A visit to Bayon, an ancient temple complex in Cambodia would make anyone feel small. This 12th-century temple is home to disconcertingly beautiful stone faces that only seem to grow bigger with each step. Getting closer, you would realize that they aren’t really looking at you. They are, rather, gazing absently into the distance frozen in serene contemplation. One could also imagine that they are hiding something. Whatever it is they know, they wouldn’t care to tell you. If you continue to stare at the faces, they could appear to be incredibly wise, at peace with the world, or plain smug. The beauty of the enigmatic faces lies in part with the fact that you can never say for sure.

Interestingly, they also seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to Jayavarman, the larger than life monarch who first commissioned the temple. The Khmers saw their monarchs as demigods, the incarnations of the gods themselves to rule in their place. The face iconography would certainly reinforce the idea that the king, like God, had eyes everywhere. The 12th-century warrior king is famous for taking back Khmer territories occupied by the Thai people. With the reclamation of the lands, the Khmers went on to build one of the most advanced cities in the medieval world. The temple of Bayon was at the epicentre of the medieval city of Angkor Thom.

Ancient temple ruins in Angkor Thom Cambodia
Ancient temple ruins in Angkor Thom Cambodia
Angkor Thom

The ruins of Angkor Thom are among the finest of Khmer architecture. Many temples there have a curious mix of Buddhist and Hindu elements. When the rulers adopted a god of their fancy they simply added layers to the existing temples as tribute. The path to the temple of Bayon too, is flanked by images of the Devas (gods) and the Asuras (demons) churning the ocean of milk for Amritha, the elixir of immortality. According to the legend, the Demons held the head of the snake, Vasuki, while the Gods held the tail. They pulled and pulled till the Amritha surfaced. But the wily Gods tricked the Demons out of their share and divided the elixir of immortality amongst themselves. The demons were cast into perdition.

Deva or deity row at entrance of Angkor Thom,Siem Seap, Cambodia.
Deva or deity row at the entrance of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The Devas and the Asuras churning the ocean of milk is a recurrent motif in the temples of Angkor Thom. The predominance of this could be traced back to the origin myth of the Khmers who believed that they sprang out of the union between the daughter of the snake and a human.

From having an enormous mythical snake for an ancestor to its people, to hauntingly beautiful medieval ruins, Cambodia is a must visit for the historically inclined.

Getting there

The temple of Bayon is part of the complex of temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia. One can fly there directly or visit via land (from Phnom Penh or neighbouring countries).

The capital Phnom Penh is only a two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia. If you happen to be in Malaysia with a few days to spare and wish to make the quick detour, a trip to Cambodia would be ideal.

Cambodia is also easily accessible through neighbouring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, most of which are visa-friendly with either visas on arrival (Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) or easy online visa application (Vietnam). Although it would be wise to check for the latest visa regulations with concerned authorities before taking your trip.

Also, read about the floating villages of Tonle Sap and the Museum of Mines in Cambodia.

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