Bayon: The Most Mystical Khmer Temple of Cambodia

By Irina.

The Khmer temple of Bayon. The Angkor Complex, Cambodia.
The Khmer temple of Bayon. The Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

When in 1633, forced to recant his belief that Earth revolves around the sun, the famous astronomer and natural philosopher Galileo Galilei spoke his catch phrase “Eppur si muove!” (And yet it does move!), Bayon, the most mystical Khmer temple near the village of Siem Reap in Cambodia, was lost in the jungles already 300 years. The Bayon Temple is a temple-enigma which scientists argue about to this day. It was found in the deep forests of Cambodia in the 19th century, and once more showed us that our ancestors knew more about the starry sky than we know now.

Three great pyramids of Giza correspond to the three stars in Orion’s Belt. Angkor Thom—the ancient capital of Cambodia—is a manmade reflection of the Draco constellation on our planet. The Bayon Temple—the most beautiful and mysterious of the Cambodian temples—stands in the heart of the ruins of the former Khmer capital. By some unexplained accident or fate, Bayon was the last temple built in Angkor. After that, the epic Khmer city full of palaces and temples was deserted for five hundred years.

The Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

Stone faces of the Bayon Temple. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.
Stone faces of Bayon

You may not know anything about Cambodia, and even not very accurately be able to represent its location and with whom it is bordered, but these faces you know; you have seen them more than once. Their famous smile received the unique name: Bayon’s Smile. Only one other smile—that of Mona Lisa—can rival it for fame.

Looking at these smiling stone faces, you involuntarily ask yourself: did the ancient Khmers look similar, or it was only a fantasy of the artists? The faces of Bayon have nothing in common with the faces of modern Cambodians.

Until you come to Siem Reap, you will not be able to appreciate all the grandiosity of the Angkor temples. Having stayed in Siem Reap for a week and seen a number of temples, I had to admit: either we (humanity) are now severely degraded, or they (the builders of the temples in Cambodia) were greatly helped. But who were their helpers?!

Most tourists come to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, the biggest Angkor temple, but Victor and I have not been able to write a separate post about this temple in our travel blog. Angkor Wat appeared to us to be perfect, but too sterile, too empty, and … dead. We had a completely different impression of Bayon. Vibrant, magical, wise, warm, kind; it immediately gets under your skin. These two temples differ in almost everything: size, artistic style, architecture, and design; however, scientists don’t understand how such wonders could have been built in the Cambodian wilderness without the knowledge of the lost civilizations, for example, Atlanteans or Lemurians.

The Bayon Temple is smaller than Angkor Wat. Its area is not big—a modest 600×600 meter. From a distance, it does not impress, and looks more like a shapeless heap of stones. Only on coming closer, when the faces on the numerous towers begin to appear clearly, one understands how wrong was his first impression.

Stone faces of the Bayon Temple. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

Stone faces of the Bayon Temple. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

I am not an archaeologist, just fan of archaeology, but the Bayon Temple seems to me only “the tip of the iceberg.” Partially excavated galleries around the perimeter of the temple lie below ground level. How deep the foundation is, archaeologists don’t know. Deep underground, they found tightly walled rooms in which the same smiling faces were hidden in the dark. Tourists are not allowed to visit them, because the risk of collapse is very high.

The Bayon Temple has generated a lot of fantasies. The French writer Paul Claudel who lived in Siem Reap for a long time, described the Bayon as a sinister and damned place. He even called it “the temple of the devil” and claimed that a long stay there is life threatening.

In the Bayon Temple, it is really hard to escape the feeling that someone is constantly watching you. Fifty-two towers surround the central 43-meter tower which symbolizes the center of the universe. Four large faces are engraved on every tower and look out in different directions. There are 208 faces in the temple. Their height is at least two meters, and their smiles are mysterious and incomprehensible. You are under observation everywhere. However, we did not feel any fear or danger there.

Stone face. The Bayon Temple. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

The Bayon Temple. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

The Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

The Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

Obviously, the stone faces are different. Moreover, depending on the light and time of a day, they change their expression from wise smile to grim grin. It is doubtful that their prototype was a single man, King Jayavarman VII, but it is one of the hypotheses.

