Places That Inspire - The Elephant Terrace

I recently realized that I've used a certain setting in three of my books, and yet I've never written a post about it. The place is the Terrace of Elephants in Angkor Thom, the huge royal city complex near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It appears, however briefly and in different time periods, in Journey to Angkor, The Naga’s Treasure and my latest work in progress, “Letting Go.”

Terrace of the Elephants
Terrace of the Elephants

The terrace is a standard stop on tours of the main Angkor archaeological complex, and it is an impressive sight in its own right: A thick stone wall about three meters high and more than 100 meters long, with almost every inch of its face carved with scenes of triumphal marches of soldiers and elephants.

Parade Grounds
The large open field - parade grounds - in front of the Terrace of the Elephants

The thing is, I very much doubt that most tourists grasp the significance of this structure, or stop to imagine the pageantry that must have once played out here. The wall faces a large open field, which in all likelihood has always been a large open field. There's one very much like it in front of Bangkok's Grand Palace even today, and it was designed with much the same purpose in mind.

The terrace is, in effect, a reviewing stand, where the king and courtiers would sit or stand to view whatever spectacle was paraded in front of them, whether it was a returning army, or some religious celebration. I tried to describe the kind of spectacle that I think once may have been played out in front of the terrace at the beginning of “The Naga's Treasure”:

Suriya made his way along the grand terrace to get as close to the king's position as possible, since that was where the acrobats and other tricksters would perform as they paraded past the king. The terrace ran the entire length of the eastern side of the palace. It was really just a wall, with a wide walkway about two arm-spans wide along the top. The wall was nearly twice the height of a man, and the public face was carved with life-sized elephants and other scenes from past triumphant marches through the large open space in front of the palace. Colorful silk flags hung from high poles lining the grounds. Near the king's throne a temporary enclosure for the king to rest in had been built of bamboo and silk.

Today was a celebration of a victory over the Chams in the south. Suriya found a spot with a good view not far from the second king's seat. Hashimi was already seated, surrounded by his guards. It seemed that the second king had more guards with him than usual, and they appeared to be on edge, looking about furtively. Suriya didn't know what to make of it, and then was distracted when the king himself entered from the palace gate which let directly onto where his throne stood on the terrace. The king's guard also seemed wary, and Suriya wondered what was going on.

The parade began as soon as the king was seated, so as not to keep His Majesty waiting. Ox carts pulled four of the giant thunder drums across the field while the drummers played them from platforms on the back of the carts. The drum heads were slightly larger across than the height of a man, and the drummers played by striking the heads not only with their hands, but elbows, knees and feet. The drummer's performance was as much a dance as it was music. Their bodies were all muscle and sinew, and to maximize their freedom of movement they wore only a narrow loincloth. Their performance always thrilled Suriya with its sensuousness.

As the drummers passed, Suriya caught something out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw what looked like one of the king's swordsmen inching along the back of the terrace, towards the second king's position. It was very curious, and Suriya kept glancing back to see where the soldier was headed.

A great phalanx of elephants followed the drummers. There were a dozen beasts in each row, and it appeared there were more than 10 rows. Atop each of the front elephants were two archers, who stood on the backs of the beasts behind the mahouts. As they approached the area of the field directly in front of the king, the archers prepared to fire a volley of blunted arrows over the thunder drums. Since the arrows were blunted and were to be fired high into the air, they wouldn't hurt anyone when they fell, and anyone would be crazy to be in the line of the parade anyway.