Remember the guy who restored Angkor Wat after the Cham invasion? Jayavarman VII? Well, at about the same time, he built Bayon temple as the centerpiece temple in his new capital, Angkor Thom or “Great City.” The entire temple is covered with giant faces (216, to be exact), or really many copies of the same face. As you can see from the pictures, the face is a very tranquil one. Many people assume it’s the Buddha; others assume it’s Jayavarman VII himself; still a third group assumes it’s both: in other words, that Jayavarman VII achieved enlightenment and became a Buddha. Bayon is the last of the temples built in the Angkor Wat area in the late 12th and early 13th centuries AD, and it’s unique among them as it was the only one built initially as a Buddhist temple. Later rulers would add Hindu touches to the temple, which is the reverse from all of the other temples in the area that began as Hindu and were converted to Buddhism. This is further proof that conversion is apparently not a linear process.
This temple is much more compact than Angkor Wat, but it’s still not small. There are several levels, and the interior is something of a maze. It was also utterly packed when we were there, so it was a little hard to move around honestly. But the entire place is pretty fascinating. The faces are just everywhere – some of them are obvious and others are a little more hidden. Another fascinating aspect is a wall of bas-relief sculptures that seem to be telling a detailed history. The sculptures have aged such that the coloring is now almost black and white in patterns unrelated to the underlying images.
I am obliged grudgingly to tell you the Tomb Raider movie used the temple as a location in the early 2000s. That was the first movie to film in Cambodia, and it likely had a positive impact on tourism to the temple district, which is all good for the country.
Check in tomorrow as we continue our tour of temples near Siem Reap with the Elephant Terrace and more real elephants.
Title quote: Bayon serves as the pivotal mountain in the churning sea, one of its symbolic functions in relation to Angkor Thom, according to the information board at the entrance.