The Baphuon is situated only 300 metres north-west of Angkor Thom's central Bayon facetower-temple, which is 150 years younger. The Baphuon was by far the hugest Khmer temple before the Angkor Wat was built. But the massive Baphuon temple collapsed already in medieval times. Recently it became famous as "the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle" and a masterpiece of modern restoration work. 300,000 stone blocks had to be reused at their correct positions. This enourmes task became even more difficult as after completely dismanteling the monument archaeological records about the stones' original positions went lost (or were even intentionally destroyed) during the Pol Pot period. After many delays, the Baphuon was finally reopened in July 2011 by Cambodia's king and the French Prime Minister. Since then the Baphuon temple is one of the most significant attractions of Angkor.
The temple's name is sometimes spelt "Bapuon". The Khmer pronunciation sounds like "Bapoorn", it is slightly stressed on the first syllable.
The Baphuon was completed about 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II, near the Royal Palace. It served as his state temple. Like all previous Khmer state temples it was dedicated to Shiva, with a Lingam venerated in the central shrine on top of the pyramid. Those days it the Baphuon was Asia's largest temple built from stone. (The even bigger Borobudur on Java is not a construction, but mounted on a natural hill.) The Baphuon's original height is not known, because the central tower collapsed totally after only a few centuries, in the 15th or 16th century its stones were reused to erect a 9 metre tall and 70 metre long colossal reclining Buddha at the west facade of the temple. But in the late 13th century the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-Kuan) still saw the original state temple and called it "the Tower of Bronze". It was approximately 50 m tall. Now it is 34 m.
The Baphuon's outer enclosure wall is built of sandstone instead of laterite, this is quite unusual. Its rectangle form, 125 m width and 425 m length, is extraordinarily long. The reason for this elongation could be a later extension to the east, in order to align the Baphuon's new east entrance with the elephant terrace and other monuments at the Royal Square of the new capital Angkor Thom (about 1200). Connecting the new East Gate with the main temple, there is a 200 m long stone causeway. Similar to Khmer wooden bridges, it is supported by three rows of circular columns.
After crossing a second Gopuram building, which probably was the original entrance gate, the visitor reaches the five-tired step pyramid. It is 130 m long and 103 m wide at its basis The first, third and fourth levels are surrounded by concentric sandstone galleries.
Baphuon has remarkable stone carvings, on the third level in particular. Most of them illustrate scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This is a surprising motif for a Shiva temple, because both Indian epics deal with human Avatars of god Vishnu. The North Gopuram on the third level depicts several scenes from Rama's battle with Ravana on the island of Lanka. On the East Gopuram are Rama's triumphal return to his capital Ayodhya and the trial of his wife Sita as well as episodes from the Mahabharata, such as the death of Bhishma on a bed of arrows and the undressing of Draupadi. The South Gopuram depicts lovely scenes from the life of Krishna, told in India's Bhagavata-Purana, particularly the death of his wicked uncle Kamsa. On the West Gopuram there are more scenes from both epics, in one of them Shiva presents magic weapons to Arjuna.
Narrating scenes already appeared two centuries earlier at the state temple in Roluos called Bakong, but not on such a large scale. In Angkor the Baphuon is the first state temple with such scenic relief carvings. In this regard it can be regarded as the prototype for the famous Mahabharata and Ramayana illustrations at the Angkor Wat, which became the next state temple, after half a century of turmoil. But the Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, not to Shiva any more. Unlike the continuous reliefs of the Angkor Wat the carvings of the Baphuon show clearly separated scenes, each in its own stone square. This is a characteristic of the Baphuon style. An interesting specific feature are bas-reliefs of quite naturalistic animals, hunting scenes and depictions of daily life, all of them carved in small square panels, too.
The best time to visit the Baphuon temple is the early morning. Entering the outer compound, you will have sunshine lighting up the monument in front of you. But half of the carvings, that are distributed quite symmetrically at this temple, will be better seen in the afternoon. And the gigantic reclining Buddha is at the back of the temple, to the west, too. You need an Angkor ticket to climb the Baphuon pyramid.