Arriving at the gates of Angkor Thom, one of the city temples in the Angkor Archaeological complex, was like something out of a movie, or better yet, something out of an adventure book I’d read as a child.
To be completely honest, I had been sorely underwhelmed by my visit to Angkor Wat the day before; maybe it was my expectations for it, all the guidebooks swearing it’d be breathtaking, or its size, too large for me to grasp completely, but it just didn’t wow me the way everyone else seemed to be wowed. I knew I was looking at something special, big, important…it just wasn’t that special, big or important to me.
So I was stunned when I arrived at Bayon.
From far away, Bayon actually looks like a glorified heap of rubble; besides a few stone peaks reaching for the sky, the whole temple looks more disorderly than sacred, and the stone blocks scattered around the premises only add to its ‘accidentally left behind’ atmosphere. But upon getting closer, something that resembles a face begins to peer from one of the towers. Soon, there is another, and then another, and all of a sudden the realization hits that there is much more to this temple than meets the eye.
History of Bayon
Bayon was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman VII as the official state temple of Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time. Situated smack in the middle of the “great walled city,” the Buddhist temple is said to be one of his greatest achievements.
Following the architectural style of the temple-mountain, a representation of the sacred center of the universe Mount Meru, Bayon reaches over 40 meters high and expands its grandiosity over 10km2, its walls covered in a gallery of detailed bas-reliefs (shallow sculpted stone) that stretch for almost a kilometer, and depict historical battles, mythological events, and everyday life.
The Faces Of Bayon
But it is perhaps the greatest attribution to Jayavarman VII that holds me where I stand in awe: from the 54 towers that look out onto the city materialize 216 smiling faces, watchful and reserved. It is breathtaking, bizarre, and almost otherworldly.
Rumored by many to be more than just a coincidental resemblance to the king himself, they stand almost four meters tall, carefully observing as they blend in and out of the slabs of stone from which they themselves are assembled.
It is fitting: generally accepted as the embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the faces exude compassion for their audience; as a representation of the king, they retain a sense of distance from it –
the wide forehead, broad nose, deep nostrils, almond eyes, and that smile, almost clown-like, upturned at the ends, is a graceful union between serenity and control.
The Smile of Angkor
Bayon is considered one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor, and I can see why – there is a magic in walking among the faces, as if each holds the secrets to a hidden past. But the temple itself is still shrouded in mystery, and that’s the most beautiful experience of them all: standing face to face with the enigmatic smile of Angkor, and letting Bayon slowly reveal itself.