11 April 2012

Bayon - temple of the smiling gods

The center of Angkor Thom
At the center of the city of Angkor Thom stands the magnificent Bayon, the temple of the smiling gods. It is as popular with visitors as Angkor Wat and masses of tourists are pushed through the huge structure with it's 54 towers containing over 200 large faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. 

Well, that is actually the big question here. There has been lots of studies on the meaning of the temple but it is still not fully understood. In my huge collection of Angkor books I have read many differing views and one of the best books on it is still waiting to be read in my bookshelf: "Bayon - New perspectives". Bought it as I departed from Siem Reap after it was suggested to my by some friendly people when visiting Angkor, and who have since become good friends who will be reading this blog!

Outer Gallery of bas-reliefs
But to be honest, the Bayon is also one of my favourite temples in Angkor because it is one of the Buddhist temples built by King Jayavarman VII. While there is a small shrine in the central tower where people pray and perform religious rites, there was a large Buddha statue located in the center of the temple which has since been removed and relocated to the side of the compound along the road. We did visit the image on the way out to pay our respect to the Buddha. As always in these temples, I ran into a group of older ladies who take care of the Buddha image and come here for merit making. They were all having their fun with me, the white guy and waited to be able to tie the red cotton wrist bands around my hand, all accompanied by lots of chatter and laughs!

Over 200 smiling faces in stone
54 towers with smiling faces
Wandering through the towers of the Bayon and enjoying the many faces smiling at you from every side is a great experience. My tour guide and I went separate ways here, so we could both enjoy and explore different angles and to see the faces in the different settings of the sunlight. He also had my second camera, so I got some of the best shots of myself "looking" at the temple (I have mentioned that he is a great photographer, have I?) But it is best to just take plenty of time and explore every niche and every tower of the temple and go into the central sanctuary and spend a few minutes in this serene setting with people praying and lighting joss sticks and candles. It can get quite crowded in here though. 

Inner sanctuary
Excellent workmanship of the reliefs
On my first visit to the Bayon, I did not really spend any time to study the amazing bas-reliefs. We did not have enough time on our 3 day visit, the driver was waiting and most importantly I did not understand what they meant. This time around was very different. After a brief overview of the temple and it's history, my guide spent a lot of time going over the bas-reliefs. He explained every scene we walked by, pointed out things which I would not have seen myself or which would have been meaningless to me. It suddenly all made sense to me and it became much more than just a long wall with carvings. The same thing happened to me when I visited and studied the bas-reliefs of the great Borobudur temple on Java and walking around them several times in the right order to be able to follow the different stories which were shown on those walls. A bit of background knowledge on Buddhism and Khmer history helps of course, otherwise it would leave too many questions. 

Large Buddha image outside of the temple
Visiting Bayon can be a stressful experience because of the sheer number of tourists present here at certain times. I got lucky again thanks to my guide, but we passed the temple on another day and time and I was shocked to see the number of people streaming onto the terrace and into the first Gopura (gateway). 

Military procession with the King, troops and elephants


  1. Anonymous1/12/12 18:21

    I visited Bayon in 2010 and I have enjoyed reading your description of it. I hope to return to visit all of the Angkor sites again. It's too much to absorb in the short time we had there--and would probably be too much to absorb no matter how much time we had! The workmanship is astounding and something that will never be duplicated.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Caroline...Hope you will enjoy the Bayon and other sites soon again. It is a special place to visit. If you need a good (the best ;-)) tour guide when visiting Angkor sites, please feel free to ask me for more information. Namaste from AsianWanderer team

    2. The smile represents warmth, compassion and virtue. That's what I've been told by an elderly Cambodian gentleman.