The Faces and Reliefs of Bayon

Nearly 2km north of Angkor Wat stands Angkor Thom (“Great City”), the final capital of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. Standing proudly at the edge of this ancient capital is Prasat Bayon, a beautiful 13th century Khmer temple covered in massive faces and surprisingly well preserved bas-reliefs.

After seeing it after sunset on a previous day, I was touring some nearby temples as the sun started to dip below the treeline. I grabbed my camera and sprinted across Angkor Thom to beat the quickly setting sun. I arrived at Bayon temple just in time scramble up the ridiculously steep stairs and photograph a handful of sun-lit faces before it got dark.

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Hundreds of years later, these lips still resemble the lips of the original King who had this built.

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If you found just the right angle you could see multiple faces at once.

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One… two… three…

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At this point the sun had dropped below the trees leaving me without any color. I put my camera away and wandered the ruins until it got dark and made a mental note to return in the morning.

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After a long fun night involving Cambodian BBQ and surprisingly good Cambodian beer, waking up in the pitch black was not easy. I dragged myself out of bed and hired a tuk-tuk to drive me to Angkor Thom before the sun came up. Who knew it was freezing cold in the misty Angkor mornings? I was used to melting in the Cambodian heat and now I found myself shivering in the cold as we raced against the sun. I arrived just in time to catch the sunlight streaming through the trees and hitting one of the faces on the east side of Bayon.

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Another perk of waking up early? Monks. Unlike the red robed monks in Myanmar, Cambodian monks wear orange and yellow robes. These monks belonged to a monastery right across the moat in front of Bayon. Yeah, these temples have their own moats.

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Quietly meditating in the morning.

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Yes?

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Another tourist who was photographing the monks started photographing me as well. Naturally, I returned the favor.

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And my new friend took a photo of me! Trick to getting sharp photos – use a tripod. I have no clue where the third tripod leg is in this photo, it looks almost as if it has impaled me through the lower stomach or something. This photo makes no physical sense to me. Ouch.

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These monks sure get around…

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Once the sun came up it was time to check out the bas-reliefs on the outside of the temple. No tourists were paying any attention to them but I found them fascinating.

Clearly the guy with the beard is in charge here. The beard was very ornately done and still in fantastic shape.

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Another extremely ornate relief. This is over 800 years old which means it has gone through over 800 very wet rainy seasons and still hasn’t eroded much.

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Some ladies being very friendly with each other.

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My driver-turned-guide told me that this represented a meal being prepared and presented.

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Some monkeys in a tree. Interestingly these didn’t quite resemble the monkeys I saw around the Angkor complex. I’m not sure if they are just inaccurate drawings or if different monkeys inhabited the region 800 years ago.

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A large battle underway. The invading archers and foot soldiers can be seen on the left, Khmer warriors with extended earlobes (from heavy earrings?) can be seen on the right.

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Cambodians rowing a large boat. You can see fish in the river, an alligator on the bottom right, and just off the frame was a river monster.

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A friendly cock fight between the Khmer on the left and the Chinese on the right. As my guide pointed out, the pointed beard and bun hair style was how the Khmer often represented the Chinese.

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Ornate dancing women. Some of the walls were reddened in areas but I do not know why.

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Two hundred meters east of Bayon you can find this guy hidden in a small nook in the Elephant Terraces. He was too awesome to not include.

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I passed through the immense Victory Gate on the way back to Siem Reap and crossed a long bridge with Devas (demigods) and Asuras (demons) flanking each side. Each faction holds a large naga (multi-headed snake) and they are locked in an eternal game of tug of war with each other. These figures are from the story of Samudra Manthan – the Churning of the Sea of Milk Sea – and are seen throughout the Angkor temples.

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Of all of the incredible temples in Angkor, this small temple in Angkor Thom was easily my favorite. If you visit Angkor Wat, I highly recommend you take a slight detour over to Angkor Thom to visit the faces of Bayon as well… and don’t forget the save some time to explore the beautiful reliefs surrounding the entire complex! They are easy to miss since most people just go straight into the temple but I promise you won’t be disappointed if you stray off the beaten path to discover the beautifully ornate Bayon temple walls.