Bakong (sometimes transcribed Bakhong or Bakon, to be spoken with a long "o") in Roluos is situated 13 km east-south-east of Siem Reap. A half-day excursion provides time enough to see the three main temples of Roluos, Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei. An Angkor ticket is required for access to them. (Only some secluded smaller structures in Roluos, e.g. Preimonti and Trapeang Phong, can be visited free of charge.) For a full-day-tour you could combine a visit of Roluos with a boat trip to a Tonle Sap stilt village, Kampong Phluk to the south or Kampong Khleang to the south-east of Roluos. Or you continue a heritage round tour by visiting other temples east of the Angkor core area, namely Chau Srei Vibol, Phnom Bok and Banteay Samray, all of them situated to the north of Roluos.
The Bakong temple was built at the behest of Indravarman I and consecrated in 881. Bakong is historically remarkable as it became a kind of prototype of the typical Khmer temple pyramid, also called temple-mountain or step-pyramid. Bakong was the state- or imperial temple of its time, dedicated to the king's Shiva-Lingam. Jayavarman II in the early 9th century is considered to be the founder of the dawning Angkor empire, now called "Kambuja-Desa", "Kambu's descendants' Land", but Indravarman I (877-889) is the first Khmer king of the now beginning Angkor era whose achievements are documented beyond doubt, namely by his own inscriptions and by clearly attributed architectural masterpieces such as Bakong and Preah Ko.
The Bakong was surrounded by an outer moat and enclosure of 900 m length and 700 m width, but not conspicuously. Actually, not much is left of this original exterior wall and moat. But the 60 m wide second moat (450m by 400 m), close the visitor's car park, is well-kept and still impressive, even compared to temples in Angkor. The main entrance is the causeway from the east, a second ramp crosses the moat at the back in the west. The causeway is decorated with two seven-headed serpents called Nagas, their huge bodies forming the balustrades.
In the inner temple enclosure (160m by 120m) there are remains of four entrance gates called Gopurams at the four cardinal points, two chapels on either side of the temple avenue, furthermore six square buildings with air vents near the corners of the enclosure (the two in the west are ruined). Furthermore, there are five elongated, rectangular buildings, three of them, at the east and south wall, are from the time of Bakong-founder King Indravarman. But the other two, parallel with the avenue, are later additions, testifying that the Bakong temple was not at all abandoned after the capital had shifted from Roluos (ancient Harihalaya) to Angkor. Even today a monastery with modern buildings is located on the temple island.
Eight brick towers on platforms encircling the main temple mountain are arranged symmetrically, they are dedicated to the eight aspects of Shiva called Murtis (“faces”), namely Sun, Moon, earth, water, air, fire, ether and Atman. Their walls bear traces of masterpieces of stucco, the best preserved are on the western towers. Lintels and sandstone columns are noteworthy as well. The most beautiful door decorations are those at the north-east Prasat, but the best preserved lintels are at the western towers.
The main structure, of course, is the central temple-mountain built of sandstone blocks. It is 67 m long and 65 m wide and 14 m high. Unusual rectangular pavilion gates with pitched roofs and gable ends and with semicircular moonstone-thresholds give access to axial stairways on each side. Lions guard the four flights of steps. The upper tiers are narrower and less high than the lower ones. This is a trick of false perspective, the pyramid appears higher than it really is. Statues of elephants face outwards on the corners of the three lower tiers. Their size is dimished from tier to tier, too.
The five tiers represent the five levels of the Mount Meru with their respective mythical inhabitants: Naga serpents, Garuda birds, Rakshasa demons, Yaksha tree spirits and Deva gods respectively. On the fourth tier their are twelve small sandstone towers arranged regularly, they once enshrined Lingams. Remains of bas-relief sculptures on the walls of the uppermost tier are remakable as first examples of such Khmer bas reliefs, originally carvings covered a much larger part of the walls. Only a panel depicting Ashura demons losing a fight, on the south side, is in a comparatively good condition. It is at the south side.
The central Prasat, now dominating the silhouette of the whole Bakong pyramid, was a later addition in the Angkor Wat style of the 12th century, then replacing the meanwhile ruined original Prasat. Only foundations remain of the original Prasat. It enshrined a Shiva Lingam called Indreshvara, combining the names of King Indravarman and the god Ishvara, "Lord of the World", meaning Shiva.
A Lingam (Phallus of Shiva) was the main symbol of imperial power. Most of the important Khmer kings built their own new Shiva temple pyramids dedicated to their personal royal Shiva Lingam. Bakheng, Prasat Prang (at Prasat Thom in Koh Ker), Pre Rup, Ta Keo and Baphuon are the most noteworthy of them. Both function and artistic details are reasons why the construction of the Bakong marks the beginning of the development of the typical Khmer temple-mountains. Therefore it makes sense to start a three- or four-days exploration of the Angkor temples with a visit of Roluos on the first day - and to visit Angkor Wat later on, as it is the culmination of this monumental Khmer temple architecture. Many of the Angkor Wat's structural elements, such as extensive use of sandstone, sculptural decoration, elevated temple levels, enclosure walls and surrounding moats, embankments with Naga-balustrads, are introduced at the Bakong.
The best time to visit the Bakong temple complex is the early morning. But the late afternoon hours are good, too. As already mentioned, you need an Angkor ticket for admission to this Roluos temple.