The Bayon was the state temple of Jayavarman VII and some of his successors, located at the centre of Angkor Thom. 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 45 metres 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. These are simply stunning and make Bayon worthy of its ‘must-see’ status.
Theories behind the meaning of the faces have flourished. Who do they represent? Buddha? Brahma? Hindu deities? Jayavarman VII himself? 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. Research continues. We may never know and can expect the meaning behind the faces to remain a mystery.
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. Known as “the one with the faces”, this is in fact the last complex temple built by a Khmer king and the bas reliefs mean you should allow more time than it takes to snap a selfie. 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. From depictions of royal processions to epic battles , from legends to scenes from daily life, those with a serious interest in history could while away a lot of time here.
Be sure to allow sufficient time to wander through — some of the finest bas reliefs 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. It is busiest in the morning when the tour groups descend and quietest at the end of the day when the crowds start to hit the popular sunset spots, like Phnom Bakheng. Temples such as Bayon were once lit up at night fairly regularly. No more, since it damages the stones. Fancy lighting is only brought out if you’re lucky (or rich) enough to attend a temple gala dinner — Bayon is one of a handful of temples available for venue hire — or for special holidays, as was the case for Khmer New Year 2014.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.