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Well known as the heart of Angkor Thom, Bayon is another famous and popular ancient temple after Angkor Wat. It is a worth visiting site that tourists never skip during their trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Every year, Bayon temple attracts millions of tourists, both local and foreign, for its beautiful features and carvings. Interestingly enough, this Buddhist Temple is the very last mountain temple to ever built with Khmer ancient architecture. As authentic as other religious temples in Cambodia, carved arts adorned in the wall of the building are intricated & fascinating. A little bit about history is that the temple was built between the late 12th & early 13th century, commissioned by King Jayavarman VII.
Ancient Cambodia, under his reign, was at the highest prosperity in our country’s history and Southeast Asia. During this time, the large and advanced Cambodia was known as the Khmer Empire or Angkorian Empire. Bayon temple was in the past the center of Angkor Thom ancient city, located in the north of Angkor Wat. Although the distance between Bayon & Angkor Wat is only about 3.5km, the two buildings were constructed at different periods. The construction of Bayon is almost a century later than Angkor Wat.
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Bayon Temple: The Heart of Angkor Thom
The architectural design of the temple and its interpretation
Located in Central Angkor Thom, Angkor Archeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Bayon has a lot of offer to people interested in architecture. It can be challenging to trace back to the detailed history of the architectural construction of an 8-century-old building. But people believe that Bayon was built on top of another older building. It is also clear that the building took more than one construction period to finish. Since it took a long period to build, the temple seems to be formless, looking from a distance. From the outside, it looks like a pile of rock put together. Still, when you get closer and walk inside of it, you will see the priceless value of it with the exterior and Interior maze of galleries.
Regarding the design, the temple is famous for its four smiley faces towers. The whole temple is made up of 54 towers with the main tower in the middle. Also known as the Gold Tower, this central tower stands at the tallest point in the center. So you can see it clearly from the outside. Each of the towers is about 4meters high, with each face facing 4 different directions. The architectural design is splendid, but the interpretation of it is even more impressive. The 4 faces represent Avalokiteshvara or Lokeshvara (a Bodhisattva who embodies compassion). People also believe that the 4 faces are the face of King Jayavarman VII. It is because Cambodian people during that era worship the King like a Deity, so it makes sense that the faces can be interpreted as either the King or Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. Furthermore, regarding the 4 faces, an interpretation of them is they represent 4 types of smiles.
Smiling faces of Bayon Temple
These smiles include beautiful smile, sad smile, charming smile, and happy smile. In Cambodian culture, we have about 200 faces that portray different emotions and charisma. The eyes of each face are closed, representing inner peace with firm compassion. Religiously speaking, the closed eyes also represent Nirvana, where peace is eternal.
The 5 gates of Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was the most glorious as well as the last capital city during the Angkorian Empire. It is a royal city with a size of 3km x 3km, and Bayon is in the center of it. To get access to the capital, people could only enter through 5 grant gates. Each gate entrances consist mainly of 5 towers, and each tower has 4 faces just like the ones in Bayon but adding the frame of elephants and lotus flowers. The 4 gates are in all 4 cardinal directions. Another one is the most special one, called “the Victory Gate” leading the way to the Royal Palace. If we win the battles, solders would return and enter the city through this gate. So while visiting Bayon, you will notice that you will have to drive through an entrance gate first. If you are coming from Angkor Wat to Bayon, then you will come across the South gate.
11,000 figures carved on the wall of the temple’s outer gallery
You will be amazed by a collection of over 11,000 carved figures that mainly portray Cambodian history and legends. It is incredible how these important historical events and folklore have been infinitely adorned on pieces of stone put together. Furthermore, it will take you quite a while to explore all of this precious collection with 1.2km in length. It is fascinating to see how Cambodian ancestors chose to tell and pass down their stories using carving arts. So tourists can get to learn about Cambodian cultures and history at the same time as observing our ancient architecture.
Some of the historical events carved on Bayon Temple are mainly about legends, the daily life of ancient Khmer people, and wars. So you will be able to see how people in the past live, dress, and get to see their market. The bas-reliefs in the south also show you the battles between the empire and other states, including Champa. Unfortunately, there are some unfinished bas-reliefs, and it is probably related to the sudden death of King Jayavarman VII. The empire fell apart after his death and even until now, his disappearance remains a mystery.
Why is Bayon the best part of the Capital of Angkor Thom
Bayon stands right as a central part of the capital of Angkor Thom. Its original name was “Jayagiri”, which means a victorious mountain. This state temple has an important value to the King and the victory of the empire during the time. Also, it is believed that during the 12th century, Cambodia was divided into 54 provinces. Hence, this is why the King built Bayon with 54 towers. The faces of each point toward all cardinal points, bringing peace and looking after each region with smiley faces.
Some tips you should know before and while visiting Bayon
Sunrise with a breathtaking view at Angkor Wat has attracted a lot of tourists there early at dawn. So one alternative is to take this time heading to Bayon instead. This way, you can pretty much have the whole Bayon temple to yourself, along with fewer visitors. It is because after the sun rises, most tourists stay and explore Angkor Wat for another hour or two before heading to other temples, most likely Bayon. But, if you don’t want to miss out on the view of sunrise at Angkor Wat, you can first go there early in the morning and leave for Bayon right after the sun has risen. You can then save the tour around Angkor Wat later in the day to avoid the crowdedness in the morning. Since many tourists often visit Bayon temple, early in the morning is the best time to visit this temple.
It helps to know that many famous temples tourists usually aim to visit are not so far from one another. Some temples are to close together that you can walk from one to another. However, some are not close enough to walk. So you should note down which temples you want to explore and plan your transportation for the day accordingly. Also, you should expect that many corridors of Bayon are narrow and some stairs are steep. So always be careful climbing up and down the temple. Make sure also to conserve some energy as well because the temple is large and will take you about 30 minutes or longer, depending on your walking pace.
For those who like photography, the best time for it is during sunrise or sunset when the sun is low. It will add more detail to the towers and bas-reliefs of the temple. You can also capture the smiles of the towers more beautifully with the dim sunlight.
Most important of all, make sure you have the right dress code on. Because it is a sacred temple, you should not wear any revealing clothes. You should also take off your hat when you are inside the building. It is not a must, but it shows your respect. These few rules apply the same to other temples in Cambodia.
Bayon temple has always been one of the most popular and well-known temples in Cambodia. Every year, tourists come from different parts of the world to experience the beauty of ancient Cambodian temples. They were left in awe after exploring them, wondering how these religious temples have managed to stand beautifully strong. After hundreds of years, Bayon is one of the few largest Buddhist temples with the majority structure of it in very good conditions. The amazing architecture, design, thousands of historical stories carved on the rocky walls are the best things you should make sure not to miss out on. Not only these but our history, cultures, and legends that we believe in are depicted everywhere in this temple. All of this priceless heritage deserves to be looked at and cherished by everyone, especially the new generation of Cambodia. Visiting Bayon temple is one of the great ways to gain more understanding of our culture, history, and identity.