A Visit to Banteay Srei Temple

Isvarapura, or Banteay Srei as it is known today, is an ancient Khmer temple located about 25 km north of Angkor Wat. Its “out of the way” location and insignificant size make Banteay Srei seemingly unimportant, however through inclusion in most tour packages, it sees a fair amount of visitors. Frequently referred to as “Citadel of the Women”, allegedly because it was the women who decorated it, its name kept popping up in most conversations I had with locals before and during my trips to Angkor. If the temple was completely off my radar before, soon after I started touring the temples of Angkor, the impression that Banteay Srei was a “must not miss” became apparent. From students whom I taught English at the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda, through my coconut friends at Angkor Wat all the way to the villagers from Sras Srang with whom I ended up spending most of my time in Cambodia, everybody kept asking me if I already paid Banteay Srei a visit. When I told them that I’d never even heard of that temple, everybody gasped for the air and insisted that I definitely include it in my plan. I had so much of the “citadel of the women” name enter my ears, I was afraid to look at the toilet paper after I wiped my butt off for fear that I’d see the name of the temple etched on it.

Photo: Gate in the Second Enclosing Wall to Banteay Srei
Photo: Gate in the Second Enclosing Wall to Banteay Srei

Road Trip to Banteay Srei

While all of the temples you would have heard of and wanted to visit prior to coming to Cambodia are located reasonably close to one another and can be visited in one go, a visit to Banteay Srei requires a detour that’ll eat a good chunk of the day on its own. Since everybody kept shoving that Banteay Srei hype down my throat, I decided to dedicate whole day to it and combine it with a road trip present for Ha and her daughter. I picked up Ha from the Temple Club after returning from a nighttime stay at Angkor Wat, made sure she gets good sleep and takes shower in warm water before leaving my air conditioned room the following day to see her daughter. As part of my surprise package, I started the day by giving Ha’s daughter a present, took a bunch of picture of the four year old girl wearing her new top and as soon as we were done, a we heard a tuk tuk pull over just outside of the room where Ha and her daughter lived. It was my student from the English class with whom I made prior arrangements.

I knew Ha didn’t have anything to do during the day, because she couldn’t score a job in Cambodia so there was zero risk of either her or her daughter being unable to go. So when the tuk tuk showed up and everybody kept wondering why it would come to that remote part of Siem Reap where no foreigners ever go, I simply told them to get dressed, because we’re taking a road trip to Banteay Srei. I had to explain to Ha that I didn’t know whether they’d be able to go inside the temple as all non Cambodians need an expensive entrance ticket, however should we fail sneaking them in as Cambodians, I’d just leave them in a nearby restaurant for a meal while I take off on my own to take a few pictures of the temple. The excitement was instantaneous. We picked up a few sandwiches from a store next to their hut and set off for an hour long ride to Banteay Srei on a tuk tuk.

It was a very, very hot day so a ride in a tuk tuk felt very refreshing. The movement of air kept washing sweat off our faces as we rode through Angkor and on to Banteay Srei. The excitement in voice and actions of Ha’s little girl was extraordinary. This was the first time in over a week that she got a chance to do something other than staying inside the shed her mother rented from her Cambodian uncle. It felt like family going on a family trip.

Banteay Srei Temple

In spite of its popularity, Banteay Srei is not as overrun with touts as temples in the main Angkor area. While area around Banteay Srei is as flat as elsewhere in central Cambodia, the immediate surroundings of the temple were rich in plant life growing out of well kept pools of water. Small exhibition hall with brief introduction on the temple can be found on the way to Banteay Srei from the parking lot.

Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum
Photo: Admiring Water Flowers at the Banteay Srei Exhibition Hall and Museum

Banteay Srei is the only main temple of Angkor that was not founded by a king. Its founder – Yajnavaraha – the grandson of king Harshavarman served as an ayurvedic medic and a priest during the reign of kings Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V. According to the stele inscription, Yajnavaraha had the temple completed by 967 AD and dedicated it to the Hindu god Tribhuvanamaheshvara (Shiva). The dedication to Shivanism is evident through intricate carvings covering the walls of the temple. Carvings in red sandstone are well preserved and seemingly the temple’s strongest tourist attractant. Many speculate that the fine art that these carvings represent could only be done by the hands of women, hence the temple’s title of the “Citadel of the Women”. Others however maintain that the name relates to the many reliefs of Apsaras (female dancers) found throughout the temple.

Banteay Srei Carvings

The most famous carvings on the walls and lintels of Banteay Srei portray the scenes from the life of Shiva, though parts of the temple were clearly also dedicated to Vishnu. In one of the triangular pediments above doorways, the demon Ravana is seen shaking Mount Kailasa above which Shiva is enthroned. In the same scene, Kama is seen arriving to disturb Shiva’s meditation. Other carvings portray “The Rain of Indra” or “The Killing of Kamsa” both of which are important stories from Indian mythology. Some of the carvings were moved to the Khmer museum in Phnom Penh and some are in Paris, France after being recovered from the hands of collectors who bought them from Cambodian looters. Apsaras stolen by French adventurer/thief André Malraux were also recovered and contributed to the popularity of the temple worldwide.

