Nestled deep within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom lies the enigmatic temple known as Phimeanakas, or Vishnulok. Though smaller in scale than its famous neighbors, this peculiar pyramid temple conceals legends and mysteries still unsolved after a millennium. As one wanders through its weathered corridors and climbs its broken stairs, echoes of Khmer kings and mythical serpents seem to linger in these stones.
The Myth of the Golden Tower
Phimeanakas means “Celestial Palace”, a fitting name for a temple literally built for gods and kings. Its original form is unknown, but some believe a wooden temple once occupied this site in the 10th century before being rebuilt in stone. The current temple dates to the late 10th century rule of Rajendravarman, the first major expansion of the Angkor empire.
According to legend, the centerpiece was a towering golden spire housing a nine-headed serpent known as a Naga. Each night, the Naga would transform into a woman to receive the king. Failure to appear meant disaster for the kingdom. This mystical bond connected the king’s power to the gods above, affirming his holy right to rule.
Though the golden tower is long gone, its magic still permeates the many carved snakes slithering across the stones. As one traces their fingers over the intricate scales, it’s easy to envision a glittering tower shining like a beacon over Angkor Thom.
The King’s Eternal City
Phimeanakas sits at the heart of the Royal Palace, the compound from which Angkor Thom was ruled. This was the work of Suryavarman II, the god-king who built Angkor Wat and expanded the empire to its zenith.
After passing through fortified gateways adorned with massive stone faces, one finds themselves wandering amidst remnants of an extraordinary ancient city – ponds for bathing, structures for court gatherings, elephant stables and shrines for sacred rituals. It’s like a ghostly film overlaying the present jungle ruins with the people, animals and energy of centuries past.
At the temple’s eastern entrance, an inscription from 1011 AD bears an oath of allegiance to the king, underscoring Phimeanakas’ role as the symbolic seat of imperial power. As one gazes out from its highest terrace, it’s easy to imagine the king surveying his earthly kingdom, the sprawling city bustling with life below. One can picture terraces and towers now lost, homes with wooden walls and thatched roofs, street markets filled with foods, textiles and incense. Sounds of chanting monks, traders bartering, children playing seem to float up from far away. For a moment, time and reality blur.
Abandonment and Rediscovery
In the late 12th century, Phimeanakas was rebuilt in a grander style befitting a capital temple. But the good fortune was short-lived. By the 15th century, Phimeanakas was abandoned like so many temples at Angkor. Jungle vines slowly strangled its walls as darkness descended on the once-great Khmer civilization.
Centuries later, French explorer Henri Marchal uncovered a forgotten stela that helped revive interest in the site. Its inscriptions revealed details about royal ceremonies, conflicts with the rival Chams, and the coronation of Jayavarman VII, the legendary king who built Angkor Thom and Bayon temple.
This stela provided a crucial window into Angkor’s past, as Phimeanakas still does today. Though its golden tower may be reduced to ruin, its old stones retain the spirit of kings, gods, and serpents who forever call this celestial temple home.
As one descends the worn steps, it’s worth taking one last look at the temple that time forgot. One can imagine all those who climbed these stairs before – kings, priests, servants, pilgrims – each playing their part in the rise and fall of empires. Phimeanakas endures as a testament to the cycles of light and darkness across the ages. Its true mysteries may never be unlocked, but it continues to cast its otherworldly spell on all who wander through its celestial halls.