Discovering Indochina–Bayon Temple at Angkor Cambodia

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We are going to see Bayon temple next. It is one of my favorite of all the Angkor sites. From Ta Prohm we returned to our hotel in Siem Reap for a late breakfast, before heading back to Angkor Thom, which is a large ancient walled city encompassing 9 km sq. It is surrounded by a moat of 3 km on each side.

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The map below gives an idea of  the location of the main temples in Angkor. Angkor Thom is the big square near the middle. This map shows a few of the approximately 1000 temples whose remains have been found in the Angkor area. We only visited four of these.

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This aerial view shows the specific sites we visited on this trip. The larger light blue/green square is Angkor Thom, in the center of which is the Bayon Temple. The smaller square below is Angkor Wat. About in the center of the view is Ta Prohm. Our sunset temple, Pre Rup, is in the upper right. The scale is about 2 miles to the inch.

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Angkor Thom (literally: “Great City”) was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. At the center of the city is Jayavarman’s state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north.

In 1177 and again in 1178, the Cham, from what is now Central Vietnam, invaded Cambodia. In 1178, they launched a surprise attack on the Khmer capital by sailing a fleet up the Mekong River, across Lake Tonlé Sap, and then up the Siem Reap River, a tributary of the Tonlé Sap. The invaders pillaged the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura (the predecessor of Angkor Thom) and put the king to death, as well as taking the Apsara dancers. Later in 1178, Jayavarman came to historical prominence by leading a Khmer army that ousted the invaders. For this, he was made the new king.

Over the 30 some years of his reign, Jayavarman embarked on a grand program of construction that included both public works and monuments. This started with hospitals (102 in all), rest houses along the roads, and reservoirs. Next came a pair of temples in honor of his parents: Ta Prohm in honor of his mother and Preah Khan in honor of his father. Finally came Angkor Thom, his capital city, and the Bayon, his own “temple-mountain.”

Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire, and was the center of his massive building program. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride. The last temple known to have been constructed in Angkor Thom was Mangalartha, which was dedicated in 1295. Thereafter any new creations were in perishable materials and have not survived. In the following centuries Angkor Thom remained the capital of the Khmer Empire in decline until it was abandoned some time prior to 1609, when an early western visitor wrote of an uninhabited city, “as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.”  It is now believed that the 1000 sq m area sustained a population up to 1,000,000, making it about the biggest city on the planet at its height.

Jayavarman VII remains a potent symbol of national pride for present day Cambodians. As a Buddhist king in a Buddhist country, he is regarded with great respect. The many public support structures he built, like the hospitals, have contributed to a legend of the Buddharaja, the King-Buddha, who exercised compassion in ruling. This view of Jayavarman and his reign is supported by some beautiful sculptures of him in meditation.

We park outside the moat of Angkor Thom.

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The bridge that crosses the moat into the present main (south) entrance has, as its protector, a Naga on each side, supported by Gods (Devas) on the left …

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and Demons (Asuras) on the right.

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More of the Devas.

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Here is a photo of the Devas taken by our tour companion Simon.

In the front is a seven-headed Naga.

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Behind is a long row of Demons.

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Some faces have been restored, some have not.

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We cross the bridge toward the gate (gopuram)

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Here is the moat. It is pretty wide.

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If you look closely at the top of the gopuram, you will see a face. This is thought to be Avalokiteshvara, a Buddhist guardian.

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There are four faces, each looking in a cardinal direction.

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Below the faces there are rows of figures with their hands pressed together. In Asia this is a common greeting. Maybe they are greeting those who come here.

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Here is a partial map of Angkor Thom. We have walked from the south entrance. Bayon is right in the center of Angkor Thom. Check on the map above.

We will walk on a path through the forest that now on the South side of Bayon, heading north from the gopuram, which is quite a bit below the bottom of this map. In Angkor Thom are many more temples and sites to see. We only visited Bayon. I wish we had seen more here.

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Big trees line the area. They have had hundreds of years to grow.

