The Enclosure Wall of Angkor Thom

We are returning to the 12th Century AD. The year is 1181 and King Jayavarman VII has defeated the Cham Army. It is during this time that his majesty had crowned himself king of the Khmer Empire.

He had restored the city of Angkor Thom and erected the temple of Bayon right at the epicenter of the city enclosed by an enormous wall which was constructed in the shape of a square with equal length on each side. To access the city, the wall has 5 entrances, each one built directly along the line of the wall. To the East, two entrances were constructed. One is called the Chey gate and the other the Kmaoch gate. To the West is the Ta Kao gate, to the North is the Dei Chhn’ang gate and to the South is the Tonle Om gate.

The word Kam Paeng has been defined in the Chhoun Nath Khmer dictionary as a wall composed of clay, stone or soil bump that is raised around an area to create a kind of water reservoir. The Chhoun Nath dictionary also explains that during ancient time, the Thai people took the Khmer word Kam Paeng and pronounced it Kaam Phaeng. After the passing of many historical periods, some of the Khmer people took the word Kaam Phaeng and pronounced it back Kam Phaeng. In conclusion, the word was always to be pronounced Kam Paeng.

Based on various historical documents, the enclosure wall’s origin dated back to the pre-historical time. It has evolved from a circular shape, before becoming an almost square or almost rectangular shape. It was not until the Angkor era that the construction of the wall took a more proper shape of a square or a rectangle. As you can see, the enclosure wall of Angkor Thom temple was erected in the shape of a square.

Enclosure wall was one of the aspects in urban planning of Yasodharapura, the ancient capital of Angkor Thom. This particular enclosure wall was constructed with a sense of religion and military strategy. King Jayavarman VII, whose reign spanned the years of 1181 to 1201 A.D., was a king who practiced the religion of Mahayana Buddhism. Because of this, his majesty had built the Bayon temple right at the center of the city which is surrounded by the enclosure wall and the moat. It is meant to resemble the universe where Mount Meru is considered to be the center point which is enclosed by mountain range and ocean.

Ros Visoth: This is the last enclosure wall which was built by the very famous King Jayavarman VII. Before the wall construction and before his reign, there were many wars happening between us and the country of Champa. There was a time when they invaded the Khmer territory and burnt down the Angkor city before king Jayavarman VII came into power. When he had crowned himself, he fought back, freed the land from the foreigners and reconstructed the city’s infrastructures.

Mao Sokny: For a city, when they want to defend it with influence, with power, they have to build something with a strong infrastructure. It has to have proper administration, the royal palace, the king, army generals, government officials, entrances and the enclosure wall.

It is true that many other enclosure walls had been constructed around some of the other large temples during the reign of King Jayavarman VII which include Preah Khan temple, Banteay Kdey temple and Ta Prohm temple. These temples also have multiple layers of enclosure walls.

However, in this video documentary, we focus mainly on the enclosure wall of the Angkor Thom city. The enclosure wall of the Angkor Thom city took the shape of a square. It was built from laterite stones with a perimeter of 12 kilometers, 3 kilometers on each side and 7.5 meters in height. Within the inner boundary of the wall, a soil slope was built, going from the ground and reaching the top of the wall at an angle. This soil slope acts as a support for the wall, like “the wall’s back”. On top of it, a 10-meter-wide road was paved circling the city. Next to the road, the soil slope goes down 100 meters before reaching ground level. This slope also functions as structural support for the enclosure wall.

The crew members of the Apsara National Authority have led us on motorbikes to see the view of the wall’s back and to explain more about the enclosure wall itself. We started our journey from the Southern entrance of the Tonle Om gate and headed straight toward the Southwest direction while driving along on the wall’s back. On top of the four corners of the wall are the small temples which are called Chrung temples or Corner temples. Mr. Ros Chandraboth, a PhD in political science wrote in his book on Cambodia’s history that the act of bravery of King Jayavarman VII was inscribed on the stone of the Chrung temple in Angkor Thom city. The inscription reads “King Jayavarman VII raised his voice, proudly inviting the Cham king Jaya Indravarman IV to come with his elephants for a face-to-face combat in order to show his troops”.

