Phimeanakas was the state temple of king Suryavarman I. It was built in late 10th to early 11th centuries which means it was at its location long before the royal city of Angkor Thom was built around it. When king Jayavarman VII had the plan for Angkor Thom laid out, he made Phimeanakas part of his Royal Palace area. Because none of the carvings on Phimeanakas survived, this temple is artistically characterless, however it’s easily scalable and provides interesting views from the top. Perhaps when Baphuon is restored and made accessible by public, the views from up there will be even better, but for now the top of Phimeanakas is the highest you can get at Angkor Thom.
Yes I did climb on top of Phimeanakas and yes it was not particularly easy. The climb itself is not too bad, the western side of the temple (the back of it) has a wooden stairway built alongside the original stone stairway to make for an easier ascend but as is the case of everywhere in Cambodia, it’s not the climb that’ll destroy you, it’s the heat. A few minutes climb up the steep staircase directly exposed to the dilapidating sun will wear you down like a marathon run. The sun will suck out the last drop of energy you had in your body by the time you made it through the initial few steps. Each time you take a breather, it will only get worse. And as if the extreme heat from the sun was not enough, the temple blocks radiate it back at you from below giving you absolutely no way to escape the destructive heat.
Reaching the summit doesn’t make it any better. There is nowhere to escape the heat, only the rays of the sun within the blocks of stone where it seems to be hotter than in direct sunshine. The feeling of reaching the top is satisfying even though you will be entirely out of juice. The sanctuary on top is currently empty but was likely used to house a divinity while the temple was in use. According to the Khmer legend, Phimeanakas was crowned with the golden tower within which dwelt a nine-headed naga serpent which transformed into a woman every night. The king was obliged to make love with the serpent every night or else the kingdom would fall into ruin. I guess one of the kings failed in the task as once powerful Angkorian kingdom did eventually fall into ruin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
When Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom, he made sure it’s well fortified but physical fortification was only part of the city’s strenght. Angkor Thom was also built to be protected by divine powers. There is deep symbolism in much of Angkor Thom’s architecture – let’s take a look at its most significant features:
Similar to the symbolism of Angkor Wat, the world Angkor Thom represents is enclosed within the rock wall that’s 8 meters (26 feet) tall beyond which there is the great ocean symbolized by the surrounding moat. 54 deities and 54 demons guarding each entrance to Angkor Thom represent 108 protectors of the city – the sacred number linked to the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
Nagas – multi-headed serpents held firmly by a row of 54 guardians on each side of the causeway leading to the gate across the moat represent serpent Vasuki from Hindu mythology. The serpents are ready to spit poison at the enemy out of each of their seven heads and have their tails erect to terminate all those who still make it through. With their seven heads, Nagas also serve as Khmer symbols of rainbow – the bridge between heaven and earth, between the world of the gods and the world of men.
To help keep watch over the city, Jayavarman VII crowned top of the city gates and the many towers of the state temple Bayon with faces of Lokeshvara. His compassionate, but attentive faces bearing the features of the king himself keep close watch over the city of Angkor Thom in all the directions.
Angkor Thom was taken over by sacking Chams in 1177 but the immortal city of Yashodhara was reclaimed for Khmer people by king Jayavarman VII in 1181. The king then built the wall and moat around it the fortification and symbolism of which proved so solid, future Khmer kings stayed in the city and remodelled Bayon, instead of building their own royal cities and state temples.
Angkor Thom means “Great City” in Khmer language. Covering the area of 9 kilometres squared, the royal city of Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Angkorian Empire. Completely surrounded by wall and moat that’s almost 3 kilometres long on each side, there are five entrance gates to the royal city – one at each cardinal point and the Victory Gate which connected the east side with the Royal Palace. Each of the Angkor Thom gates is crowned with four giant faces, similar to those found on Bayon temple.
Angkor Thom as we know today was constructed over the site of earlier temples and was occupied by city people for five centuries. It was brought to its final glory by King Jayavarman VII though construction of Angkor Thom continued to certain degree after his death.
The remodelling to Angkor Thom to its current state started after King Jayavarman VII drove away Chams who sacked the city. The King remodelled what was left of Angkor Thom into an ensemble that represents the Mount Meru with Bayon in its centre and the moat around it representing the sea of milk that encircles the sacred mountain range. It’s a microcosm of the universe.
Archaeologists speculate that during its boom, Angkor Thom had a water system running through the city. River O Khlot may have been branched and have some of its flow diverted to supply the royal city with life supporting water.
King Jayavarman VII also built temples at each corner of Angkor Thom. These temples, known as Prasat Chrung (Shrine of the Angle) contain an architectural element called “stele” which is an upright slab with inscriptions. The south-eastern Prasat Chrung is the only one with a stele containing complete inscription in Sanskrit on all four sides of the slab. Prasat Chrung temples were dedicated to the Bodhisattva Lokesvara, same as Bayon which served as city’s state temple.
Parts of today’s Angkor Thom, the last capital of Angkorian Empire overlap the area of what used to be Yasodharapura – the first capital of Angkorian Empire (9th century). Temples of Baphuon and Phimeanakas which still exist within today’s Angkor Thom were built in previous centuries and were incorporated into the new layout of Angkor Thom by Jayavarman VII.
Following the tradition, the royal palace was built north of the state temple (in this case it was Bayon). There is nothing left of the royal palace but the courtyard and terraces, as dwellings of people, including royalty were built of wood. Stone dwellings were reserved exclusively for the gods.