The state temple of Jayavarman VII and his immediate successors, the Bayon is one of Angkor’s most memorably mysterious and haunting sights, with its dozens of eroded towers carved with innumerable giant-sized images of the enigmatically half-smiling face of the bodhisattva Lokesvara. The design of the Bayon is unique among the state temples of Angkor. Instead of a huge central pyramid, an impression of ascending height is created by a dense cluster of towers, with the main sanctuary towers rising out of the centre of the complex like a kind of Matterhorn carved in stone – the ultimate architectural representation of the mythical Mount Meru. Approaching the temple, all you can initially see is a mass of ill-defined stone, dark and imposing, looking from a distance like some kind of bizarre natural rock formation. It’s only closer up that the intricacy of the design becomes apparent and you can begin to make out the 37 towers carved with their massive faces of Lokesvara. It is said that there are more than two hundred in all, although no one seems to know the exact number, and exactly why they are repeated so many times remains unclear.
Built in the late twelfth and/or early thirteenth century, the Bayon was intended to embrace all the religions of the kingdom, including the Islamic beliefs of the newly conquered Cham, but was consecrated as a Buddhist temple. When the state religion reverted to Hinduism, the Buddha in the central sanctuary was torn down and cast into the well below.