The Frozen Smile Of The Bayon

Imagine for a moment, that you are an early French explorer, stumbling upon these crumbling ruins in the shadowy half light of dense tropical jungle.

And making the startling discovery that those tree covered towers are in fact eerie, mysterious faces! Hundreds of them! With hooded staring eyes and implacable smiles!

In the vast silence of that not too distant past, would you have been overawed? Terrified? Would you have offered obeisance? Or fled in fear?
Angkor Thom
Today, shorn of the stranglehold of the jungle, the temple of Prasat Bayon looks like a ragged, incoherent heap of towers. Until that is, you spot those faces. Those 150 odd enigmatic, smiling visages gazing in every cardinal direction. As much a proclamation of a God King’s omnipotence, as the compassionate benediction of the Bodhisattva.

Undiscovered until long after Angkor Wat, and mistaken for a Hindu temple because of its quadruple faced towers, this extraordinary state temple of Jayavarman VII, the first Buddhist king (of the Khmer), is a celebration of religion, art, science and power. and the complete antithesis of the classical Angkor style of architecture of the previous century.

Bayon sits at the geometric centre of Angkor Thom – Jayavarman’s magnificent new walled city, just eight miles North of Angkor Wat – and is equidistant from its four majestic gates, topped with more giant faces!
DSCN3159 copy

It is believed that the temple was designed as a replica of the Khmer empire. As a symbol of Jayavarman’s control over his vast empire, with its 54 towers representing the 54 provinces of the kingdom. Their varying heights depicting the size and importance of each province. Only 37 remain today.

It wasn’t until 1933, that the discovery of a vandalised Buddha and Sanskrit inscriptions from beneath the central shrine, proved beyond doubt that this was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Buddha in the form of Avalokiteshwara (the compassionate one), believed to be portrayed in the likeness of the king. Most possibly symbolising the benevolent king as deity (a legacy of his Hindu upbringing), rather than a display of monumental ego.

Bas relief, Bayon Temple
Bas relief, Bayon Temple

The outer walls of the Bayon, host a series of bas reliefs that depict marvelous vignettes from daily Khmer life, interspersed with war scenes including the defeat of the invading (Vietnamese) Chams. While the inner galleries are dedicated to life in the palace and religious ceremonies.

Representing the pinnacle of Jayavarman’s ambitious expansion and construction drive that included vast road networks, resthouses, orphanages and hospitals, the Bayon, was the last of the grand state temples of the Khmer. And the last constructed with stone.
The Bayon face in profile

It is, more often than not, the great king that leads a great empire to its zenith that sets in motion the beginning of its end.

Jayavarman VII was one such. The builder king – considered the greatest builder of all time – exhausted the resources of his state.

The empire that under him stretched from Southern Vietnam to Laos, and from the Mekong river to Burma, with a capital that was far bigger and far in advance of any European city of the time, began its inexorable slide into decline.

But his timeworn likeness has incredibly resisted the ravages of centuries and continues to smile at man’s delusions of historical immortality.



Posted by

Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

84 thoughts on “The Frozen Smile Of The Bayon

  1. I love your photos – I see so much of the amazing world we all inhabit – from your rather striking point of view. & this post was as wonderful as all the others. Thank you 🙂

  2. This is an amazing find. I love the images, the textures and the story behind the images. I would have loved to had been there photographing this place as well. I am seeing the world anew through your eyes.


    1. Thank you Suzanne. Those smiles are haunting really. My favourites were Preah Khan and Beng Malea though, even if they aren’t very significant temples.

  3. Great read and photos. Some day we will know the truth about how such things on this planet came into being. Especially since most modern day equipment and technology can’t reproduce. Thank you Madhu 😉

    1. Thanks Jerry. These are truly remarkable, considering they were built a good couple of centuries before Machu Picchu. Angkor Wat another century prior!!

  4. I’m just amazed Madhu – I never knew about the significance of each of these towers, that they represented the provinces of the Khmer Empire! As always you give us a wonderful commentary rich with history and a sense of time’s passage. This one in particular reads likes a fable! 🙂 Dubai would do well to remember the lessons of Angkor…

    1. A fable with a moral James, and not just for Dubai 😀 The Buddha knew a thing or two about impermanence!
      Khmer history is mostly conjecture of course, including the probability of the face being modeled after Jayavarman (some believe they are likenesses of their sculptors – highly unlikely given the concept of Godking!) That the number of towers and provinces tally makes that premise very believable, even if there is no concrete proof. You might know of course that most of their story has been pieced together from the diary of a Chinese diplomat – Zhou Daguan – from the Tang court!!

  5. What a compelling read! Loved every word! Beautiful 🙂 and of course like every other post, the pictures are wonderful…

  6. You are so blessed to be able to see such historic ruins. The only ruins I get to witness here are the ruins of nature. Sad!

      1. Well actually Madhu, I live on a 3,700 acre game ranch which is not mine but very thankful for. I really have to look hard for things here to photograph. A lot of times I drive and walk down back roads. I find more walking and looking down than I do looking up. I could drive to the big city but concrete, steel and glass doesn’t excite me too much. It tends to remind me of all the beautiful nature that has been and still being destroyed in the name of progress. All in all I guess we are both blessed with subjects to capture. 😉

  7. I have been thinking about what I would have done had I stumbled upon this site. After I was immobilized by awe, I would have touched the stone and shared the energy. I love the soft smiling face and that it has lasted through the coming and going of egos. Wonderful post- thank you.

