I had wanted to visit the Angkor Thom temple complex since seeing the Cambodian temples of Bayon and Ta Prohm featured in the Lara Croft “Tomb Raider” films many years ago. Finally, my dream became a reality when I found myself standing in the Cambodian jungle, ready to visit my first ancient site.
Nestled deep in the walled city of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple is a phenomenal sight to see and, for my adult son and me, one of those experiences that would be hard to beat on our trip to Cambodia.
And as we got closer to this mystical structure, with its two hundred enigmatic smiling stone faces looking down on us, it had us fixed to the spot in utter amazement at the size of the faces.
In this post, I will share with you the magic and mystery that unfolded as we explored the nooks and crannies of Bayon to inspire you to visit this monumental temple yourself.
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We arranged to tour Angkor by ourselves using a tuk-tuk as our transport, and it worked out perfectly. Of course, if you want a physical guide to take you around, you can book temple tours online or through your hotel.
Bayon Temple Secrets Unlocked
Bayon is 800 years old and was the official royal temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.
Before this Khmer ruler came to power, Cambodia was a Hindu country, but once on the throne, he made Buddhism the predominant religion.
No one has a definitive answer of who or what the stone faces may represent. Still, archaeologists believe they are likely to be Lokesvara, the Buddhist God of compassion, the four-headed Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation, or even King Jayavarman VII.
As time passed, Jayavarman VIII became ruler and returned Hindusim to Cambodia. Hinduism is now worshipped alongside Buddhism, and Bayon had scenes indicative of the Hindu religion added to its walls.
Whatever the religion and whoever the serene, smiling faces represent, they are entirely magical and seem to follow you around this jungle temple complex.
Nowadays, many of the original towers of this unique Cambodian UNESCO world heritage site have gone, crumbling without a trace into the surrounding jungle and becoming ruins reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Nevertheless, there are still fifty-plus towers intact, all clearly featuring the four sides of the Bayon face pointing towards the directions of a compass and keeping a watchful eye over the once royal capital city of Angkor Thom.
Wander Around Bayon Temple
Time spent in Bayon – 60 minutes
Once inside Bayon Temple, the labyrinth of walkways and chambers in the inner gallery makes you feel like you have stepped back in time.
Throughout the temple, numerous bas-relief wall carvings show scenes of everyday life, festivals and mythical Buddist and Hindu spirit figures. You will see these carvings all around the Angkor Archeological Park.
And as Bayon is on several levels, wooden ladders allow you to ascend closer to the smiling face towers. The closer you get to them, the more mesmerising they will seem; but be careful of your footing!
As we wandered through the complex, we saw several shrines and decorated statues with offerings and incense laid out in front of them. It is lovely that the Cambodian people still come and worship at Bayon.
Sunset at Bayon Temple
We visited Bayon in the late afternoon, and by doing this, the tourist coaches were long gone. Our tuk-tuk driver said we had done the right thing as the mornings are so busy that visitors can lose the full beauty and tranquillity of the temples.
Bayon Temple closes at 5.30 pm, and we stayed inside until the very end. And even now, as I write this, I can remember how magical that time was. The sight of the sun setting through the trees and the sound of the evening birdsong was something so special.
Walking away from Bayon, we looked back one last time at those smiling faces and felt incredibly lucky to have had this bucket list experience in Cambodia.
My son looked at me and said it had been one of his best Cambodian travel experiences, and guess what? It was most definitely one of mine.
And of the four Cambodian temples we visited during our travels in Cambodia, including the formidable Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple stole our hearts and claimed its place as our favourite temple in Cambodia.
Crossing the Angkor Thom Bridge
Back in our tuk-tuk, we stopped at the entry/exit bridge to Angkor Thom to take some sunset photographs featuring the guardian deities of the bridge.
To the right are asuras (demons), and to the left are devas (gods), all with expressive faces, similar to the Bayon temple structures.
Most of the heads and bodies are originals, but some are reconstructions of those damaged or stolen during the 1985 Vietnam/Cambodia war. Our tuk-tuk driver told us the guerillas would come along and chop the heads off the statues and throw them into the water or trade them on the black market to private collectors.
The bridge was fascinating and the perfect place to end our first day at the Angkor Archaeological Park before returning to our hotel in Siem Reap.
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