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Here is Richard with a new hat. He lost the old one in Vietnam.

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There are elephant rides here. We didn’t have time to take one, but this is something that we want to do. Notice that they have strong rails around the sides of the howdah (elephant saddle). This is because the elephant’s gait is very rough, and you need to be able to hold on.

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The Japanese, together with UNESCO, have set up and funded a trust organization to preserve Bayon.

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Below is a diagram of Bayon. We come from the south. The main entrance faces east, as do most Angkor (and Hindu) temples.

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We approach the temple.

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Here is another view of the south entrance into Bayon. You can see people looking at the walls. There are famous bas-reliefs carved on the walls of the Outer Gallery.

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On the pillars outside the Outer Gallery, there is a guardian figure, a Dvarapala, a door (or gate) guard, holding his weapon in front of him.

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There are stairways leading up. These old stairs are quite steep and narrow.

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Now we see the sculptures on the walls. They are very martial, warlike. They represent the victory that brought King Jayavarman VII to power.

On one side, marching from left to right, are the King’s forces.

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There are Khmer warriors.

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They are supported by Chinese allies, who have provided troops as well.

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You can see that there are basic troops, and various commanders. Here a leader (with long earlobes) is being carried on the back of an elephant, with troops carrying spears walking at his side.

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They had wheeled wagons to carry war materials.

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Warriors marching ahead of the wagon. You can see that the wagon was being pulled by a bullock. The warriors carry spears, and one has a small shield. Notice the trees and the way that the leaves are carved. This is typical of this style of carving.

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You see many small details of the army and life at this time. I think the person on the left is carrying water, and the one on the right is drinking.

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More warriors. You can see the fine physique on the central figure in this photo.

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We pass by a doorway into Bayon, with ancient towers rising above us.

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Here the armies start to meet. First their dogs meet. I bet they are growling at each other. The dogs seems to be straining on their leashes.

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The warriors battle. Khmer on the left, Cham on the right.

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More battle.

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This part of the fighting is in the forests.

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A bull being pulled into the battle line.

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This looks like a Buddhist priest bestowing a blessing. I think the knot of hair behind their heads identifies them as Buddhist priests.

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I think these are more Buddhist priests, with the knot of hair behind their heads. I can’t figure out what they are doing. Are they cooking?

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In the eastern part of the southern gallery, a naval battle on the Tonle Sap between Khmer and Cham forces.

Bodies of losers in this battle fall beneath the boat.

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Warriors in the front of the boat.

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Below the war boat are scenes from civilian life, depicting a market, open-air cooking, hunters, and women tending to children. These depictions of civilian life are unique in all of Angkor. For some, this is a big reason to come here.

To really see and understand these carvings, you have to understand the story that is being presented. We did not, so only now, as I study for this posting, am I getting some perspective on what I saw. And now I want to see more and take more photos. But it is too late. We saw only the South Outer Gallery. There are three more sides that we did not see, nor did we see the Inner Gallery, decorated for the most part with scenes from Hindu mythology, featuring Siva, Vishnu and Brahma.

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A forest scene, a hunter with bow and arrow. I think he is hunting with a dog. The prey has climbed up a tree to escape the dog, only to become easy target for the hunter.

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Water scene, fish and crocodile.

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Deer. All the animals depicted here are ones that the Khmer artists would have known from the area.

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Palace scenes with princesses, servants, people engaged in conversations and games, and the care of a child.

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People talking.

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We saw only the South Gallery. Our guide did not tell us about the galleries on the three other sides. Maybe he was in a hurry—we did have a lot more to cover today.

We go further into Bayon. Apsaras dance on the pillars.

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Then into the central section of the temple. You see ahead ancient stairs up to the top level of this ‘Temple Mountain.’

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Another guardian, a Devata.

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These really look like temple ruins.

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A small bit of restoration work.

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Our focus now becomes the towers atop Bayon.

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Altogether, I think there are 25 of these, each with four faces.