    1. What a wonderful response to my opening question! Wish I could honestly say that i would have been as brave 🙂
      But really the fact that they have smiled down at passing generations of foolish humans for over 800 years is just awe inspiring!

  8. Hmm, I’m pretty sure that I would have run like the wind if I had stumbled across these faces back in the day, Madhu. Sure would love to see to see them now, though! Great images and narrative, as always. 😉

  9. I can imagine their magnificence, when they were places of worship frequented and full of life…
    But each time, in truth, the feeling is always the same: from the Roman ruins in the Eternal City of Rome, between the monoliths of Celtic Ireland or among the ruins of Mayan pyramids… Contemplation of the wonderful power of the past… and Marcaurelio reminds us of this!
    Have a lovely week :-)claudine

    1. We don’t really learn much from that contemplation though do we?
      We pay for our excesses. That truth is as applicable today as it was then.
      A great week to you too Claudine 🙂

    1. Oh the buildings in Cambodia are some of the grandest in the world! And there are possibly many more lying undiscovered around the area! You should include them in your bucketlist Kat 🙂

  10. Beautiful. I am reading your post thinking..oh wow wish I was exploring …love history and the tales it brings. Your post stirred up my curiosity bones:)

  11. I’ve just been scanning in some of my old photos of the temples – nowhere near as good as these which are beautiful, all bringing back lots of good memories though.

  12. The outer walls of the Bayon – the photo is stunning … a fantastic place, I’m always amazed about the design of those old … buildings around the world. The brains behind them and how they did they communicate their idea to the builders … and how could the people that built them … read their ideas.

  13. What an incredible place, Madhu. Those faces are so ancient and seem to radiate wisdom. But perhaps I am just mistaking wisdom for time, for ti seems they have stood for so long. Thank you for bringing us this amazing place.

  14. Amazing how they built with such gigantic stones! I’m in awe of the outer walls of the Bayon. Thank you for the stories, fascinating!

  15. Excellent written and amazing photos… 🙂

    If we thought the idea of ​​”Central Park” in NY, “Hyde Park” in London or L’avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris was allowed to remain untouched and uninhabited for years – I think we would feel like explorers afterwards… 🙂 😉

    Nature is terrific – both gentle and cruel at the same time… 🙂

  16. Beautiful as always, Madhu. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and skill of the architects, engineers, and builders of long ago. With less tools than what we have now, they managed to make structures and works of art that withstood time. 🙂

  17. This is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. Totally unique and special. You’ve done a wonderful job capturing the magic of this place. Not easy considering how dark the stone carvings are. Thanks for sharing your adventure Madhu.

  18. This is an incredible place and your historical explanations answer questions and raise some. Your pictures capture this. I was in awe of these faces when we were there.

  19. Another beautiful and engaging commentary and tour of history. You continually entertain and educate, Madhu. It is rewarding to be “following” your blog.

    Eric 🙂

  20. Such a beautiful post and tour Madhu and I would have loved to be there with you. So much wonders to explore. Thanks for sharing and great to see you and read your stunning posts again. 🙂 *hugs*

  21. Ankor Wat is truly amazing, isn’t it? I visited in 2011. Loved it. Want to go back. Great post with cool info I didn’t know!

  22. As always, beautiful pictures Madhu. But honestly, if i encountered them unprepped, I’d jump right out of my skin. Eerie!
    … but also desolate as faces of the past must feel – abandoned by time, washed up by tide.

  23. I cannot wait until I can see this breathtaking temple in person. I love the history lesson that awaits me every time I open a post from you and the photos are just so stunning. Thanks Madhu! 🙂

  24. how extraordinary Madhu … thanks so much for your wonderful photos and story about Jayavarman VII and Bayon … so much to reflect upon in this depiction of life … birth, growth, maturity, decay and death is inevitable in this world

  25. I imagine it would be intimidating if you didn’t know what they were or why they were there. I always try to imagine what people thought of them in different generations. What a wonderful place.

    1. Thank you Vishal. The place was amazing. Apologies for the late response and for mixing up your name with Arnab above 🙂

  26. Special post, Madhu – of one of the most thrilling of places – and thrilling ‘discovery’ story too! I was fascinated with the Faces, as you know, and have looked and looked at the statues they believe to be of Jayavarman and I still can’t see that those marvellous faces – all so individual, in my view – are of him! 🙂

  27. Impressive photos … your questions are difficult to answer. I’m not sure what I would have done. I am glad I can enjoy them without the pressure of the experience.
    Very nice, Madhu ….

  28. I just returned from Cambodia and seeing your photos made me realize how amateur I am with photography! These pictures are amazing! 🙂

  29. Incredible, Madhu. What I wouldn’t give to see it myself. I mean that seriously. I feel like salaving for a year in exchange of just being there. 😀 It’s definitely not just a monumental ego now, but a real piece of great history. I also love the last part. It’s good to know that it’s most possibly there to stay if I did chance to be there.

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s