The Bayon, built in the centre of Angkor Thom about 1200 A.D., is the second most popular monument in Angkor, after Angkor Wat. It is the temple with those numerous enigmatic "stone faces" Angkor is famous for. As it is not clear who or what is symbolized by those gigantic Buddhas, the smiling faces of Angkor Thom became an emblem of the mysteries of Angkor. The original total number of face towers is still a matter of debate. However, originally there must have been about 50 towers and 200 colossal faces at the Bayon. Now, there are 37 standing towers, most of them with four Buddha faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Most of them are raised on the cruciform terrace surrounding the central tower, which is, rarely enough in Angkor, a circular structure. The central tower rises 43 metres above the ground. Apart from those face-towers, there is a second exciting attraction at the Bayon, the large-scale carvings at the gallery walls, both overwhelming and delightful, because of its abundance in delicious details.
The Bayon was the state temple of King Jayavarman VII (1181- ca. 1218), who introduced Buddhism as the new state cult. (But it was Mahayana Buddhism. In contrast to conjectures of many Angkor visitors, Jayavarman VII's reform is not the reason why Cambodia became a Theravada Buddhist country.) The Bayon in many ways represents the pinnacle of this king's massive building campaign. Jayavarman VII was the most prolific temple founder in Cambodia's history. But the Bayon was built in such a hurry that stone was piled upon stone not at all with that precision the Angkor Wat is famous for.
Jayavarman VII was born as early as 1125, during the reign of Angkor Wat founder Suryavarman II. Jayavarman was the son of the later Angkor king Dharanindravarman II. After Suryavarman's death (about 1150) there were factions fighting for power in the Khmer empire. The foreign Cham were involved, too, and in 1171 Cham invaders attacked Angkor. In 1177 or 1178 they seized the Khmer capital and could occupy it and could install Cham rulers for several years to come. In 1181 Jayavarman VII, who in the meantime was a kind of warlord collecting troops, managed to repulse them and to establish his own rule. He soon launched a massive building campaign. His first major projects where Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. Finally he founded the new capital Angkor Thom at the end of the century. Four straight avenues, starting at four of Angkor Thom's five city gates located at the cardinal points, lead to the Bayon in the centre of the city. It became the last state temple to be built in Angkor, it is the only Buddhist state temple of the Angorian era.
The layout of the Bayon was labyrinthic and confusing, right from the beginning. But the the confusion is also due to several modifications in the last three centuries of the medieval Khmer empire. The terrace to the east, the library buildings, the square corner buildings of the inner gallery and parts of the upper terrace are later additions. Temporarily the temple was even was Hindu. The original huge central statue, Buddha meditating protected by serpent king Muchalinda, was destroyed during the iconoclasm of Jayavarman VIII in the second half of the 13th century. The statue was recently restored and is now in Vihear Prampil Loveng (Buddha-terrace behind the southern Khleang in Angkor Thom).
The temple itself has no exterior wall, it can be considered as being replaced by the city walls of Angkor Thom itself. Therefore, as Angkor Wat was a temple with a city included, Angkor Thom could be called the city of the Bayon. The temple-plus-city arrangement Angkor Thom, covering an area of nine square kilometres, is the second-largest historical temple compound of the world, only Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (Preah Vihear Province) covers a larger area.
Within the Bayon temple itself, there are two galleried enclosures (counted the third and second enclosures) and an upper terrace (called the first enclosure). The outer gallery of the Bayon temple (third enclosure) measures 156 m by 141 m. Originally it was accentuated by a full vault and a preceding half vault. Only the inner wall and pillars have remained.
This wall of the outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events, marching and fighting troops, and scenes from the everyday life as well. The bas-reliefs are not accompanied by epigraphic explanations, this is why some uncertainty remains which historical events are portrayed. The most intrinsic carvings are those at the southern and eastern galleries, the northern and western reliefs are uncompleted. Some carvings are detailed enough to identify fish species, or music instruments still in use in Southeast Asia today.
The most famous scene is on the eastern section of the southern gallery. It depicts a naval battle, most probably the invasion of the Cham in 1177/78 when they surprisingly arrived on boats on the "Great Lake" Tonle Sap and, rowing upstream, attacked Angkor. The Cham warriors can be easily identified, as at Bayon era reliefs they usually wear lotus hats. Dead Khmer fighters are depicted in the water. But in some scenes the Khmer dominate the combat. And finally the Khmer king and his subjects celebrate a victory feast.