Thanks to vast funding from the Swiss government, Banteay Srei went through extensive restoration works so temple appears well preserved and carvings are in good shape. The Swiss government also financed the installation of a drainage system around the temple which prevented further damage to the structure by water. Despite vast investments from the Swiss, nothing could prevent the destruction of Banteay Srei by the locals who looted and vandalized the living bejeezus out of it. After the original statues were replaced with replicas, the locals vandalized the replicas. But their greed didn’t stop there. A typical Cambodian mindframe dictates that “if I can’t have it, at least I’ll destroy it”! As a result, after the statues of Vishnu and Uma were removed from Banteay Srei, they were assaulted by vandals while placed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping.

Photo: Banteay Srei Pediment Carvings Bear Creatures from Indian Hindu Mythology
Photo: Banteay Srei Pediment Carvings Bear Creatures from Indian Hindu Mythology

Banteay Srei – Conclusion

Banteai Srei is about an hour drive from Siem Reap town. It’s distance from Angkor proper (where most temples are located) makes a visit to Banteay Srei slightly inconvenient. It’s also a small sized temple so one would think that an extra long trip for this little would make no sense. Yet Banteay Srei receives more visitors than many larger temples on the Petit Circuit, including Banteay Kdei where my villager friends operate as touts. What makes Banteay Srei this popular are intricate carvings covering nearly every square inch of the temple. If elaborate, fine carvings are your thing, then made sure you don’t give Banteay Srei a miss.

The temple is also surrounded by nice water gardens which make the access to it more picturesque. I don’t know what they look like in dry season, but rainy season keeps them lush and rich, which offers great opportunities for photography. I am personally glad I went to visit Banteay Srei, but that was because I had 7 days to explore Angkor. If I only had a daily pass, I’d probably give this temple a pass. I’d likely pass on it with a 3 day pass also. However since vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor do so on a single day pass and buy a tour package from their hotel, they do get to see Banteay Srei because tour companies have this temple included (and temples like Banteay Kdei excluded) in their packages. This is likely part of their marketing strategy. Through its red sandstone walls covered with exquisite carvings, a trip to Banteay Srei offers the visitors something different from majority of temples at Angkor proper. If I had wealthy clients, I’d take them to Banteay Srei too. Taking them to temples like Banteay Kdei, which are in more state of ruin and nigh identical to many other temples would be like showing them the same thing they had already seen.

Photo: Access to Banteay Srei Central Sanctuary is Prohibited
Photo: Access to Banteay Srei Central Sanctuary is Prohibited

BTW – both Ha and her daughter did get inside Banteay Srei even though only I had the pass. Being Vietnamese, Ha looks just as any Cambodian girl would and since she could speak a bit of Cambodian, we were able to fool the guard. It’s not like they would gain anything if they kicked them out and barred from from entering…

More photos of Banteay Srei can be found in the Banteay Srei Photo Gallery

Ta Som Temple

If you do like I did and take the Grand Circuit of Angkor in the counter-clockwise direction, you’ll get to Prasat Ta Som after visiting Pre Rup and East Mebon temples respectively. And if you start roughly at the same time as I did and do a thorough exploration of each ruin you pay a visit to, by the time you get to Ta Som the noon hour will be upon you and you’ll be sweating out of every pore on your body, including those you didn’t think contained any sweat glands. I provided myself with self propelled transportation, so when I reached Ta Som, I was ready to throw the clothes I was wearing in a garbage bin. Even my underwear was drenched in sweat to a point of drip marking my every step.

Photo: View of Collapsed Central Sanctuary of Ta Som, Angkor, Cambodia
Photo: View of Collapsed Central Sanctuary of Ta Som, Angkor, Cambodia

Ta Som Temple was built at the end of the 12th century by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (the great builder king who also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Bayon, among others), which makes it one of the younger temples on the Grand Circuit. Because of its location (it is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, meaning that it is furthest away from other temples than any other ancient temple in the main area of Angkor) and great state of ruin, it doesn’t attract very many visitors. Being a single tier temple, Ta Som doesn’t have any stairways to climb making for a less challenging exploration however because of almost completely collapsed rooftops, the temple offers no real places to hide so a visitor gets pretty heavy beating by the merciless Cambodian sun rays.

There are three sets of walls surrounding the central sanctuary which in itself doesn’t look like much due to lacking restoration funds, however there are some well preserved carvings to be seen. Ta Som was one of the last bigger temples in Angkor Archaeological Park to be added to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) restoration program but the work so far has mostly only consisted of securing the structures to remove an immediate threat of collapse while visitors are around.

Photo: Ta Som Features Carvings of Devatas Which Show Individuality - A Unique Feature for Angkor Temples
Photo: Ta Som Features Carvings of Devatas Which Show Individuality - A Unique Feature for Angkor Temples

As is the case with many other Angkorian temples, centuries of neglect resulted in jungle overgrowth with huge fig and silk trees growing on top of the collapsing stone walls. The presence of the trees as well as an architectonic style of the temple which is similar to that of her more famous sibling has earned the temple a name of Mini Ta Prohm. Entrance gopuras in the outer enclosure are crowned with four faces similar to those found in Bayon. The main entrance gate used by everyone who visits Ta Som looked much like the South Gate of Angkor Thom, only smaller and more crumbled up. The state of Ta Som’s collapse seems to get worse with each enclosure you step within. Since outer gate still stands in a pretty decent shape, it is patrolled by aggressive child touts who wait in its shade for a sun beat tourist to walk right into their arms like a fly into a jar of honey.

