It’s best known as a viewing point for sunset at Angkor Wat and if you’re fond of battling your way through the masses, all with cameras surgically attached to their faces or at a constant arm’s length from their body as though it’s in control of them and not they in control of it, then feel free to join them. The sunset climb of Bakheng should hardly be described as a unique and meaningful experience though.
Just eight kilometres from Siem Reap, Phnom Bakheng was the first temple to be constructed at the site we now call Angkor, known as Yashodharapura at the time after the king who built it, Yasovarman I, who reigned from 889 to 915. The temple was undoubtedly sited where it is because of the fantastic views to be obtained from the top of the 70-metre hill (phnom is Khmer for hill or mountain). Today, the view of the lotus-bud towers of Angkor Wat are considered the primary attraction, but Phnom Bakheng has far more interesting things going on than being simply a nice place to look at something else. It is also a giant astrological calendar.
First and foremost, Bakheng was built as an earthly representation of Mount Meru, home of the Brahmanical gods and centre of the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. Other temple mountains of this kind, which are unique to Khmer architecture, include Bakong, Phimeanakas, Ta Keo, Pre Rup and, of course, Angkor Wat.
Bakheng is designed as follows: it is a four-sided pyramid on seven levels. The east–west axis is as usual tilted slightly towards the northeast, while the stairs on each flank are directed towards the cardinal points (with a slight deviation on the north–south stairways). Five tiers, not including the base and the top platform, each have 12 towers with one on each corner and one on each side of the stairways, making 60 in total. On the base, 44 brick towers surround the monument while, on the top platform, five towers form the distinctive quincunx which is a feature of Angkorian temples, with one tower at the centre and the other four making a square defined by the mid-cardinal points. In total there are, or rather were, 109 towers.
It is hard to see many of these towers now. Many of them were dismantled by Buddhist monks in order to construct a giant seated Buddha which surrounded the quincunx on the top platform. The Buddha statue was not completed and collapsed under its own weight. The bricks were cleared by French archaeologists during the 1920s.
Jean Filliozat, a French author, wrote that when viewed from any one of the cardinal points, the temple always presents 33 towers, corresponding to the number of gods that live in Mount Meru according to Hindu and Jain mythology. Mount Meru, according to the Brahmanic traditions, is the central axis of the universe, at the centre of the terrestrial, astral and spiritual worlds.
The central sanctuary tower at the summit of Bakheng is surrounded by 108 towers which radiate out from it uniformly. One hundred and eight is a celebrated number in all the Brahmanic traditions — for example the Hindu deities have 108 names — and each sanctuary tower would have had a divinity installed in it.
An academic writer from the University of Chicago, Paul Wheatley, notes that the 12 towers on each level may represent the 12 year cycle of Jupiter. According to him, Jupiter’s cycle was regularly recreated in multiples of five (e.g. the five tiers of Bakheng’s pyramid) as a dating method from as early as the fifth century CE. Moreover, each side of the pyramid presents 27 towers, which corresponds to the number of ‘mansions’ in the Hindu lunar cycle.
Angkor Wat also has many features that correspond to astrological measurements. For example, the distance between the floors of the north and south libraries equates to the length of a month in the lunar calendar, 29.53 hat (hat is a Cambodian unit of measurement); the wat is riddled with similar measurements that correspond to the length of the year, months, days and lunar cycles.
In order to appreciate the construction of Bakheng, it’s better to visit in the morning. You can explore, and then from the summit enjoy the view that stretches from Phnom Khrom, on the Tonle Sap, to Phnom Bok in the northeast — on both of which Yasovarman also constructed temples. You can also see the West Baray, the forests of Angkor Thom and, of course, the glorious towers of Angkor Wat too.