Located in the heart of Angkor Thom, the Bayon is one of the city’s most extraordinary structures, epitomizing the “lost civilization” of Angkor.
Shaped like a pyramid, Bayon temple-mountain rises on three levels and features 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge, yet enigmatic stone faces. It is entered through eight cruciform towers, linked by galleries that were once covered and which are gradually being restored.
The Bayon galleries have some of the most striking bas-reliefs found at Angkor, showcasing everyday scenes as well as images of battles, especially those against the Cham.
The temple’s central towers are decorated with four massive, mysteriously smiling faces gazing out in the cardinal directions. These are believed to represent the all-seeing and all-knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as personified by Jayavarman VII himself.
The Western Gallery houses a statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, thought to date from the time of the founding of the temple, is installed in the southern section of the western gallery, one of the many galleries surrounding the Bayon. Devotees burn incense sticks before this statue.
Bas-Reliefs in the Southern Gallery are carved deep into the walls, the bas-reliefs in the southern gallery feature images from everyday life in 12th-century Angkor. These include depictions of a cockfight, meals being cooked, festival celebrations, and market scenes.
From a distance, the Bayon appears to be a complicated, almost erratically structured temple. On closer inspection, however, its 54 majestic towers and 216 eerie stone sculptures take a more definite shape – their architectural grandeur inspiring the visitor with a sense of awe.
Barays are integral to Khmer architecture, the barays provided a twofold function: firstly, as a religious symbol of the Sea of Creation, and secondly, as a vital means of irrigation to ensure a bounteous crop. The most notable reservoirs in Angkor are the East Baray and West Baray.
The latter was built in the 11th century and covered an area of 7 sq miles (18 sq km), making it the largest baray ever constructed. With a maximum depth of 23 ft (7 m), it could contain 32 billion gallons of water and still supports several species of fish. Both reservoirs feature man-made islands with temples.
Famous for its sunset views of Angkor Wat, the Tonlé Sap, and the Bayon, the ancient Hindu temple of Phnom Bakheng surveys the surrounding plains from the top of a 220-ft (67-m) high hill. Built by King Yasovarman I, the Bakheng complex is one of the region’s first examples of Mount Meru-style temple architecture. The complex was once surrounded by 109 towers spread around its six tiers; however, most of them are now missing.
Named for the sacred sword owned by the 9th-century King Jayavarman II, the Preah Khan temple complex was built by Jayavarman VII (r.1181–1215). It is believed to have functioned as his temporary capital while Angkor Thom was being restored after it was sacked by the Cham in 1177. It also served as a monastery and religious college with over 1,000 teachers. An inscribed stone stela found here in 1939 indicates that the temple was based at the centre of an ancient city, Nagarajayaciri – jayaciri means sword in Siamese.
Originally dedicated to the Buddha, this temple was later vandalized by Hindu rulers who replaced many Buddha images on the walls with carvings of numerous Hindu deities. Today, the complex extends over a sprawling 2 sq miles (5 sq km) and is surrounded by a 2-mile (3-km) long laterite wall.
The central sanctuary is accessible through four gates set at the cardinal points. One of the main highlights is the Hall of Dancers, named for the apsara bas-reliefs that line the walls. The premises also has a massive baray (reservoir). The most notable temple in the complex is the Temple of the Four Faces. Similar to Ta Prohm, Preah Khan is studded with great trees whose roots cover and, in places, pierce the laterite and sandstone structures over which they grow. Unlike Ta Prohm, however, the temple is undergoing restoration by the World Monuments Fund, and many of the trees have now been cut down.
Preah Neak Pean
This monument – a shrine dedicated to Avalokitesvara – is set within the centre of a cruciform arrangement of sacred ponds. Around the shrine’s base coil a couple of snakes, giving the temple its name – Entwined Serpents. Located in the now dry North Baray, the temple is built around a central artificial square pond measuring 230 ft (70 m), which is surrounded by four smaller ponds.
The central pond represents the mythical Lake Anvatapta, which is located at the summit of the universe and is responsible for giving birth to the four great curative rivers, each represented by a different gargoyle at each corner of the central pool. The east head is that of a man, the south a lion, the west a horse, and the north an elephant. When the temple was functioning, sacred water would be diverted through their mouths into the smaller pools and used to heal devotees.
The second largest of Angkor’s barays, East Baray measures 4 miles by 1 mile (6 km by 2 km) and was built by King Yasovarman I in the 9th century. Watered by the Stung Treng, it held close to 13 billion gallons of water and may have been 10 ft (3 m) deep. While some believe that its purpose was symbolic, representing the sea surrounding Mount Meru, others contend its purpose was for irrigation – with a population of about one million, it would have been essential to produce three rice harvests a year. On an island in the middle of the baray is the Oriental Mebon temple, built by Rajendravarman II in honour of his parents. Surrounded by three laterite walls, the temple gradually rises to a quincuncial arrangement of towers dotted with holes that would have supported stucco decorations. At ground level, its stairways are flanked by sandstone lions and at its corners are four well-preserved sandstone elephants.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Pre Rup has five lotus-shaped towers. Thought to have been a crematorium, its name means Turning of the Body, relating to a religious rite of tracing the deceased’s outline in their ashes.
To the west of Pre Rup lies the great reservoir of Srah Srang or Royal Bath. Built in the 7th century and measuring 1,312 ft by 2,625 ft (400 m by 800 m) it was used exclusively by King Jayavarman V and his wives. On the western side of the lake is a landing platform flanked by two sandstone lions and balustrades bearing a large garuda on the back of a three-headed serpent. The lake is best visited at sunrise when water buffalo graze in its shallows and local children congregate for a swim.
Built in the late 12th century, Banteay Kdei, meaning Citadel of the Cells, lies west of Srah Srang. This Buddhist temple has four entrances, each guarded by garudas. One of the highlights of this temple is the Hall of Dancers located in the central corridor.