The Thousand Faces of Bayon

In Cambodia, Sights by Nick3 Comments

OK, so there aren’t a thousand of those massive stone heads at Bayon, but there are more than 200. And that’s still a lot in American math.

Bayon is the central temple of Angkor Thom, the gigantic walled capital city of the Khmer Empire (for a time…they changed a lot).

This is the temple most people come to after leaving Angkor Wat, with a reaction somewhere between “Holy shit, that’s impressive” and “Holy shit, how many more of these things are there?”

Bayon, and Angkor Thom in general, is the central hub of the park. Roads leaving the city’s 5 gates lead to most of the main temples—Neak Pean and Preah Khan to the north, Ta Prohm and the cluster of structures around Sra Srang to the east, Angkor Wat to the south, and the far-flung temples scattered around the West Baray…in the west.

That means Bayon is ground zero for the hordes of Chinese tourists that descend on the temples after breakfast—meaning you should get here early.

Although this goes for all of Angkor Wat, Bayon is a place you have to visit to understand. Even a high-quality video walkthrough can’t do it justice.

You have to get lost in its labyrinthine lower levels, stand inches away from its reliefs, and climb to the top for yourself.

How did ancient Khmer carve those faces by hand when it takes modern construction workers half a decade to expand a highway?

(Looking at you, I-95.)

Well, of course these temples were really constructed by aliens, but we won’t get into that here.

The faces are meant to resemble the face of King Jayavarman VII, the guy responsible for dreaming up the most famous construction projects at Angkor Wat. Or are they the embodiment of the boddhisatva of compassion? Or are they both?


At any rate, Jayavarman VII certainly wasn’t known as “King Jay the Subtle.”

Or maybe he was. I can imagine his goofy talking elephant calling him Jay the Subtle as they trampled through the jungle, crushing demons and invading armies and leaving nothing but massive temples in their wake.

Did that happen? Who knows? Much about Angkor Wat and the Khmer was lost to history; perhaps tales of King Jay’s talking elephant have also vanished.

Alongside the once-ubiquitous best-selling guide on the mysteries of temple-building, “Wat To Expect When You’re Expecting (To Be Crushed Beneath a 5-Ton Stone Face).”


Khmer battle-thongs of the 12th century.

Bayon also puts on display the turbulent religious past of the Khmer Empire.

Kings converted back and forth between Hinduism and both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism—defacing, altering, destroying and adding to temples as they saw fit.

Reliefs around the temples display scenes as far-flung as Hindu mythology, markets, and even war with the neighboring Champa (later swallowed up by the Vietnamese).

The central tower of Bayon once housed a statue of Buddha. After the empire converted back to Hinduism, the statue was removed, destroyed, and chucked into a well. The mix of religions exist to this day, with Cambodia an overwhelmingly Buddhist country while still displaying figures of Hindu mythology as national symbols, such as the naga.


I mean, look at this. Could you even draw something comparable with a pencil? People made this out of stone…hundreds of years ago. It’s incredible.

Are you not entertained? Think Bayon is more impressive than Angkor Wat? Let me know in the comments!


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