Unique, even among its cherished contemporaries, Bayon epitomises the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia's legendary king, Jayavarman VII. It's a place of stooped corridors, precipitous flights of stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 coldly smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king himself. These huge heads glare down from every angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – this was precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring the disparate and far-flung population yielded to his magnanimous will. As you walk around, a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time – full-face or in profile, almost level with your eyes or staring down from on high. Bayon is now known to have been built by Jayavarman VII, though for many years its origins were unknown. Shrouded in dense jungle, it also took researchers some time to realise that it stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face. The eastward orientation of Bayon leads most people to visit early in the morning, preferably just after sunrise, when the sun inches upwards, lighting face after face. Bayon, however, looks equally good in the late afternoon, and if you stay for the sunset you get the same effect as at sunrise, in reverse. A Japanese team is restoring several outer areas of the temple.
Architectural Layout Unlike Angkor Wat, which looks impressive from all angles, the Bayon looks rather like a glorified pile of rubble from a distance. It's only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent. The basic structure of the Bayon is a simple three levels, which correspond more or less to three distinct phases of building. This is because Jayavarman VII began construction of this temple at an advanced age, so was never con-fident it would be completed. Each time one phase was completed, he moved on to the next. The first two levels are square and adorned with bas-reliefs. They lead up to a third, circular level, with the towers and their faces.
Bas-Reliefs Bayon is decorated with a total of 1.2km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incor-porating more than 11,000 figures. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia. The bas-reliefs on the second level do not have the epic proportions of those on the first level and tend to be fragmented. The reliefs described are those on the first level. The sequence assumes that you enter the Bayon from the east and view the reliefs in a clockwise direction.
(A) CHAMS ON THE RUN Just south of the east gate is a three-level panorama. On the first tier, Khmer soldiers march off to battle; check out the elephants and the ox carts, which are almost exactly like those still used in Cambodia today. The second tier depicts the coffins being carried back from the battlefield. In the centre of
the third tier, Jayavarman VII, shaded by parasols, is shown on horseback followed by legions of concubines (to the left).
(B) LINGA WORSHIP The first panel north of the southeastern corner shows Hindus praying to a linga (phallic symbol). This image was probably originally a Buddha, later modified by a Hindu king.
(C) NAVAL BATTLE The next panel has some of the best-carved reliefs. The scenes depict a naval battle between the Khmers and the Chams (the latter with head coverings) and everyday life around Tonlé Sap Lake, where the battle was fought. Look for images of people picking lice from each other's hair, of hunters and, towards the western end of the panel, a woman giving birth.
(D) THE CHAMS VANQUISHED In the next panel, scenes from daily life continue and the battle shifts to the shore where the Chams are soundly thrashed. Scenes include two people playing chess, a cockfight and women selling fish in the market. The scenes of meals being prepared and served are in celebration of the Khmer victory.
(E & F) MILITARY PROCESSION The last section of the south gallery, depicting a military procession, is unfinished, as is the panel showing elephants being led down from the mountains. Brahmans have been chased up two trees by tigers.
(G) CIVIL WAR This panel depicts scenes that some scholars maintain is a civil war. Groups of people, some armed, confront each other, and the violence escalates until elephants and warriors join the melee.
(H) THE ALL-SEEING KING The fighting continues on a smaller scale in the next panel. An antelope is being swallowed by a gargantuan fish; among the smaller fish is a prawn, under which an inscription proclaims that the king will seek out those in hiding.
(I) VICTORY PARADE This panel depicts a procession that includes the king (carrying a bow). Presumably it is a celebration of his victory.
(J) THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN At the western corner of the northern wall is a Khmer circus. A strong man holds three dwarfs, and a man on his back is spinning a wheel with his feet; above is a group of tightrope walkers. To the right of the circus, the royal court watches from a terrace, below which is a procession of animals. Some of the reliefs in this section remain unfinished.
(K) A LAND OF PLENTY The two rivers, one next to the doorpost and the other a few metres to the right, are teeming with fish.
(L, M & N) THE CHAMS RETREAT On the lowest level of this unfinished three-tiered scene, the Cham ar-mies are being defeated and expelled from the Khmer kingdom. The next panel depicts the Cham armies advancing, and the badly deteriorated panel shows the Chams (on the left) chasing the Khmers.
(O) THE SACKING OF ANGKOR This panel shows the war of 1177, when the Khmers were defeated by the Chams, and Angkor was pillaged. The wounded Khmer king is being low-ered from the back of an elephant and a wounded Khmer general is being carried on a hammock suspended from a pole. Directly above, despairing Khmers are getting drunk. The Chams (on the right) are in hot pursuit of their vanquished enemy.
(P) THE CHAMS ENTER ANGKOR This panel depicts another meeting of the two armies. Notice the flag bearers among the Cham troops (on the right). The Chams were defeated in the war, which ended in 1181, as depicted on panel A.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TravelPod member and not of TravelPod.com.