However, before we continue talking about the wall, Mr. Visoth just realized that he needed to show me one of the waterways. So, we had to walk down the soil slope of the wall’s back, through the thick canopy of small and big trees. This waterway is called a “Tra Dev hole”. It was constructed by digging through the soil slope of the wall. On the Northeastern side of the ancient city lies this kind of waterway with 3 holes. This one, which is located on the Southwestern side, has 5 holes. Now, I can understand that why historian Ros Visoth wanted to show me the Tra Dev holes.

Ros Visoth: The structure of Tra Dev holes is constructed on the other side of the wall. This means, beyond this wall, the situation over there looks the same as the situation here. It means that this water flows outward to the surrounding moat. In case a big storm may flood the city, this waterway will divert the flood into the moat. From the Southwestern side of the moat, a canal will continue to divert the water down the elevation.

Leang Delux: So, this is a flood prevention waterway.

Ros Visoth: Yes, it is an ancient flood prevention system.

Now, we climb up to the surroundings of the Chrung temple. This is an opportunity for me to ask Visoth about the relationship between the wall’s back and the moats.

Ros Visoth: For this moat, if its soil was not excavated to build this wall, this excavation would be very enormous. So, based on the research and assumption, perhaps, the wall soil was taken from this moat. More than just a moat, it also represents something religious. There is a myth on the Churning of the Sea of Milk, in which the mountain is surrounded by the ocean. That is Mount Meru. This is the true meaning of the city of Angkor Thom.

The ancient Khmer constructions have been proudly standing for generations of people for thousands of years. However, wars and forces of nature have left abandoned and destroyed hundreds of temples down to the ground including this wall of the Angkor Thom city.

Leang Delux: All objects and lives in this world are always threatened by natural factors. However, the wall, which was built in the late 12th century AD in the Angkor Thom city is also being threatened by rains, the deteriorating stone quality and the tree roots that have been growing on the back of the wall.

Of all the 4 sides of the wall, 22 spots have come down including 4 last spots which have been destroyed by a storm in 2011. From that point on, the Apsara National Authority has allowed specialists to conduct studies to restore the fallen parts of the enclosure wall. Experts, architects and historians of the Apsara National Authority as well as construction workers, many of whom are the people who live in and around Angkor Park, have been working together to bring up the fallen areas of the wall. As of 2020, 7 construction sites have successfully accomplished their mission. The other construction plans will take place in 2021.

Mr. Mao Sokny is an architect with the Apsara National Authority. He is the person in charge of the restoration of this Angkor Thom city wall. With the permission of the Apsara National Authority’s administration, Sokny has led the crew members of ThmeyThmey News to visit a portion of the wall near the Dei Chhn’ang gate which was recently restored.

Actually, based on some of the fallen spots of the wall, it is known that, after it was built by King Jayavarman VII, some portions of the wall were restored by a number of the king’s successors. The specialists of the present day are able to tell based on their study of the wall structure. However, what does the present-day enclosure wall construction look like?


Mao Sokny is an architect with the Apsara National Authority. 

Mao Sokny: This is research on the restoration of the wall’s structure. For this wall, we added another wall to support from the back. The original wall was so thin, so we added another wall with a 2.5 meters space between each of them. Behind the supporting wall, the soil was compressed by clay. It is extended around 20 to 30 meters from the wall to keep the water from leaking outside.

After explaining the technical aspects of the restoration of the enclosed wall with his documentation, architect Sokny continued his explanation by showing me the actual, real wall. The restored portion of the wall in front of which we are currently standing right now spans the length of 20 meters, and it took the construction team one year to fully restore this 20-meter portion of the wall. We will begin by talking about the quality of the wall’s laterite stones. 

Leang Delux: We will make a detailed comparison and you can explain it, Mr. Sokny. So, these are the old stones, is not it?

Mao Sokny: Yes.

Leang Delux: And these are the new stones.

Mao Sokny: Yes.

Leang Delux: First, these are all the same laterite stones. Between these present-day laterite stones and the laterite stones which were used by the Khmer ancestor in building this wall back then, are they the same type of stones?

Mao Sokny: Err… Until now, we have conducted studies and some organizations have also been to the quarry. Their analysis showed that the stone qualities are similar. However, for me, as a person who works directly on the temples, I have seen that the older stones are better in quality because they contain more clay composition inside them. The newer stones are comprised of many holes and they lack the clay composition.

This sheet of laterite stones had come from the district of Chi Kraeng, which is more than 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap City. These laterite stones were dug from the same region where our Khmer ancestors had been digging up more than 800 years ago to construct this same enclosure wall. But, the quality of the stones depends on the layer in which they sit. For now, let us continue listening to the team of specialists speak about the restoration processes. 