Photo: Used as a Main Entrance Point to Ta Som, the West Gopura Hides Lurking Touts
Photo: Used as a Main Entrance Point to Ta Som, the West Gopura Hides Lurking Touts

Stone causeway which once served as a bridge over a moat is located inside the outer enclosure, rather than outside of it which implies that the outer wall was a later date addition to the temple. The causeway is decorated on both sides with serpents and Garudas, however they are broken into pieces and miss large parts which is the price the temples paid after greedy locals discovered that they could loot the temples and sell their ancient art for personal profit. What’s truly amazing is that despite looting and decay through neglect and time, many carvings and reliefs throughout Ta Som are in a remarkably good shape and are remarkably well carved for a late 12th century temple. These fine carvings of Apsaras and Devatas more than make up for a disappointing sight offered by a largely collapsed central sanctuary.

More Photos of Ta Som Temple at Ta Som, Angkor Photo Gallery.

Ta Som, Angkor Photo Gallery

As is the case of most Angkor Temples (except from Angkor Wat), Ta Som also faces east, however the Grand Circuit road that goes by it passes it from the west affording an entrance through a better preserved western gopura (entrance gate). However it pays to exit the temple through its east gopura because from the outside, the eastern gopura has a huge strangler fig tree (I’m not a tree expert, not 100% sure this is a fig tree) growing on top of it, almost enclosing the entire gopura (this sight not shown in the photo gallery here). It is essential to exit Ta Som through the eastern gopura as looking at it from the inside doesn’t offer any spectacular views, however once you get across and turn around, you won’t regret the extra effort. The fig tree encompassing the entrance hole is impressive and very photogenic. Take lots of pictures and always make backups.

A stone inscription found on a stele recovered from a nearby Preah Khan temple refers to Ta Som as Gaurasrigajaratna, which is its original, ancient name meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”. As the temples were abandoned, their original names fell out of knowledge and today they are known by whatever modern variations were assigned to them. Below is a gallery of pictures I took at Ta Som:

Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

Ta Prohm is the temple that originally got me interested in Angkor. If it weren’t for Ta Prohm, I wouldn’t have probably landed in Cambodia right at the beginning of my round the world journey. When I saw photos of strong interconnection between ancient stones and wild growing jungle, I was sold. The fact that Angelina Jolie starred Tomb Rider was filmed at Ta Prohm had little influence over my decision to visit the temple ruins as I haven’t even seen the movie (I have always considered Angelina Jolie to be the ugliest and the most talent lacking actress in Hollywood).

Photo: Famous Blind Door Spot at Ta Prohm, Angkor
Photo: Famous Blind Door Spot at Ta Prohm, Angkor

As is the case of Bayon, Banteay Kdei and other major Angkorian era temples, Ta Prohm was also built during the reign of the builder king Jayavarman VII. However, unlike with most other Angkor area temples, Ta Prohm has not been cleaned off of intertwined jungle and this fact alone has become one of its mightiest selling points that attracts lots of visitors. Monstrous silk trees growing out of the ruins became part of the structures to the point that one cannot be without another.

According to the inscription on the foundation stele, Ta Prohm was consecrated in 1186 AD. Originally named Rajavihara (Royal Temple), Ta Prohm was one of the first temples with which the god king Jayavarman VII embarked on its immense mission of temple building. The sanskrit inscription also provides colorful details about how impressive Ta Prohm must have been during its time. From it the archaeologists learned that the temple housed the following:

  • 500kg of Golden Dishes
  • 35 Diamonds
  • 4,540 Precious Stones
  • 40,620 Pearls
  • 867 Veils from China
  • 523 Parasols
  • 512 Silk Beds

Whether these numbers truly reflected the content of the temple grounds or were vastly exaggerated to make king Jayavarman VII larger than life is left for speculations. As for the population in and around Ta Prohm, the inscription tells us that the temple was home to the following:

  • 18 High Priests
  • 615 Apsara Dancers
  • 2,740 Officials
  • 2,202 Assistants
  • 79,365 Total Maintenance Staff
Photo: This Platform was Built so People Can Take Photographs Before the Scenic Tree Wall
Photo: This Platform was Built so People Can Take Photographs Before the Scenic Tree Wall

Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom) was the principal deity of Ta Prohm and Jayavarman VII had her carved in the likeness of his mother. The statue of Prajnaparamita was housed in the central sanctuary while 260 lesser divinities that surrounded her were housed in additional sanctuaries of the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm in September 2009 and while at that time the temple was said to have been in the same state as when it was taken over by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient at the beginning of the 20th century, the presence of manmade structure supports and off-limit areas due to on-going restoration suggested that Ta Prohm is under ongoing maintenance efforts and may end up looking entirely different a year from when I paid the visit.

Photo: This Area of Ta Prohm was Off Limits for Restoration
Photo: This Area of Ta Prohm was Off Limits for Restoration

Unlike Angkor Wat or Bayon, Ta Prohm is not a temple mountain, meaning it doesn’t contain a multiple level pyramid but rather has all of its galleries at the ground level. Like most Buddhist temples, Ta Prohm was built to face the east with the temple proper set closer to the west wall. Each of the walls of the rectangular outer enclosure contains a gopura (entrance gate), but south and north gopuras were purposefully left overgrown with jungle so access can only be made via the east or the west gopura (where touts concentrate in large numbers).

