Angkor Thom South Gate

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
January 10, 2024

The south gate of Angkor Thom is a very famous spot within Angkor Archeological Park and one that shouldn’t be missed. Standing on the causeway, and admiring the sheer scale, as you find yourself drifting back in time to imagine how it must have felt to approach this spectacular city in its heydey is quite simply an experience you will hold forever.

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The Southern Gate of Angkor Thom, or Tonle Om Gate, is one of the five ancient gates dated to the 12th century providing access through the 8m high laterite walls of Angkor Thom. The South Gate features the best-restored causeway, revealing the awe-inspiring effect that surely must have been one of the original intentions of its ancient master architects. In its day, there would have been no doubt that you were entering the realm of the gods and looking upon one of the world’s truly great wonders, an effect it has still till this day.

The other gates are the West Gate (Thvear Ta Kev), North Gate (Thvear Ta Nok), Victory Gate (Thvear Chey), and East Gate (Gate of the Dead or Thvear Khnoch).

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkor

Approaching Angkor Thom you are first met by the grand causeway that crosses the 100 m wide moat which is flanked on either side by a naga balustrade beginning with a massive stone carving of a seven-headed Naga (mythical serpent) being held by a multi-armed and multi-headed giant. On each side, there are 54 stone giants pulling on the body of the Naga serpent.

On one side, the giants represent Devas featuring slender oval eyes and a casual smile, on the other side, depicting Asuras with round bulging eyes and grimacing faces, together representing an endless tug of war between good and evil, the polar forces generating the dynamism of life itself. Some will also connect it to the ancient myth, Churning of the Sea of Milk, as so famously depicted on the southern gallery wall of Angkor Wat, and go even further to say that Angkor Thom represents a giant mandala with the Bayon at its center, representing the famed Mount Meru.

The gates of Angkor Thom are a cruciform layout, with side chambers, approximately 20 m high joining to the 8 m high laterite wall that encloses the citadel of Angkor Thom. The inner side chamber housed a large pedestal while the outer chamber is believed by some to have been a guard post, having an access door on the inner wall which was seemingly blocked off in later times.

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkorpedestal of the inner chamberAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkorouter chamber, noting the blocked doorway on the right wall

As per the other four gates, tri-headed elephants flank either side of the 3.5 m wide and 7 m high doorway, pulling up lotus from the waters below with their trunks. Their tusks lost to time. This tri-headed elephant, Airvata, can also be seen depicted in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, depicted supporting the god Indra in lintels across the ancient eras, and also as a prominent feature of the nearby Terrace of the Elephants. They were extraordinarily detailed and if you look closely you can still see much of that detail, as mentioned at the base of their trunks, their eyes, the bells hanging from their neck, and so on.

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkor

Above the elephants are three figures, a male flanked by two devas whom many believe to be a depiction of the king Jayavarman VII, holding the sacred vajra (lightning bolt), with his two queens on either side, Indradevi and Jayarajadevi. Notably, Henri Marchal among others, considers it to likely be a depiction of Indra flanked by two divinities.

Indra, (or Inda/Sakra/Sakka), was a deity in the Hindu religion also serving in both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism along with Brahma as protectors of Buddhism. The triad of Indra and two consorts is not so unusual in the Buddhist world, also seeing examples in Nepalese art. Are these three figures identical on each side of the gate? I am not sure, with the state of decay it’s hard to tell, but it would appear there are differences that might be significant, especially when looking across all the gates with the female characters, at least, featuring differing headdresses, hand positions, and objects held.

In actual fact, all the gates have slight stylistic differences, the west gate, for example, features art styles of the earlier 11th century in its basement bands leading one to assume they were constructed over a long time period, perhaps starting before Jayavarman VII, or, making use of existing structures/recycled masonry among other possibilities.

Above the entrances, there were originally large frontons with bas-reliefs featuring Avalokiteshvara as the central idol although these are lost to time but can still be seen in part on the Victory Gate. Smaller pediments also carried depictions of Avalokiteshvara at the ends of the structure, just above the abutment to the wall which is also best viewed on the other gates.

