Bayon and the Ancient Capital

November 11, 2013 | Kaitlyn, DVM, WUSC, Cambodge, ICC University of Technology

When I first began thinking about writing my second experience blog, I had had my heart dead set on detailing my impressions of Angkor Wat. I dreamt, slept, and thought constantly about the beauty, splendour, massiveness and intricacy of the monument, and I counted down the days until I could make the journey there. And when I got there, Angkor Wat was everything I had hoped it would be – a stunning, sprawling, symmetrical temple, adorned with intricate carvings depicting legends, beautiful dancing Khmer women, and Hindu Gods abound. But it also came with feelings I hadn’t anticipated – coldness, glorification and a sense of being impersonal – like my presence wasn’t acknowledged and I didn’t belong there. It felt almost like talking to someone famous or conceited; unless you have something valuable to offer them; you cease to exist and become a miniscule object without significance. Slightly jaded, I headed over to the next thing on the check box: the city-state of Angkor Thom.

Due to the overwhelming information and complexity of Angkor (the archaeological park is over 400km and hosts thousands of temples) I knew next to nothing of either Angkor Thom, or more importantly, Bayon, or that there was even a difference between the two. My interest would be piqued and I would spend hours researching this fascinating place once I returned to my hostel.

As I leisurely pedaled towards the South gate of the ancient capital, the impressive faces, 2 meters wide each, gazing down from the top of the gate, slowly came into focus. I stopped, stunned by their beauty and their smiles. I proceed to walk between the Gods on the right, and the demons on the left, all of whom pull on a giant naga, or snake, in the famous myth of The Churning of the Sea of Milk, to find the elixir of life. Restoration work, which was halted by the Khmer Rouge period, only recently began again. It is one of my life’s goals to come back in 50 years and see the difference these dedicated scientists have achieved. Already, many heads of the demons and gods, which have either disintegrated or been sold on the antique black market, have been recreated of cement.

Continuing past the entrance, I biked the 2km to the center of the city. Along the way I passed playful groups of monkeys and baboons, who eagerly and sometimes forcefully, await the tourists who want to feed them bananas. The road is quiet, peaceful, and I pass several modern pagodas and the village who calls the ancient city their home.

When I reach the next monument, I squint. It is in terrible shape and quite resembles a pile of rubbish. As I cycle closer, the intricacy of the building becomes clear and I am once again rendered breathless by the faces. Although they can be described as cold and looming, I felt nothing but peace and ease; regardless of your interpretation, they are beautiful, stunning and enigmatic.

I park my bike and walk up the alternate entrance; the principal one being under much needed restoration. The two ponds out front contain stagnant water, but beautiful pink lilies, and apparently fish, as I watch small children with huge bamboo rods and lines circle the water.

Thousands of displaced stone slabs are carefully aligned in rows off to the side of the monument. The current style of restoration works like doing a puzzle: everything is photographed, torn down, numbered, labelled and then fitted back together again, by archaeologists. Their work is based off information known about the Angkor period, namely the accounts of Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor Thom (the ancient city) for a full year in 1297. He wrote, in detail, descriptions about things too mundane to be recorded in the temples – the daily struggles of the people, common rituals and traditions, and overall, life in the city. His accounts have been immeasurable in understanding how Angkor functioned in this era, right before the empire finally fell for the last time.

Bayon begins to feel real for me: the tightness of the structure, the libraries and living chambers, the hidden secrets tuck away in the corners. All of these feelings are probably reflected by its creator, King Jayavarman VII. Unlike the creator of Angkor Wat, King Jayavarman VII came to power when Angkor was in ruins. The capital had been burned to the ground, villagers and farmed slaughtered by the Champyas (ancient Vietnam) and everywhere people were dying from starvation. King Jayavarman VII is considered the greatest King, because he put his people first, and was greatly responsible for the emergence of Cambodia. He secured a new capital, built the great city walls, designed a reservoir to combat the dry season, and fought off the Champyas, even expanding Angkor to include almost all of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Once security reigned, he built a relatively small temple, in the center, to worship a new God: Buddha. This temple was the first Buddhist structure, and King Jayavarman VII the first Buddhist King, although he praised both Hindu and Buddist Gods. One of the most influential moments of visiting Bayon was to see the great gouged holes along the walls where Buddhist carvings used to lie. Angkor briefed reverted back to Hinduism after this King and Buddhist markings were destroyed, including the 3 meter long Buddha that was at the heart and center of Bayon. Miraculously, every single piece of the Buddha was recovered and delicately restored. It now sits in a modern day Pagoda within Angkor Thom.

As I wonder around the temple, finding beautiful carvings of the great accomplishments of King Jayavarman VII, discovering faces carved into nooks and crannies wherever it is possible, I envy those people who saw not only this temple, but all the temples in their glory and full power. There are over 200 faces carved into this monument, and although there were originally 54 towers, only 37 remain standing. Despite that Bayon was built 80 years after Angkor Wat, it is in much worse shape. The two main contributors of that were: unlike Angkor Wat, it was not maintained by pilgraming devotees, and the quality of the rock itself. All rock used in temples was taken from the holy Mount Khulen; by the time King Jayavarman VII got there, only softer rock remained, and as a result, Bayon decays much faster.

The last impression of this most beautiful and welcoming place, is the origin of the faces who watch, benevolently, over you. The origin, identity and purpose of these structures are mostly unknown and hotly debated. Some say it is the depiction of King Jayavarman VII in the Buddhist God-King form of Avalokitesvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Some say there are two types of faces: Gods and demons. Regardless of who they are, I will always relish the sentiments impacted on me from this incredible place of worship by a King who saved his people and paved the way for Cambodia.

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