Central sanctuary is surrounded by five enclosing walls of various state of collapse, but each containing impressive looking trees growing on top of them. The ruinous state of enclosing walls as well as the presence of randomly placed buildings (libraries and halls) many of which were added at a later date make navigating through the temple a bit confusing. Hills of piled up stones that once formed Ta Prohm can be seen scattered throughout the temple grounds standing witness to the ruinous state of what must have been an epic structure back in the day.

Ta Prohm Bas Reliefs

The reign of great builder Jayavarman VII was followed by the reign of his successor, the great destroyer Jayavarman VIII who made it his mission to destroy Buddhist relics created during the reign of his famous predecessor. Ta Prohm was not spared of this destructive onslaught so many of the carvings and bas reliefs were either removed or defaced. Still, some original carvings of Apsara dancers and bas reliefs of scenes from Buddhist mythology did survive and can still be found on temple walls. I personally was more interested in the jungle growing on top of the temple structure than the bas reliefs so I didn’t spend much time admiring what’s still left after the reign of Jayavarman VIII.

Photo: Apsara Carvings Among Bas Reliefs of Ta Prohm Temple
Photo: Apsara Carvings Among Bas Reliefs of Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Trees

That’s exactly why I was there. That’s actually exactly why I went to Cambodia in the first place. The sight of monstrous trees growing out of the centuries old ruins intertwined together to the point that you cannot remove one without destroying the other. Large Silk-Cotton Trees and Thitpoks dominate the overgrowth with smaller Strangler Figs and Golden Apple Trees coupling together for a perfect full picture. Endless roots of the trees engulf the stones in an impenetrable maze that on one hand broke the structures out of form, to keep it tightly together on another.

Photo: Ta Prohm Stone Structure Engulfed by a Tree
Photo: Ta Prohm Stone Structure Engulfed by a Tree

Ta Prohm was without doubt the highlight of my stay in Cambodia. The most impressive of all the ancient Angkor temples (in my eyes), Ta Prohm delivered the awe just the way I expected. This was the one place I really wanted to visit ever since I first saw the pictures of those trees growing over the walls and other structures built almost a millennium ago and completely abandoned a few centuries later. It’s only saddening that such impressive piece of ancient history is under control of such ungrateful country as Cambodia.

More photos of the temple are on the Ta Prohm Photo Gallery page.

Prasat Kravan Temple

New day, new Angkor temples to explore. I went to do the rest of the temples on the small circuit but this time around doing it the right way – counter-clockwise so as to catch them in good lighting, with sun illuminating their faces, not backs (temples are normally built facing east). Prasat Kravan, small five tower temple from the 10th century the name of which means Cardamom Sanctuary was the first on the way.

Photo: Prasat Kravan Temple - the Front Face
Photo: Prasat Kravan Temple - the Front Face

According to the inscription on the temple’s door jambs, Prasat Kravan was dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu and had a statue of it placed within in 921AD. Moat once surrounded Prasat Kravan, but there was but a big puddle of it left when I visited the temple. Several carvings of Vishnu and Lakshmi decorate the interior of central and northern towers respectively, with the other three were left undecorated. Prasat Kravan underwent extensive restoration works and was brought to its current splendour in 1968.

Researchers are divided as to the sponsor of Prasat Kravan with some believing it was king Harshavarman I who ordered its constructions while others say it was Isanavarman II. Then they are some who maintain it was not the king who had the temple built, because of its unusual location and architectonic style. Either way, stone masons who built the temple sealed it so well the mortar-free joints are as tight today as they were a millennium ago. The bas reliefs found within the temple’s interior resemble the art of the Cham people which makes Prasat Kravan unique.

Photo: Prasat Kravan Temple from the Rear
Photo: Prasat Kravan Temple from the Rear

Doorway of the central (tallest) tower is flanked on both sides by 2 meters tall carvings of guardians sculpted in sandstone. Stone lions also guard the stairways leading up to each of the towers but nowadays only five are still there, the other five are missing (probably decorating a villa of some millionaire who paid a few bucks to the thieves who stole it). Central tower is the tallest of them all, but south tower still has two layers of the roof that may have once decorated each of the towers. Because Prasat Kravan faces east, the doorways to the towers are on the eastern walls but all other walls contain their own set of fake doors.

Prasat Kravan is a smaller temple so it is often skipped or avoided by large tour operators. Because of that it’s not as overrun with touts and pestering children as other, bigger temples on the small circuit. There is a line of shops along the side of the causeway leading to Prasat Kravan with sellers getting in your way as you approach the temple to force you into pausing so they can pester you into buying something from them, but luckily they are not as plentiful as causeways to bigger temples.

Photo: Prasat Kravan Central Tower Has Doors Flanked by Guardian Carvings and Stone Lions Guarding the Stairs
Photo: Prasat Kravan Central Tower Has Doors Flanked by Guardian Carvings and Stone Lions Guarding the Stairs

Prasat Kravan is a smallish structure so it only takes a few minutes to thoroughly explore, but while I was there, I was approached by two separate individuals who attempted to pull the same guide trick as that guy at Thommanon did. They walked right up to me and started telling me about interesting facts related to the temple and advising me of good photography angles seeing that I had a big camera hung on my neck. Having had this attempted on me before, I knew very well where this was going to lead and just vehemently ignored each of the men, strictly following my own pace and going where I wanted to go, not where they said I should go. It worked and each of them gave up after a couple of minutes.

