A basket of bottles
What we say:
Certainly one of the most written-about and photographed of the monuments at Angkor, the Bayon, often likened to a basket of bottles, is one of the most unusual religious monuments in the world.
The Bayon was the state temple of Jayavarman VII and some of his successors. When it was first visited by Western explorers, the site was totally overgrown, slowly but steadily being reclaimed by the jungle. Under the guidance of the first Angkor Conservator, Jean Commaille, the site was cleared between 1911 and 1913. At the time he lamented that "Every month, perhaps every day, some stones would fall. The complete ruin of the temple was only a matter of time, and it was necessary to consider how to halt it without further delay." While the restoration indeed saved the monument, some chose to not spare those behind it, labelling the ruins a "basket of bottles" once the clearing was complete. Commaille was murdered by armed robbers in 1916 and is buried to the southwest of the monument.
Stripped of the overgrowth, the Bayon was revealed as a three-tiered pyramid temple, with the central tower stretching to 45m in height. This central tower is topped with the largest examples of the all-facing, all-seeing enigmatic faces that litter the temple throughout. Originally the Bayon was comprised of 54 towers, each of which supported four faces — one looking to each point of the compass. Today, 49 towers remain.
Theories behind the meaning of the faces have flourished. George Coedes, an archeologist who worked on Angkor in the 1930s, surmised that the sculptures represented King Jayavarman VII as a god-king. It has also been suggested that the 54 towers represented the 54 provinces of the realm, with the king's face looking over the entire country.
While the monument feels quite cramped, the layout is pretty simple and you can admire the majority of the many beautiful bas-reliefs by exploring in a circular fashion. The carvings encircle the entire monument and if you really want to get a good understanding of the bas reliefs, a guide is a fine investment. Be sure to allow sufficient time to wander through — some of the finest are on the outer wall of the southeast corner, but other areas, particularly the rear, are very interesting and far less busy as the tour groups tend not to last that far.
One of the additional charms here is that different times of day do different favours for the temple. You can come here at almost any time of the day and find an interesting quarter worth exploring. Early morning though is particularly popular, as is — if you can wangle something with the Apsara staff — evening under a full moon, when the ghostlike appearance of the Bayon is breathtaking.
More detailsAt the absolute centre of Angkor Thom
Last updated: 27th December, 2009
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