The highlight of the Roluos group of temples, those who come to Bakong are rewarded with sweeping views from a stunning temple complex surrounded by a peaceful moat.
Before its reconstruction little remained of Bakong aside from a pile of rubble atop a small hill – the entire central sanctuary, which today stands tall, was collapsed. Initial clearing work didn’t commence until 1936 and the eventual reconstruction under the direction of Maurice Glaize (the conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945) took around seven years to complete.
Consecrated in 881 AD during the reign of King Indravarman I, the construction of the Bakong is believed to have been initiated by Indravarman’s predecessor, Jayavarman III and became the state temple of Hariharalaya (near modern-day Roulos). The layout of the site closely follows the principles of modelling Mount Meru with the moat surrounding the inner sanctum of five levels, with eight small brick temples surrounding a tiered tower whose spire resembles the turreted, curved points of Angkor Wat. From the apex of the site, the model plan is quite obvious. The central sanctuary is believed to have been re-built in the 12th century.
Potted plants and flowering bushes line the path that leads over the moat and into the temple complex. The grounds within the moat include a collection of smaller buildings in variable states of repair and the view from the northeast corner takes in the whole complex pretty well. Allow time to take in the eight towers at ground level before climbing to the top – their detailed lintels are particularly noteworthy.
When you climb each of the five levels, walk all the way around before continuing up to the next level. Note the little elephants on each corner; even the harness details are still visible on some. On the fourth level, be sure to walk around to the south side where a fine fragment of bas relief remains, illustrating apsaras fighting a losing battle.
At the top level, turn and look back to the east for a tremendous view that illustrates the plan of the complex very well. To the west side we’re told you can see Angkor Wat, but we couldn’t — perhaps with binoculars it’s possible. Exit the temple to the west, going straight down, and you’ll stumble upon the remains of Nandi, Shiva’s favourite bull.
Outside the temple walls, across the moat, would have stood twenty brick sanctuaries. Most are now rubble though one can clearly be seen on the road.
After scaling the temple, be sure to stroll over to neighbouring Bakong pagoda. This active Buddhist temple has undergone comprehensive renovation and the transformation is quite remarkable. The murals inside were first created in the 1930s and ’40s and were gracefully restored in 2011-2012 by a team of Khmer, Thai and French artists using soft, luminous colours rather than the garish ones found in many modern pagodas. Note the images of Japanese and French war planes interspersed among typical scenes from the Buddha’s life — the original Khmer painter was taught by a French art teacher who fought in World War II. Apart from the curious war scenes, the French teacher himself is depicted receiving teachings from the Buddha.