Photo: Bas Relief of Lakshmi Goddess, Consort of Vishnu at Prasat Kravan
Photo: Bas Relief of Lakshmi Goddess, Consort of Vishnu at Prasat Kravan

It was early morning yet, but the sun was already beyond intense. Prasat Kravan was my first stop of the day and I was already drenched in sweat. I had a long way ahead of me and a lot of bike riding to do. I replenished lost fluids out of the bottle of Water O I had on me, mounted my bike and rode off to the nearby Bat Chum ruins.

Terrace of the Leper King

I got to the Terrace of the Leper King by following the north wall of the Royal Palace area as I was running away from gnarly Cambodian males preying on foreigners who wander off the beaten track. The Terrace of the Leper King got its name from the genitals lacking statue of Yama – the God of Death, resembling king Jayavarman VII known to have suffered from leprosy (according to the legend, leprosy was the reason why this king built so many hospitals. Khmer people believe that he was not the only king suffering from this disease). Because some layers of the statue got eaten away by lichen, it created an illusion of a person affected by leprosy. The original statue which dates back to the 14th – 15th centuries is no longer on the terrace. It was removed to secure its preservation and is currently located at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This was a good idea as the cement replica has already been decapitated.

Photo: Terrace of the Leper King Wall with Seven Rows of Extensive Bas Reliefs
Photo: Terrace of the Leper King Wall with Seven Rows of Extensive Bas Reliefs

Terrace of the Leper King contains extensive carvings on its walls depicting various divine and underworld characters. It is believed that the Terrace of the Leper King was used for cremations or other funerary purpose and was probably built by Jayavarman VIII who succeeded Jayavarman VII, the builder of Angkor Thom.

The walls of the Terrace of the Leper King are 6 meters (19 feet) high and have the carvings on them arranged in seven rows. The mythological scenes include five, seven and nine headed naga serpents accompanied by marine creatures (including mermaids) and several rows of gods often bearing rather ferocious looks on their faces.

Photo: Terrace of the Leper King Outer Wall
Photo: Terrace of the Leper King Outer Wall

Terrace of the Leper King is a standalone structure in a seemingly desolate state that’s easy to ignore so a visitor can move on to something more interesting, but there is more to the terrace than meets the eye – it’s the hidden wall. South west corner of the terrace contains narrow entrance to the trench that takes you through a zig-zag path containing its own bas reliefs. This secret passage is the collest thing about the Terrace of the Leper King and should not be missed by any visitor.

Exploring Bayon Temple (Pictures and Facts)

Exploring Bayon is a challenging but rewarding experience. The temple is very complex both in terms of architecture and symbolism and offers many an opportunity to theorize on its structure and meaning. King Jayavarman VII who had the temple built had it altered several times but the modifications continued even after his death. It is believed that when originally built, Bayon had 49 face towers – towers adorned with giant faces each facing one cardinal point. Even after extensive restoration works, only 37 of Bayon’s towers are still standing. Let’s take a look at some of Bayon’s facts. This guide will be accompanied with pictures.

Photo: View of Bayon from the West
Photo: View of Bayon from the West

Just as is the case with most Angkor temples, Bayon faces east. I approached Bayon from the south after crossing the South Gate of Angkor Thom and turned right on the T intersection which got me on the road encircling the temple. Turning right took me to the main entrance in front of which I parked my bicycle (at the elephant station).

Broad, two-levelled terrace serving as an approach to Bayon is guarded by stone lions and naga serpent as balustrades on far sides. Despite extensive restoration works, much of the terrace is in desolate state but the feel of walking on ancient stones is much stronger than any other structure at Angkor. The sun was frying me alive and was far more intense now as it got closer to noon, than it was during my exploration of Angkor Wat.

Photo: Collapsed Corridor at the East Entrance to Bayon
Photo: Collapsed Corridor at the East Entrance to Bayon

Entrance gopura (gate) consists mostly of collapsed stone frames serving as doors but there are no walls. Piles of giant stones lie scattered randomly around as archaeologists try to figure out which ones belong together so they can paste the whole temple together to its intended look.

Galleries within outer enclosure contain extensive carvings and bas reliefs. It comes as a striking contrast seeing fine work of artists who skilfully covered entire exterior wall with beautiful bas reliefs against the pile of disorganized, large rectangular stones laid piled up right opposite of it. Much work needs to be done to fully restore Bayon.

Photo: Bas Reliefs Depicting the War Against Armies of Cham - Exterior Wall of Bayon
Photo: Bas Reliefs Depicting the War Against Armies of Cham - Exterior Wall of Bayon

I turned left at the main entrance because the bas relief on this section of the outer wall seemed the most interesting. The carvings continue around the corner and throughout the south wall which has its own, collapsed gopura. There are several chapels within the exterior wall that can be entered as you’re exploring the bas reliefs. Because Bayon was a state temple, I think these chapels once house statues of divinities.

As I got within the outer enclosure, the face towers took more distinct shape. From the outside they appear as a disorganized pile of rocks sticking up. Countless hallways and wall-less corridors make navigation trickier as you get inside. Several flights of stairs are available to take to get to the second and third levels. Some are easy to climb, others downright dangerous, especially if you’re carrying a DSLR camera like I did.

