take a picnic lunch beside Srah Srei. Photo taken in or around Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace, Angkor, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Take a picnic lunch beside Srah Srei. Photo: Mark Ord

An inscription in the temple’s sanctuary refers to the date 910—perhaps reused from an earlier temple?—and there are theories the temple may have been built as early as the end of the eighth century as opposed to the 10th. Nobody quite knows for sure.

Only the rear staircase is accessible, where a wooden staircase with a handrail has been built atop the worn stone steps.

Sitting to the north of Phimeanakas is Srah Srei (Women’s Bath), a large pond worth more than a cursory glance. Look for the detailed sea life carved into the walls of sandstone that form the edge of the pond. Creatures include crabs, giant lizards and fish, along with the mandatory crocodiles. You’re not permitted to swim in the pond, though the rule doesn’t appear to extend to the local kids who don’t mind a splash. Pack a picnic lunch for a midday break on the banks here.

Beasties. Photo taken in or around Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace, Angkor, Cambodia by Mark Ord.

Beasties. Photo: Mark Ord

The royal enclosure has five main gates, two on the north and south walls and one main gate on the east. If you take the westernmost of the two gates on the northern wall you can follow the trails for a back way to Preah Palilay. Likewise the westernmost southern gate is a shortcut to the Baphuon.

There are signposts indicating the “way of visit”, intended to help with the flow of visitors, beginning at Baphuon, on to Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace then through to Preah Palilay. Though not compulsory to follow for independent travellers, this is actually a logical path, though a bit tricky with bikes between Baphuon and Phimeanakas. Since it’s such a pleasant walk you’re better off parking them opposite Baphuon and walking back to them later.

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Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace
To the west (behind) the Elephant and Leper King Terraces

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Location map for Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace

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