In the lower register of that naval battle scene with many boats of enormous size, there are the Bayon's most celebrated carvings depicting a kaleidoscope of daily-life activities, some of them still common in rural Cambodia today. They are of modest size. You can discover market scenes such as the weighing of goods, buying and selling, open air cooking, men drinking brandy, a cockfight and spectators making bets. Furthermore there are some palace scenes with princesses and servants, a woman giving birth to a child, people engaged in conversations, and board games, wrestlers, hunters, a wild boar fight. The western part of the southern gallery, of lower sculptural quality, shows a military procession including both Khmer and Cham soldiers.
In the south-east corner pavilion there is a depiction of an unfinished temple with towers, Apsaras, and a Lingam.
The southern part of the eastern gallery depicts the marching Khmer army, including some Chinese soldiers, King Jayavarman VII is portrayed on a horse. Generals are mounted on elephants. They are surrounded by soldiers, wagons of provisions, musicians and even women with children. A procession of sacred fire is accompanied by bearded Brahmins. Some domestic scenes on the lefthand side, beside the southern door of this wall, depict Angkorian houses, some of the occupants appear to be Chinese merchants, Gurus are depicted teaching small assemblies of pupils.
The northern half of the eastern gallery shows a land battle, Chinese soldiers with characteristic costumes support the Khmer army's fight against the Cham.
In the unfinished western part of the northern gallery there is a remarkable scene of entertainment at the royal court, including jugglers and acrobats.
In the western gallery, unfinished reliefs show an army marching through the forest, and arguments and fighting between different groups of Khmers. A noticeable detail is a gigantic fish swallowing a small deer.
The outer gallery encloses a courtyard in which there are two libraries at the east entrance. They are later additions, originally the courtyard contained 16 chapels.
The inner gallery of 80 m by 70 m, raised 1.3 m above the ground level, shows some more scenes of daily life, but is focused on religious motifs. Remarkably, most of them are Hindu. Some of the figures depicted are Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, the members of the so-called Hindu Trinity. The themes of some panels could not be identified. The Hindu carvings are believed to originate from the period of Jayavarman VIII, when the Bayon was transformed into a Hindu sanctuary. In the west wing of the southern gallery there is a bearded Shiva and a four-armed Vishnu. The eastern wing represents the legend of a young boy saved from drowning. The eastern gallery has Shiva among hermits. Its northern wing illustrates two Khmer legends, the liberation of a girl imprisoned in a rock and a king suffering from leprosy after a snake bite. In the east wing of the northern gallery you can seee Shiva with Uma on Nandi, and Vishnu with Lakshmi. Its west wing has the Trimurti and Kama, god of love, struck by Shiva's arrow. The north wing of the western gallery shows a common subject, the Churning of the Milk Ocean. To the south of the western Gopura, there is an informative depiction of construction work for a temple building.
The upper terrace (first enclosure) is home to the Bayon's famous face towers. The number of towers changed in the course of time, maybe there were 48 or even 54. As already mentioned, 37 face towers remain. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate, too. Probably, they depict Avalokiteshvara, the most venerated compassionate Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, depicted as Lokeshvara Samantamukha, the ubiquitous Lord of the World facing all directions. An alternative interpretation is that the monumental faces represent a combination of Buddha and King Jayavarman VII. It is a similarity of the gigantic faces on the Bayon's towers to other statues of the king, that has led some scholars to the conclusion that the face carvings represent Jayavarman VII himself. The two hypotheses are not neccessarily contradictory. Angkor scholar George Coedès has theorized that Jayavarman stood in the tradition of the Khmer monarchs venerated as god-kings, so-called Devarajas. Whereas most of his predecessors regarded themselves as associated with Shiva, or, in case of Suryavarman II, with Vishnu, the Buddhist Jayavarman VII could correspondingly have identified himself with a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
The best time to visit the Bodhisattva faces is around noon, when the steep sunlight accentuates the faces, without casting too many shadows. The enclosure wall carvings should be seen about 11.00 am, when the shadows higlight the outlines three-dimensionally, at the eastern wall in particular this is better than frontal early morning light. Another advantage of a Bayon visit between 11.00 am and 2.00 pm is that most busgroups will already have left the site. The busiest times at the Bayon are between 9.00 and 10.30 am between 3.00 and 4.30 pm.