Photo: Free-Standing Bayon Face Tower at Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Photo: Free-Standing Bayon Face Tower at Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Because Bayon was remodelled so many times after taking its original shape, exploring the interior of the temple is a bit confusing. The temple is large to begin with but oddly structured galleries and terraces which were added later made it difficult to set out on an obviously best way to explore it all. The best way for me to describe it is by thinking of it as a maze without walls. You can exit any corridor through the wall that is not there and get to another corridor through the wall it doesn’t have. It’s literally akin to cheating in a videogame. You are an explorer of an ancient temple on a mission to find holy grail, but you hacked the game and can just take shortcuts.

The face towers are clearly the most attractive and photogenic (picture friendly) part of Bayon. Aside from crowning the entrance gates (gopuras), the face towers can also be found at corner angles but also as free-standing pillars on upper level. Because many of these towers were added later, they don’t seem to be placed in any logical order and just give an impression of being there to rise up to the sky.

Photo: Close Up of a Bayon Face
Photo: Close Up of a Bayon Face

When I reached the upper terrace, I was offered several good opportunities to take pictures of the giant faces. The space on top seems more organized with fewer collapsed structures and it’s overall less tight (as far as breathing space is involved). From here you can get up close and personal with the free-standing face towers.

Historical inscriptions suggests that Jayavarman VIII, a rather insignificant Khmer king who took over the kingdom after Jayavarman VII has order a destruction of Buddhist symbols and initiated conversion to Hinduism. It was during his rule, when 3.6 meters tall statue of Buddha sitting on a body of a serpent whose multi-headed head shelters him was destroyed. Remarkably, all pieces of this statue, which was originally housed in the oval sanctuary at the heart of Bayon, were recovered enabling full restoration of the image. There are several smaller replicas of the same statue throughout Bayon, but the original, restored piece was relocated and is currently housed in Vihear Prampil Loveng – a small pavilion south of the Victory Way (road connecting Victory Gate with the Royal Palace area), next to South Khleang.

When you get to a sanctuary housing a statue of Buddha, there will likely be some locals inside as well. They sit and patiently wait inside with incense sticks at the ready and as soon as a foreigner enters the room, the sticks will be handed to them. It is a natural instinct of every person to take what is offered to them, especially if statue of a local divinity is present. This is exactly what these people are counting on because once you grab a hold of what is handed to you, they won’t be taking it back but will be insisting that you make a donation that as they claim, would go to the monks and to the preservation of the temple. None of the money provided will ever make it to any purpose other than personal enrichment of a person who gets the money from you. Just as almost everything else in Cambodia, this is a scam. The best way to protect yourself is to never ever impulsively take anything that is handed to you. No matter whether the person handing you stuff is a kid, or a nun with shaved head and robe draped around her body – the purpose is to abuse the presence of the divinity and scam you out of money. Don’t be surprised if you get told to “f%$k off” or called “stingy” or “a$$hole” by a kid whom you didn’t give any money. You may not see this anywhere else in the world, but in Cambodia, touts will not hesitate to call you names and swear straight in your face if they fail at scamming you of money.

Photo: Cambodian Woman Praying Before the Statue of Buddha at Bayon Temple
Photo: Cambodian Woman Praying Before the Statue of Buddha at Bayon Temple

Once I got the layout of Bayon more or less figured out, I saw it as a structure consisting out of three main sections. Starting from top middle, there is an oval sanctuary that is the center of the temple originally assigned to house the large statue of Buddha which was later destroyed as described above. The oval sanctuary is surrounded by four corridors creating an orthodox cross around it. These serve as access points to the sanctuary with east entrance being the largest. This is the third, top tier of Bayon.

Second tier consists of rectangular inner galleries (second enclosure) encircling the orthodox cross with the circular sanctuary in the middle of it. First tier consists of outer galleries (exterior enclosure). Passages at each cardinal point connect outer galleries with the inner ones.

Photo: Extensive Bas Reliefs Covering Bayon's Exterior Wall
Photo: Extensive Bas Reliefs Covering Bayon's Exterior Wall

Bayon is covered with extensive bas reliefs. Earlier carvings mostly contain scenes from every day life at Angkor Thom as well as the battles with Champa armies on the great lake whereas later carvings contain scenes from Hindu mythology, signifying the conversion of the religion during the reign of Jayavarman VIII.

Bayon was a temple honouring a host of gods which gave it the name of “Tevea Vinichay”, which loosely translates as “Assembly of the Gods”. Its principal sanctuary housed an image of Buddha, but dozens of other sanctuaries housed various provincial and local Khmer gods. Inscriptions on door jabs of these small sanctuaries tell us about the many gods housed by them during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

North East corner of Bayon has a small, stand alone gallery with many people inside. There was another such gallery at the south-east corner but because that part of Bayon is in much ruin, there was nobody there. I thought something interesting must surely be within the gallery given the number of people inside and around it so I went to take a climb. The access was extremely difficult as stone steps are high and steep, much steeper than I had seen anywhere before. To my disappointment, there was absolutely nothing inside. I think people were just hanging in there, killing time. Some interesting bas reliefs could be found on the outer wall of the gallery, otherwise nothing excessively special about it.