Leang Delux: This new area here also has a seam. Is it the same technique of rock laying? Can Sokny explain how different or similar it is when compared to the ancestral time?

Mao Sokny: We also do it by studying from the ancient technique. While laying the rocks, we sand them and temporarily put them first. Let’s say, we put a stone here and we observe how they fit together. If there is a gap, we lift them out and trim them a bit more. And when we can see that the base fits together very well, we lift it again and fill it with “Bay Or”. Bay Or is made from portions of sands, clay powder, sand powder, laterite grains mixed with another small portion of mountain limestone. We fill it to the attaching areas of the stones. We push it in and compress it several times with the mashers. Later on, we insert another stone and do the same thing. We put it in and test it. If there is a gap, we lift it up and trim it.

Leang Delux: I can see the shape of a square, but I do not know how it deep it goes.        

Mao Sokny: It is one meter deep.

Leang Delux: So, it is a rectangle.

Mao Sokny: Yes, it is a rectangle.

Leang Delux: How heavy is this piece?

Mao Sokny: For the weight… well, it is around 600Kg to 700Kg.

Leang Delux: Nearly a ton!

Mao Sokny: Because the mass to volume of stone is a bit heavier than the mass to volume of concrete. For concrete, its mass to volume is 2.2 tons. For laterite stones, since it contains iron composite, it is about 2.8 tons. So, for the mass of this piece, by multiplying with its own volume, it could be around 700Kg or 600kg depending on the stones that we get.

Mao Sokny: You see? Many areas had fallen down. My restoration is done by reinforcing and adding another inner wall to make it stronger in order to resist the inner soil from kicking outward. So, we added a supporting wall, which is called a buttress. We add it every 2.5 meters to reduce the pushing effect of the soil onto the wall and making it stronger.

Mao Sokny: Before, there was no supporting wall. But now we have it. Without the supporting wall, it could stand for 800 years. By adding another wall, perhaps, it would have a longer life span.

Leang Delux: More than 800 years.

Mao Sokny: Yes.

The restoration and the conservation of the ancient temples especially in the Angkor Park has been regarded as a core mission of the Apsara National Authority. The younger Cambodian generation of specialists have been accomplishing this mission with a combination of love and sense of gratitude toward their ancestors.

Ros Visoth: They feel very proud. So, for the younger generation of Khmer people, please contribute the feeling of pride altogether onto our ancestral heritage. I also would like to appeal toward the domestic tourists and the international tourists, and for me, especially the domestic tourists, that whenever they come to visit, please contribute your protection toward out ancestral heritage by not littering. By not littering trash, you already offer your contribution toward the protection of this ancestral heritage. I also would like to appeal to the younger generations of learners to continue learning, protecting and doing research.

Mao Sokny: That is the hope. I was learning in Phnom Penh and I came to Siem Reap Province for my internship. So, I begin to love the inheritance. I transfer my knowledge to the younger generations of people who undertake the internship in order for them to know, to understand and to love the Khmer heritage. When we love it, we want to protect it. So, for the younger generations, we take them here and we teach them on site. They will get to see how extraordinary it is. They will get to know how huge stones are being lifted. We explain to them the way we do it and they will have the feeling of protecting those things. Then, they will want to come and continue their work. For these villagers, sometimes, their younger relatives also come along with them and work together so that they have the same feeling of love toward their ancestral stuffs. Later on, the upcoming generations of people will continue to do this job.

In 2019, the Kingdom of Cambodia received 6.6 million international tourists. Theses temples in the province of Siem Reap, which have become a World Heritage Site of Humanity on December 14, 1992, are the biggest attraction in the tourism sector. Siem Reap city and its surrounding region have been transformed into a tourist focus for heritage, culture and history. This has created jobs for tens of thousands of Cambodians, both directly and indirectly.

Apart from assisting the younger generations in the economic sector, generally speaking, and the tourism sector, specifically speaking, the restoration of this Angkor Thom city enclosure wall and the wall’s back is considered crucial work and a duty.

More than 800 years ago, the wall and its back were constructed to defend the city of Angkor Thom. More than 800 years later, this very same wall and its back support structure still serve to the advantage of the younger generation of the Cambodian people. We all share an equal contribution toward the preservation of this heritage for the betterment of our younger generations for thousands of years to come.

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