There is great confusion associated with the date of the construction of the Bayon Temple. Some experts say it was built around the late 7th or early 8th century during the reign of Jayavarman VII; other experts argue that this king reigned from 1181 to 1220, and that was the middle of the 12th century.

For the Cambodians, King Jayavarman VII was a hero who expelled foreign invaders from the country and united the Khmers. He became the first Buddhist on the throne of Cambodia, and during his reign, the Khmer empire experienced its heyday.

That is, the Bayon Temple was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat (which was erected in the 12th century). Correct? No. The paradox is that the foundation of this Khmer temple was created many centuries before Angkor Wat. This fact is confirmed by radiocarbon dating and recognized by archaeologists.

The Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

Carving in the Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.

The last strange thing is that modern builders are not able to restore the Bayon physically. The temple was built without the use of binders: not one drop of cement or anything else. Today, we can’t cut stones of such a size with a given accuracy and build them into the crumbling temple without cement, therefore the reconstruction of the most controversial temple in the history of Cambodia comes down to the cementation of cracks.

We cannot restore the Bayon by the methods with which it was constructed, because we just don’t know what they were, but attempts are ongoing, and the Japanese are most successful. However, the Japanese also cannot do without concreting.

The Bayon Temple is a labyrinth, flooded with different symbols and guarded by mighty stone lions with gaping jaws. By the way, a few years after visiting Bayon, I read “The Mark of Judah” by American author James Rollins. There, the Bayon Temple is represented as a portal which must remain closed if humanity is to survive. We had a very similar impression.

The temple has three levels. The arches surrounding the lower gallery collapsed long ago. There are only pillars and fantastic, beautiful bas-reliefs covering the walls. The quality of the details continues to fascinate even after many centuries. You can climb to the second level through well-preserved broad stairs. The towers and stone faces are especially well visible on the third level. I can’t say the Bayon Temple is perfectly preserved, but the stone carving is gorgeous.

Ancient apsara. Carving in the Khmer temple of Bayon. Angkor Complex, Cambodia.
Ancient apsara
Modern apsara. Cambodia.
Modern apsara.

The faces of the Bayon Temple are really mysterious. Perhaps, the reason is the game of light and shadow, varying degrees of destruction of the towers, and of course your expectations. Bayon impressed me a lot; it swept me away. Although the smiles on the stone faces seemed a bit sarcastic at sunset, statues seemed to be whispering, “Tomorrow will be a new day, and everything will be fine!” They know best. They have half a millennium of experience.

The era of greatness of the Khmer Empire lasted for seven centuries, and ended in 1433, when under the onslaught of the Thais, the Khmers were forced to leave Angkor and move their capital to Phnom Penh on the banks of the Mekong River. Angkor was abandoned, the ancient state of the Khmers died. Centuries passed. The jungle covered up high towers of temples and palace squares, roads disappeared, monkeys settled in watchtowers, and channels became the refuge of poisonous snakes.

Since that time, many European travelers visited the Angkor sites, but only one of them, Henri Mouhot, popularized them in the West in the 19th century.

The Angkor Archaeological Park map. Cambodia
The Angkor Archaeological Park map. (Click to enlarge)

More about Khmer temples in Cambodia:
Temples of Cambodia: Angkor Wat or Beng Mealea?
Cambodian Siem Reap: Temple Klondike
Banteay Srey Temple: Genuine Cambodian Woman


31 thoughts on “Bayon: The Most Mystical Khmer Temple of Cambodia

  1. Great photos as always Victor. We agree with you – we spent a week visiting all the different temples and Bayon IS the most impressive. The towers almost look like modern-day highrises, it has a very unique look that you won’t see in any of the other temples.
    Frank (bbqboy)


  2. Bayon is my favorite temple in the Angkor Archaeological Complex, and it turns out to be shrouded in so many mysteries. Thank you for bringing up some of them to us!


  3. It is mind-boggling to try to imagine the times when these temples were built – to imagine the people slaving over the rocks, to raise them up and place them, to carve them. And someone had to have the whole concept in mind to supervise the building process over many years. Really amazing.


      1. Not smaller than New York City! Bigger than New York City. It covers more than 3,000 square kilometers including the catchment area. Archaeologist also discovered another Enormous ancient city on Phnom Kulen called Mahendraparvata which could be bigger than New York City itself. Yes another ancient city!


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