Photo: North Library of Bayon Attracted Many People
Photo: North Library of Bayon Attracted Many People

I spent several hours exploring Bayon. I started in late morning and wasn’t done until early afternoon. This basically means that I spent the hottest part of the day marking the ancient stones of the temple with my sweat. As I found out later, this was a great idea. Vast majority of organized tours take their high paying customers back to Siem Reap during noon hours so they can have lunch in one of the air-conditioned restaurants. The number of tourists at Angkor drops significantly during that time. As such, it is advisable for solo explorers to brave the midday heat and continue exploring the temples during lunch hours despite intense sun.

Because Bayon is the second most famous temple of Angkor (second only to Angkor Wat) and is a must-see for everyone coming to Angkor Archaeological Park, there were a few dozen people sharing the temple with me despite scorching midday sun. However it is better to have to share it with a few dozen people, than with hundreds, who on top of it all have an escort with an umbrella to shelter them from the sun and oftentimes a guide as well.

The best time to visit Bayon would be either very early in the morning (when all organized tours are at Angkor Wat), during noon (when all organized tours are back in Siem Reap for lunch) or in late afternoon (after 4pm, when all organized tours are either in Banteay Srei or already lining people up to go on Phnom Bakheng to watch sunset from the hill). The worst time of the day would be between 8am and 10.30am when dozens of buses full of rich tourists park it next to the temple and release hundreds of people to swarm the temple, turning it into an anthill full of crawling creatures.

Photo: Bayon Temple in Rainy Season with Reflection in the Water Basin
Photo: Bayon Temple in Rainy Season with Reflection in the Water Basin

Even though already completely devastated from exposure to extreme sun, after I was done exploring Bayon, I was still determined to complete the small circuit the same day. I was done with two of the largest structures to explore, but many more to go. Angkor Thom itself had several more iconic pieces nearby. I made an attempt to stop at one of the food stalls north west of the temple but touts were so aggressive, I opted for a swift dart off. The temple of Baphuon, which is 200 years older than Bayon was next.

Bayon Temple Photo Gallery

Bayon was built by king Jayavarman VII as his state temple at the end of 12th century, after he drove out the Chams who sacked the place. Today, Bayon is best known for its iconic towers crowned with four giant faces, each looking out to a respective cardinal point. Bayon is the center of Angkor Thom and symbolizes Mount Meru, sacred mountain in the center of the universe (inspired from Hindu cosmology). This photo gallery is a collection of photographs I took of Bayon temple when I was exploring it.

Bayon has a multitude of symbolic functions. Outer walls of Angkor Thom constitute its outermost enclosure within which Bayon stands as the pivotal mountain in the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Protected at each entrance by Hindu serpent Vasuki, the gods and demons who rotate it exert the “Elixir of Immortality” from the depths of the water that surrounds it.

Bayon was built to be a Mahayana Buddhist temple. Statue of Buddha seated on and sheltered by a multi-headed serpent Mucilinda was originally housed in the central prasat but was later smashed and thrown into the foundation well after death of Jayavarman VII, indicating change in religion (revival of Brahmanism). The statue went out of knowledge until it was re-discovered by archaeologists in 1933.

Bayon’s exterior galleries have walls covered in bas reliefs but aside from a few passages, lack roofs. Many bas relief characters are Chinese, who are seen as both soldiers and businessmen, often with Khmer women, sometimes with friends drinking and dancing. Random scenes from daily life of people occupying the Angkor Thom city compound are portrayed in bas reliefs of exterior galleries. I’ll let the pictures introduce you to the beauty of the Bayon temple:

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs

I got back down from to the first level of Angkor Wat Central Temple to explore the bas reliefs covering most of the wall’s exterior. 600 meters of the surrounding wall is covered with 2 meters high bas reliefs. In addition, the interiors of south-west and north-west corner pavilions are also covered in bas reliefs. South-east and north-east corner pavilions were left uncarved as the construction of Angkor Wat was halted after death of god-king Suryavarman II.

Since there is no artificial lighting anywhere in Angkor Wat, as a photographer you are left with available light. When it comes to bas reliefs, the light comes in from the opposite side of the walkway which contains pillars supporting the upper floor. Because of that you are gonna end up with inconsistently illuminated photographs. It gets even worse with vertical light. Two meters high bas reliefs are much darker on top, near the ceiling than they are towards the bottom. Yet they are visually spectacular and a sight to behold. It is my understanding that these bas reliefs are considered the pinnacle of Angkorian-era artform.

Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kuru
Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kurukshetra

The most famous and most important bas relief and their locations are listed below:

  • Battle of Kurukshetra – along the south wing of the west gallery and the interior of the south-west corner pavillion
  • Procession of Suryavarman II – along the west wing of the south gallery
  • Judgement of Yama and Heaven and Hell – along the east wing of the south gallery
  • Churning of the Sea of Milk – along the south wing of the east gallery
  • Battle of Lanka – along the north wing of the west gallery and the interior of the north-west pavillion

Other bas-reliefs on the walls and their locations are:

  • Battle of Devas and Asuras – along the west wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Krishna over Bana – along the east wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras – along the north wing of the east gallery

Interior of the south-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Churning of the Sea of Milk
  • Shiva and the Hermits
  • Life of Krishna
  • Ravana shakes M. Kailasa
  • Shiva kills Kama
  • Rama kills Valin
  • Shiva in Meditation
  • Vishnu receives offerings
  • Water festival at Dvaravati
  • Lifting Mt Govardhana
  • Rama chases the golden deer Maricha

