The South Gate is the most famous city gate and a kind of emblem of Angkor Thom. Every visitor of Angkor will see it, as the only road from the Angkor Wat to the second-most popular destination, the Bayon, crosses Angkor Thom's South Gate. All visitors will stop here in front of Angkor's most extensive collection of giant sculptures. Many tourists start an elephant ride here, either through the South Gate to the Bayon temple or to the top of the nearby hill Phnom Bakheng. The causeway of the South Gate is pretty crowded sometimes, particularly between 9.00 and 10.00 am. In the evening, an hour or two after sunset, the South Gate will be closed. Visits of Angkor are not allowed at night-time, except for guests of some special events such as dining on the upper terrace of the illuminated Bayon, sometimes exclusively arranged by luxury hotels.
In front of the South Gate there is the best-preserved and restored stone causeway across the 100 m broad moat of Angkor Thom. The railings are formed by the world-famous rows of giant sculptures holding on their knees a Naga, whose seven heads rises fanwise at the outer end of the causeway. Originally, each of the Angkor Thom's five city gates had such balustrades with two times 54 figures, 108 being a holy number in Mahayana Buddhism. But today only the South Gate has an almost complete set.
The eastern railing is the row of 54 Ashura demons, they can be easily identified because of the grimacing expressions of their faces. Some of the original heads are sheltered in museums now, being replaced by cement copies of a much brighter colour. The other row of 54 more friendly looking Devas (gods) is less well preserved, and more heads are missing. As already mentioned, the sculptures in each of both rows are connected by a rope in their hands in the form of a serpent. The most common and convincing interpretation, though not undisputed, is that this is a three-dimensional version of the famous "Churning of the Milk Ocean", which is depicted on many bas-reliefs in Angkor, for example, in majestic size and perfect workmanship, at the western outer gallery of the Angkor Wat.
The myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk is told in India's sacred Purana scriptures, for example in the most famous one, the Bhagavatam. Thus, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a narrative from the Vishnu mythology, more precisely, the story of the second of his ten major incarnations within a world cycle ("Dashavataras" = "ten Avatars") . Vishnu had to appear in the form of a turtle called Kurma in order to help to produce the elixier of immortality for the gods. The story goes: The Devas were not able to gain the Amrita, the elixier of immortality, as long as they fought against their opponents, the Ashuras, who also tried to win it. Finally both sides agreed to join their forces temporarily and to churn the Sea of Milk together in order to produce Amrita. After winding the body of the serpent Vashuki around the pivot, Mt. Mandara, they jointly churned the ocean by rotating Mt. Mandara with the Naga's body as a rope. But Mt. Mandara began to sink into the ocean. And this is why Vishnu had to incarnate himself as the turtle Kurma, in order to carry Mt. Mandara on the back of his shell and to stabilize the pivotal mountain. During a period of one thousand years of joint efforts, many treasures came into existence by that churning, among them the celestial female dancers called Apsaras, the goddess Lakshmi, the three-headed elephant Airavata, and finally the Amrita elixier. Instantly, another argument and battle between gods and demons arose, before the gods could secure the Amrita for themselves.
Mt. Mandara could be symbolized by the enormous Bayon temple in the centre of Angkor Thom, right in the middle between the rows of giants at the South Gate and the North Gate.
The morning is slightly better to visit the South Gate. Then the faces of the demons are lighted up from the side, in the afternoon frontally. The ticket is not checked at the monument, but at the access roads of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.