Terrace of the Leper King is a masterpiece in Siem Reap that is rich in art, culture and mystery. Unlike most of the bas-reliefs in the area, the carvings on this terrace have more volume and details. The depiction of the citizens with varying classes and the Hindu deities look more lively and have more emotion.
Where it got its name is still a mystery that’s surrounded by different stories. But it raises an interesting idea because lepers were treated as outcasts in the past. What happens if the king himself gets the illness? How can you treat a king as an outcast? Since one of the previous kings was known to be infected by leprosy, did it result in a better treatment of lepers and a greater campaign for health treatments?
History of the Terrace of the Leper King
This massive monument has certain dating problems but its exact design was found in the Royal Palace which dated in the half of the 13th century. It was known to be an extension of the Terrace of the Elephants that was added by King Jayavarman VIII. The name Terrace of the Leper King was only given to it in the 15th century.
There are different speculations about who the leper king is. Some historians suggest that it’s King Yasovaraman I who is known as a leper. The theory that King Jayavarman VII is a leper that’s why he built many hospitals during his reign has no historical support. Another theory suggests that a strange statue was found on the terrace that had corrosion and lichens which gave the impression that who it represents was a leper.
The original statue is already in the National Museum of Phnom Penh while the one in the Terrace of the Leper King is a replica. That statue of a naked man that carries a mace on top of the monument actually depicts the deity Yama who is known as the god of the underworld.
Exploring the Terrace of the Leper King
The Terrace of the Leper King is just beside the Terrace of the Elephants. We actually thought at first that it was still part of the Terrace of the Elephants because of how close they are. It was eye-catching that’s why we took the short walk to get closer to it despite the heat of the afternoon. There’s a tendency for this terrace to be missed out but we’re glad that we didn’t.
For an ancient monument, the quality of its craftsmanship is unquestionably high. Looking at the figures and trying to understand what they are depicting is baffling. It’s hard to tell if the men carrying swords that are being fanned by women are the previous kings or his officials. The bottom part has a naga (serpent), that is also found in most of the temples.
We continued to check out the area and even went to a narrow alley where more bas-reliefs can be found. They seem to be depicting the same characters and they also have a naga at the bottom-center. Some of the figures have cracks and damages but the detail of their patterns still looks good.
Paintings and Stores
Speaking of art, modern Cambodians clearly inherited their creativity from their ancestors. Beautiful Cambodian paintings are displayed and being sold in the stalls close to the Terrace of the Leper King. What’s noticeable is that most of the paintings are images of Angkor Wat with some Bayon Temple. Angkor Wat is so iconic to them that they have even put it in their flag.
Other souvenir items are also sold nearby but I just want to give you a warning about buying their bottled water. Even our tour guide warned us about the unclean bottled waters that are mostly sold outside. We saw with our own eyes how there was a small insect in one of those. I ended up getting a canned soft drink instead.