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The Stone Faces of Bayon

Cambodia may or may not be on your must-travel radar but maybe it should be. In the US it probably only rings a bell from its association with the Vietnam War or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. There’s more to Cambodia than both of those, though, and its network of beautiful temples is chief among them.


This image is from Bayon, known from its earliest days in the 12th century as the ‘face temple.’ You can see why. There are dozens of these stone-faced towers standing over the ruins, gazing out in all directions from the highest tier of the complex.


The temple itself was a political and religious statement. King Jayavarman VII was one of only two Buddhists in the royal line and Bayon was a monument to his faith. Standing in the center of his capital city and known in his time as ‘victory mountain,’ it was also a monument to his reign. His son repurposed Bayon as a Hindu temple not long after the King’s death and many of the original Buddhist statues were destroyed or buried on the grounds. Eventually the whole complex was abandoned, fell into ruin, and taken over by the jungle. It was plucked out of that jungle early in the 20th century and today it’s a fairly busy destination. A few touristy websites describe it as a confusing pile of rubble compared to its better-preserved neighbors. But it packs a significant punch, if you ask me. Some of the original Buddhist statues have been excavated and its bas reliefs tell quite a bit of Cambodia’s history. Plus there are these enigmatic stone faces set like jewels in a crown.

They’re enigmatic because there seems to be no agreement on whom they represent. Some say they’re the Hindu creation god Brahma, others suggest they are portraits of King Jayavarman VII himself. I also read somewhere that they could be the face of Lokeshvara, a Buddhist embodiment of compassion. I’ve said it before but ruins always give me an odd mixture of feelings. On one hand I wish I could’ve seen them in their prime, on the other hand I love what my imagination can do with what’s still around. In this case I also love how the weather-worn brickwork gives off a pixelated look. It’s ancient and futuristic at the same time. The faces themselves don’t look threatening or intimidating. They give off a sense of calm instead. Since the King was committed to the Buddhist ethic of compassion, maybe he meant for these faces to convey his goodwill. And, while he was at it, earn his peoples’ goodwill and submission in return.


Let’s take a trip to see them. They’ve had a long, lonely life and might appreciate more company!

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