There is only one natural hill in the main Archaeological Zone of Angkor, it is called Phnom Bakheng.
The "Bh" of "Bakheng" is pronounced like a mix of "B" and "P". The first syllable is slightly stressed. The second syllable sounds like "khaeing", this "aei" is to be pronounced as a diphtong similar to the "a" in "angel".
Yashovarman I (889 - ca. 900 or 910) chose this 60 metres high hill as the centre of his new capital called Yashodharapura, which was the first city in the area later on called Angkor. Therefore Bakheng today is sometimes called "the first Angkor". The Khmer name for the hill was Vnam Kandal, meaning "central mountain". It was surrounded by a 4 kilometres long and wide square city. Parts of the exterior city embankment of Yashodharapura are still visible today.
The modern name "Bakheng" is already mentioned in an historic post-Angkor inscription left by Theravada Buddhists, "Bakheng" means "virile". It may be an allusion to the original function of the temple serving as the abode of the Shiva Phallus that was the main symbol of the state cult. It was called Linga Yashodeshvara. Yasho, meaning "glory", was the name of the king and of its city, dhara means giving or bearing, ishvara is Lord. The Lingam was dedicated in 907.
At the foot of the hill there was a rectangular moat 650 metres long and 436 metres wide, not much is left of it. Three stairways led to the top of the hill, from the east, west, and north. The basis of the eastern stairway is protected by two large lion guardians. On the summit plateau you can see sacred Buddha footprints and a brick dagoba dating from much later periods.
The summit of the hill was levelled. A natural rock became the nucleus of a five-tiered pyramid. The pyramid was cut from it and then faced with sandstone. It is 76 metres square at the basis and 13 metres high. The central Prasat tower on the top of this Bakheng pyramid sheltered the state Linga mentioned above. Its walls are covered with excellent ornamental and sculptural decorations, Bakheng is also the name of that art style period.
The central Prasat was surrounded by four more Prasats at the corners of the uppermost level. Their foundations can still be seen, but in the post-Angkor period the stones of those four towers were reused for building a colossal sitting Buddha, which is not existing any more, either. An arrangement of five buildings with four at the corners and one in the centre is generally called quincunx in art history books. The quincunx order is not exclusive, but typical of Khmer temple pyramids, particularly on the top of state temples. The Angkor Wat, of course, is the most famous example. Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Keo are worth mentioning here, too. The quincunx is a reminder that in Hindu mythology the cosmic Mount Meru is said to have five peaks. There is no doubt that the Bakheng symbolized this mountain of the gods.
But there is much speculation about more cosmic symbolism of the Bakheng. Altogether 108 Prasats surround the central one, on the tiers of the pyramid and on the ground level. 108 is a holy number in Indian religions. It is 2 x 2 = 4 multiplied by 3 x 3 x 3 = 27. The numbers 4 and 27 symbolise the four lunar phases (weeks) and the number of days of a complete lunar phase. On each tier there are 12 Prasats, corresponding to the twelve lunar phases (months) of a year. Looking from one side (east, south, west, or north) one can see only 33 of the Prasats at once. 33 traditionally is said to be the number of principal Hindu gods.
In the 16th century the Bakheng seems to have been restored. Since then is has been used as a Theravada Buddhist place of worship. A huge Buddha image was placed on top of the pyramid surmounting the ancient Prasat. Astonishingly, Muslim pilgrims left a stele with an inscription at the Bakheng, praising Allah in Arabic language. In the 20th century it was removed for preservation. The historically very significant Bakheng temple was in a poor condition, but in recent years comprehensive restoration work renewed its splendour and glory, it is still in progress.
Who does not like to climb the hill, can ride on an elephant. Phnom Bakheng is touristically well-known as Angkor's "sunset point". There are two reasons to climb the hill in the late afternoon. From the south-east side of the small plateau (of the hill, not of the temple on top of it) you can see the towers of the Angkor Wat surmounting the jungle, lighted up by the evening sun. Later on you can turn to the west side of Phnom Bakheng's summit for sunset. Sometimes the sun is mirrored in the water of the huge historical reservoir called West Baray.
The Angkor ticket will be checked at the foot of the Bakheng hill, at the bottom of the eastern stairway, where the two access pathes start.