Angkor Thom’s Bayon: Faces On High Places

IMG_0447aAfter visiting Angkor Wat, many people head for Angkor Thom, which is situated just 1.7 kilometres away. Angkor Thom is well-known for its four-sided faces and towering southern gate. Established in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII, this royal city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire.

On the way to the temple grounds, you cannot fail to be impressed by the 100-metre-long stone causeway, flanked by 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other. The demons are distinguished by their round eyes and grimacing expressions, while the gods have almond-shaped eyes and look serene.

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The road to Angkor Thom is flat and wide. Gigantic trees line both sides and provided welcome shade from the hot Cambodian sun. Tuk-tuks are a common sight and you can spot the occasional elephant plying the temple grounds.

 

A laterite wall, 8 meters high, reinforced by a wide earth embankment, runs around the full perimeter of Angkor Thom’s moat. Angkor Thom has five entry gates – North, South, East, West, plus an additional gate at the eastern entrance.

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While Angkor Wat is Hindu-inspired, the sculpted images in Angkor Thom lean towards Buddhism. Symbolically, Angkor Thom represents the universe. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Mount Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolises the cosmic ocean.

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Bayon

At the exact centre of Angkor Thom’s axes stands the pyramid temple, Bayon. Most people will recognise Bayon for its four-sided smiling faces and extraordinary bas-reliefs. From afar, Bayon looks like a haphazard pile of stones. On closer look, however, there are some interesting bas reliefs on its outer and inner walls. Most of them are in pretty bad shape, but intact enough to give some insights into the Khmer way of life back then. The storyline carved on the bas reliefs are varied, depicting historical events, mythical stories and offering rare glimpses into domestic and rural life during that period.

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Bayon symbolises the link between heaven and earth. It has some 50 towers with four faces carved in stone for most of them. Each face is four metres high with closed eyes bearing the same enigmatic smile. This gives the faces a mysterious yet serene countenance, perhaps portraying an all-knowing state of inner peace. I prefer to describe it as the “I know something that you don’t” look!

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In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, apsaras are beautiful dancing girls who have ability to change their shape at will. They use their charms to seduce men – appearing with their torsos bare and wearing gold round their wrists and ankles.

When looking at Bayon, two questions came to mind. How did the Khmer people manage to pile one huge stone on top of another? How did they manage to fashion faces from stones without using cement or mortar?

A Japanese team working on Bayon’s restoration estimated that more than 200,000 blocks of stone, some weighing 300 kilograms were used for its construction. While it would have been possible for four men to carry each huge stone with a sling, it still does not explain how the blocks could have been lifted to the heights of the central tower!

Time to revisit the Alien Theory, perhaps?

The east gate was used as a backdrop in Tomb Raider, where the baddies broke into the ‘tomb’ by pulling down a giant apsara. While the scene may have looked convincing on-screen, Hollywood actors are clearly no match to the ancient Khmers when it comes to strength because the apsara was made from polystyrene!

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13 thoughts on “Angkor Thom’s Bayon: Faces On High Places

  1. Just looks so incredible! I especially love that photo from the perspective of looking up at the tower. Thanks for sharing! I would love to see such spots for myself, in person. Maybe one day! I moved from America to Prague and then Munich a few years ago, and now I am mostly exploring Europe, but one day I’ll make it there 😀

    1. There are lots of things to explore in Asia. Cambodia is such a special country to visit and my photos of Bayon do not do it justice. This is such a huge complex and you need to see it in person. Have a wonderful week and I am sure you will get the chance to travel here one day!

    1. Al the temples have their own uniqueness. Bayon has many hidden passageways if you like that kind of thing. There is always something new to discover at every corner and at the top, huge faces surrounding you. The temple is bigger than meets the eye and it is easy to lose your sense of direction and get lost once you’re inside.

  2. I am always amazed at the talent of our ancient peoples. We think we are so technical and advanced. If only we could know what they knew, I think we would be surprised and also humbled. Thank you for this wonderful post, and your previous ones, all of then so very interesting to read, with the most wonderful photos.

    1. Thank-you for taking the time to read my posts, Iris! I marvel at the way people during ancient times made the seemingly impossible possible.I am grateful to have the chance to see some of this wonders during my lifetime!

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