The next set of ruins I wanted to explore was the so-called “Temple of a Thousand Faces” (well, there’s really only around 200) – The Bayon. This part of my journey was a bit frustrating, or perhaps I was just overwhelmed with the size of the area surrounding this ancient temple. My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off in the former royal city of Angkor Thom amidst many ruins I hadn’t researched at all, pointing way off to the south where my desired destination lay and then pointing towards a stand of trees in the distance to the north where he would wait for me to finish. While it wasn’t too crowded at this point, there was a lot of activity in the area due to preparations for a concert to be held in the evening. I could see tour buses approaching as I attempted to get my bearings.
The Bayon is actually in the exact center of the ruined capitol city of Angkor Thom which had a population of over 100,000 prior to the Cham invasion back in the 12th century. My frustration came from not knowing anything about the many other temples in the area and also wanting to avoid the huge crowds that would be arriving soon. I took a few photos of some of these before making a beeline towards my originally-planned destination. I’ll check out the other ruins during a future visit…
As I was approaching The Bayon, which simply looks like any other non-descript ancient temple ruin from a distance, I did encounter the day’s first big swarm of Chinese tourists. There were twenty or thirty of them climbing all over the crumbling laterite walls with their tour guide desperately trying to heard them into a queue. He was frantically waving the flag that identified their group while screaming at the top of his lungs. However, the tourists were shouting at each other (as Chinese tend to do – I hate getting caught in the supermarket with a large group of them) and so nobody could hear anything. So much for peaceful solitude amidst the wonders of Angkor…
Once you enter The Bayon, the details become noticeable. Along the lower reaches are a number of really well-preserved bas-reliefs and I found myself photographing much more of these than at the main Angkor Wat temple. Many of these carvings feature great battles between the Chams and the Khmer (and I believe these inspired the wonderful John Shors novel, Temple Of A Thousand Faces, which I’m currently reading) while others depict the everyday life of the community as it existed in the late 12th century. While I was exploring the lower galleries, I encountered a couple of young students – a boy and a girl – with whom I spent some time talking. These areas were relatively peaceful at the time, a stark contrast to the higher reaches where the faces are located.
The upper level of The Bayon is where the true “magic” is found – there are 49 towers decorated with what are believed to be either the four faces of the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokesvara or a representation of King Jayavarman VII‘s face. Some are better restored than others and it was quite crowded during my visit with many tourists all clamoring for photos. I did try to grin and bear it as much as I could but I was constantly jostled by others who weren’t looking where they were going or who didn’t seem to care who (or what) they bumped into. Still, I enjoyed looking at all the silly grins from the giant faces surrounding me. I would have spent much more time there if it wasn’t for the many other people. Next time, I’ll try to arrive earlier in the morning.
I took a brief break by walking a bit to the west of the ruins to enjoy a bottle of water at one of the many small “restaurants” that serve food and drinks in the area. Basically, it was just a couple of card tables and plastic chairs set up under the trees. The water and the shade were quite welcome – as was the respite from the crowds. I then spent some time walking around the base of The Bayon. Here, the large blocks of laterite and sandstone hid the other tourists from my view and I was able to relax a bit.
On the way towards my tuk-tuk, I checked out the massive Terrace of the Elephants which is a short distance north of The Bayon. The terrace is 2.5 meters high and over 300 meters long with five staircases leading to the platform – one on each end and three along the length. The main staircase in the middle was where King Jayavarman VII would stand in order to view his army returning from battle as the view from the top allows one to see the entire area without any obstructions. The naga railings on this staircase lead directly to the sky palace known as Phimeanakas.
The walls of the terrace itself has bas-relief sculptures of elephants, horses, lions, dancers, and warriors. At the main wall you see carved garudas holding the structure above them. One of the garuda tramples on a naga. In one scene an elephant is fighting with a lion and there’s even a carved five-headed horse. On the surface of the terrace, you can still see the holes for parasol poles which were used when the king wanted to take a look at the games or ceremonies. The elephants are ridden by servants and princes.
This was my last exploration within the Angkor Archaeological Park. Once I’d found my tuk-tuk driver – and after having been “chased” by two girls (one wanted me to buy yet another guidebook and the other was hawking some silk scarves) – he drove me back to Siem Reap and my guesthouse. I had become more exhausted trying to dodge the hordes of Chinese at this last stop than anything else. I was worn-out and a bit frustrated, particularly when I realized it was just barely afternoon!