The entrance also had wooden doors that were closed at night according to notes left by the Chinese diplomat who visited Cambodia in the 13th century, Zhao Daguan (see references).

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkor

Rising above the triad of Indra and his consorts, on each side of the entrance is a row of devata in prayer, above whom are the four massive and beautifully carved faces, pointing in each direction. In between the faces are singular devata with long flowing locks of hair imitating the beautiful native vines of the region.

The four massive faces are believed by some to be either a depiction of king Jayavarman VII, Avolikiteshvara, or Brahma. It’s locally held to be the latter. Much like the smiling faces of the Bayon, it’s an unresolved point with researchers. These four gigantic smiling faces feature a diadem in a diamond shape on their forehead, an ornate crown/tiara with a center emblem, and the iconic large ornamental earrings. Some faces appear to have a mustache, as a neat line curling at the ends, but they may just be remnants of the outer surround of the lips.

Atop the four faces, are three towering prasats (temple), the central tower being the tallest rising up with three false levels with false doors on each side and seemingly ornate lintels and pediments before reaching its lotus flower crown and spire.

Etienne Aymonier, the famed French explorer of the early 1900s, left us with a few interesting points about the gates in his notes in Le Cambodge

….. The side galleries, also vaulted and covered, were blocked at their ends under the rampart and were to serve as a guardhouse; there was access to it by a few steps placed on each side under the entrance arch……

…..It is possible that the gates of the ancestors or spirits called Nok and Kao preserved the names of the men who were buried alive under the foundations in order to become their guardians, the tutelary gods, according to an ancient custom that existed in several countries and which was maintained in Cambodia until recent years, as we have already had occasion to observe…..

…..Finally, if old accounts are to be believed, these towers were still surmounted by lotus flowers from which emerged a fifth head crowned with a golden tiara.

Le Cambodge. Le groupe d’Angkor et l’histoire / par Etienne Aymonier

Regarding the extra heads atop the lotus flowers at the peak of the “prasats”, no remnants of such were ever discovered, albeit that’s how they were described in the notes mentioned earlier left to us by Zhao Daguan. However, a trident was found and the peak was restored with a sandstone pointed capping that likely would have held this bronze trident as depicted in the third illustrated restitution below.

Illustrated Restitutions from French surveys Louis Delaporte, the EFEO in the 1900s, and the third by Marchal in 1924. Interestingly, the male figure of the triad of characters, likely Indra, is depicted in earliest French illustrations as holding a mace.

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello AngkorAngkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkor

Historical Images – via Fonds Cambodge/EFEO/Persee, including images taken during early restoration works in the 1950s, and items noted as being discovered at the gate.

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  • K. 581 – labeled as graffiti on one of the stone giants
  • K. 972 – labeled as graffiti

Explore more

From inside the south gate, you can walk up atop the wall on either side and walk to the small temples at either end known as Prasat Chrung, read more here. Heading along the western side of the wall, you can also visit Rong Ta Dev, a large water drainage feature constructed in the outer wall, and then Prasat Chrung SW which is also a very popular sunset spot.

You can also take boat rides on the moat, just before entering the causeway, on the left-hand side, there is a ticket booth offering tours in traditional boats. You can also walk along the moat here and visit several smaller temples including Baksei Chamkrong Temple, Thma Bay Ka-ek, Prasat Bei, Sak Kraop Temple and the beautiful lions at the old northern staircase to Phnom Bakheng.

References and Further Reading

  • Les portes monumentales du groupe d’Angkor, 1924, Henri Marchal
  • Le Cambodge. Le groupe d’Angkor et l’histoire, Etienne Aymonier, 1900-1904, p.87
  • The Customs of Cambodia, 1987, translated into English from the French version by Paul Pelliot

Angkor Thom South Gate | Hello Angkor

Rodney Charles LHuillier

Living in Asia for over a decade and now residing in beautiful Siem Reap – Contact via [email protected] – more..