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The Bayon is the very centerpiece of the larger Angkor Thom city, and with its classic carved faces is one of the best loved of the Angkor temples. A magical, eerie, and mysterious place. Bayon is a Buddhist temple built under the reign of prolific Jayavarman VII (A.D. 1190), but the temple was built atop a previous Hindu site and adheres to Hindu cosmology and, with its central tower depicting Meru and its oceanic moat, can be read as a metaphor for the natural world. The Bayon is famous for its huge stone faces, usually set in groups of four around a central prang, or tower, and each face indicating an ordinal direction on the compass. The curious smiling faces are done in deep relief at Bayon, and you'll also find them in different forms at the entrance gates to Angkor Thom, at Ta Prom, and Banteay Kdei. Their expression is as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. Representing compassion and equanimity, they are also said to depict Jayavarman VII, the temple's very builder and benefactor, himself. You approach the Bayon along a forested area at the city center, cool and misty, where streams of light come through in visible rays and the drone of cicadas is deafening (you might even see some monkeys). Elephant trekkers also line the road to the temple.

The three-level Bayon is nearly square. The first level is surrounded by an intricate bas-relief gallery depicting stories of Khmer conquests and battles, as well as daily life and ritual among the early Khmers. A good guide can lead you to the juicy bits of the fun story, and you can spend a good bit of time sorting out the details for yourself too (kids love it). Look for the unique pairs of Apsara dancers on columns near the gallery (Apsaras usually dance alone). On the South Wall, find three tiers depicting Khmer battles with the Cham from 1177 to 1181, a battle that took place on the waters of the Tonle Sap Lake in boats -- look for the grisly images of crocodiles eating the carcasses of the fallen. Also note the Chinese figure with beard, top knot, and lance on a horse. Khmer soldiers ride elephants and have short hair, a spear, and a magic string for invincible fighting; they also carry shields and banners. A good guide can point out details like a lady crouching and getting burned on a fire and a man handing a turtle to a chef, as well as a scene of a cockfight and soldiers sacrificing a buffalo to ensure good luck in battle. There's a real sense of humanity to these images.

The second level has some Apsara reliefs and porticos with lingam, but the third level is the most interesting, the place where you can get up close with the many Apsara Faces thought to resemble a serene Jayavarman. Each of the 54 small towers is adorned with a face, or a number of faces, and you can have a ball with your zoom lens. There are a number of porticos with small lingam statues, and elderly matrons sell incense sticks and a chance to make merit by making an offering. The large central tower, or Prang, is 25m (82 ft.) in diameter with 16 small coves for meditation of kings and high priests. In 1933, French archaeologist George Groslier excavated the main prang only to find a massive statue of Jayavarman hidden underneath. The statue, called Jaya Bot Mohania, is a seated Jayavarman with a seven-headed naga snake looming over him; it is now on display at a small temple near the Victory Gate (just east of the Bayon).

One of the greatest views of the many faces of the Bayon is from the ground at the northern end of the temples, just before a large snack, refreshment, and shopping area. Stop here on your way to the Baphuon by foot.