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Apsaras dance everywhere in this temple.

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This wooden stairway leads up to the top level. These stairs are needed since the original stairs are too steep for modern visitors. They were designed for barefoot people walking on their toes.

Note the arch above the stairs. This is a corbel arch. Angkorian engineers used the corbel arch in order to construct rooms, passageways and openings in buildings. A corbel arch is constructed by adding layers of stones to the walls on either side of an opening, with each successive layer projecting further towards the center than the one supporting it from below, until the two sides meet in the middle. The corbel arch is structurally weaker than the true arch, which the Angkorian engineers did not know how to create. The use of corbelling prevented the Angkorian engineers from constructing large openings or spaces in buildings roofed with stone. That is why this tower form is so common here, I think; it was the easiest monumental structure to build with the corbel arch. The corbel arch made these buildings particularly prone to collapse once they were no longer maintained. The problem of preventing the collapse of corbelled structures at Angkor remains a serious one for modern conservation.

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On the four sides of each tower there is this face–the same face again and again. There are two ideas of whose face it is. The most popular idea is that it is the face of a Buddhist figure, Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva (Lokesvara), who is seen as the embodiment of Buddhist compassion. We first saw this face as we entered this temple complex.

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The other idea is that the faces are modeled after King Jayavarman VII himself. In the bust below he shows the same serene and composed face. This idea goes further, saying that Jayavarman really represented the Buddhist Lokesvara, and, as shown by all his good works, such as the building of many hospitals, his life exemplified the values of Lokesvara.

The photo below is from Wikipedia Commons.

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Now start to look at the faces and make your own decision: the King? Or the Bodhisattva? Or are they the same?

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We are atop the roof, amid the many towers. Altogether there are 100 faces up on this roof.

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In the small spaces inside the towers there are Buddhist shrines, with the Buddhas elaborately decorated.

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The lintels above doorways are decorated with a variety of motifs. These include various forms of vegetation, and a variety of gods and other Buddhist figures. The strong lintel was an alternate approach to enclosing space, and is actually stronger than the corbel arch.

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This wonderfully rendered female figure is, since she is not dancing as an Apsara would be, probably a Devata, a divine guardian spirit of sacred palaces.

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Here is a Garuda, a divine being that is part man and part bird. He is the lord of birds, the mythological enemy of Nāgas, and the battle steed of Vishnu.

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Inside the shrine we saw above, we see a Buddha being worshipped even today. The Buddha wears a brilliant saffron robe.

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Joss sticks (incense) are lit for Buddha.

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These are the central towers on the roof, what make this place a “temple mountain.” We see elements that we have described above–the corbel arch and the strong stone lintel.

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Inside, just a ray a light gets in.

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This tower is open at the top.

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At the center of the “temple mountain” is the primary shrine. It now has this Buddha, surrounded by candles, decorations, and offerings.

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Carol lights a joss stick for Buddha.

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Back outside, we are on our way out of the temple. We see one more Buddha as we are leaving.

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Buddha, simply decorated, under an umbrella, to protect from the hot sun.

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Leaving, one last look at the temple, behind the surrounding walls.

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We stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant, adjacent to the Angkor Wat temple, our next destination.

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I had a Cambodian dish, Amok, served in a specially carved coconut shell. This is not spicy, but instead is rather fragrant, zesty and flavorful.

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Wow, what a temple! There was so much to see and think about at Bayon.

But now, without more than a meal break, we are going next to the big temple, and signature site, Angkor Wat!

Related Posts

Cambodia

Phnom Penh
Day of Death: The Killing Fields
To Siem Reap, Sunset at Angkor Temple
Sunset at Pre Rup
Ta Prohm The Temple of Doom
Angkor Wat
Touring around Siem Reap

The Vietnam part of this trip:

Hanoi, Day 1
Hanoi, Day 2
Hue
Hội An
Mỹ Sơn
Nha Trang
Mekong Delta
Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon

Other Travel posts:

Touring and Travel in India
Touring and Travel outside India

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