Interior of the north-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Sita’s trial by fire
  • Rama’s return to Ayodhya
  • Rama, Lakshmana and Vibhisana
  • Hanuman gives Sita Rama’s ring
  • Rama and Lakshmana battle Kabandha
  • Rama wins Sita in an archery competition
  • Krishna brings back Mt. Mahaparvata
  • Rama and Lakshmana form alliance with Sugriva
  • Vishnu reclining is petitions by gods
  • Rama and Lakshmana slay Viradha
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Cham Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Champa Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II

Angkor Wat

There is no denying it – Angkor Wat is the most breathtaking temple complex at the Angkor Archaeological Park. It is also the best preserved monument at Angkor because unlike all other temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. Compared in its grandeur to architectonic gems of ancient Greece or Rome, Angkor Wat is still the largest religious structure in the world.

Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century for then King Suryavarman II (ruled Cambodia between 1112 and 1152). It was initially constructed in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu with whom the god-king Suryavarman II identified, but was restored to become a shrine for Buddhist pilgrims in the 16th century. From that point on, Angkor Wat has been the only temple at Angkor that was continuously used which significantly contributed to its well preserved state.

Photo: Angkor Wat View from the East
Photo: Angkor Wat View from the East

After flourishing Khmer civilization mysteriously vanished and abandoned the monumental city, Angkor was overtaken by jungle and started to fall into ruin. Phnom Penh has become the capital city and the center for the Khmer Royal court and Angkor continued to deteriorate until it was rediscovered by French explorers in the 1860’s.

Portuguese monk Antonio da Magdalena visited Angkor Wat in 1586 and became the first westerner to make a written account about it. However, even though completely astounded by its splendour and having made a colourful report describing Angkor’s magnificence, his story was not published until 1958. It wasn’t until 1868 when French explorer Henri Mouhot published his account in Voyage a Siam et dans le Cambodge that Angkor Wat got widely popularized in the western countries.

Architectonically, Angkor Wat represents the epitome of Khmer architecture. It is widely accepted as a symbol of Cambodia and has been on country’s national flag since about 1863, when Cambodia’s first flag was introduced. Angkor Wat is also the most recognizable landmark of the country and is responsible for attracting more foreign tourism to Cambodia than anything else.

Photo: Main Causeway to Angkor Wat in Morning Light
Photo: Main Causeway to Angkor Wat in Morning Light

The reason why Angkor Wat faces west is still left for speculations. Temples are by default built facing east and because west represents death, many experts speculate that Angkor Wat was not built to be a temple, but rather a tomb for Suryavarman II – the god-king who had it built. Strangely enough, the remains of Suryavarman II were never laid in Angkor Wat. So why was it built facing west???

Despite its west facing orientation, Angkor Wat does bear signs of being a temple. One of prime reasons to assume that it was a temple is the design which represents Mount Meru – a holy mountain in the center of the universe which has long been regarded to be the home to Hindu gods (Shiva). This is where the term “temple-mountain” comes from. Banteay Samre, Beng Melea, Wat Atwea and Thommanon are other Angkorian-era temple-mountains built in the same style as Angkor Wat and may have served as prototypes for the design of their most famous cousin. Moat surrounding the temple represents the oceans surrounding Mount Meru. Aside from being a Temple Mountain, Angkor Wat also encompasses the layout style known as “Galleried Temple” and serves as an architectural combination of the two.

The heart of Angkor Wat consists of a three tiered temple with five distinctive towers. Four of these lotus-shaped towers crown each of the corners of the temple while the fifth one is in the middle and reaches above all others. Center tower rises up no less than 65 meters from ground level.

The walls of this 1 square kilometre temple are covered on both sides with carvings and bas reliefs. The exterior of temple’s lower level wall is covered with bas reliefs depicting complete stories from Hindu mythology, including Churning of the Ocean Milk on the east wall, and successful war lead by Suryavarman II against Chum (Battle of Kurukshetra) on the west wall. Nearly 2,000 carvings of Apsaras (or Devatas) can be found at various places throughout Angkor Wat. Apsaras were celestial dancers who were widely regarded as messengers between the gods and humans.

Photo: Apsara Dancers Carved on the Interior of the First Level of Angkor Wat Wall
Photo: Apsara Dancers Carved on the Interior of the First Level of Angkor Wat Wall

Including the moat, Angkor Wat spreads over a chunk of land that’s 1.3 kilometers wide and 1.5 kilometers long. Exterior wall that wraps around the temple measures 1025 meters by 800 meters. The moat that surrounds the exterior wall from the outside is 190 meters wide and filled with water, making any moat around medieval castles look like a puddle after rain.

According to preserved inscriptions, 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants were involved in the construction of Angkor Wat. However even though not fully completed, the construction works stopped shortly after king Suryavarman II’s death leaving some of the bas reliefs unfinished. Scholars speculate that Angkor Wat’s original name may have been Vrah Vishnulok – based on the name of the deity it was dedicated to but none of the inscriptions found has any reliable reference to the original name so this remains a speculation.

Hope you have enjoyed my little introduction to Angkor Wat – the acme of the Angkor World Heritage Site. It contained brief history, information about its architecture, overview of its king and the empire, art, size, symbolism and other useful facts. Few pictures accompany the article, for more pictures visit any of my extensive galleries:

Angkor Wat in the Morning Light Photo Gallery