Nguyen Duy Phuong

The Bayon temple in the Angkor Thom complex is said to look its best on moonlit nights. Visitors will feel as if they have stepped into another world, a space to soul-search among countless Bayon faces that look at all ways of life. All our worries evaporate, leaving us alone in a silent realm where we can follow the path of history like a fast-paced film.

More than 200 serene stone faces grace the Bayon Temple

Angkor – the capital of eternity

I arrived at Siem Reap International Airport in the late afternoon. A late-summer rain had just stopped, blurring the plane’s windows. The flight was probably the shortest of all international journeys I’ve taken with Vietnam Airlines. It takes only an hour to fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, where you can admire one of the greatest wonders of the world, constructed nearly a thousand years ago: the Angkor temple complex.

This was neither my first visit to Cambodia nor Angkor, but every visit brings new emotions. For me, the Angkor complex is not only a historic site but also a timeless wonder.

A Buddha statue in the Bayon

As most of us know from history classes, the Angkor complex, particularly Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, date from the pinnacle of the most glorious dynasties in the history of the Khmer Empire. Built in the 9th century, the temples have stood for nearly 600 years. The Khmer Empire, a major South East Asian power, ruled over a strong and vast area where people practiced diverse religions and had different beliefs. The architecture of the Angkor complex is a rare intersection between that of Hindu temples and Buddhist styles. A prime example of this crossover is the multifaceted temple named the Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex.

The faces of the Bayon: Seeing through lifetimes

While I have never had the chance to see the Bayon in moonlight, the time I’ve spent there, admiring a temple with hundreds of faces of Bodhisattvas exquisitely carved into thousand-year-old stone, allowed me to reflect on life and my own identity.

The term “Bayon” refers to the most distinctive temple in the complex, the carved faces in the temple, and this particular architectural style. The carved faces gracing the main towers and gates are hotly debated by scholars. Some identify them as the many faces of the Hindu god Shiva. Others believe they represent King Jayavarman VII, who began building the complex. The most popular theory is also the most reasonable: the Bayon are the faces of Bodhisattvas. The statues seem to display a full understanding of and willingness to share the burdens of earthly life. Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who choose to linger in the mortal world instead of attaining nirvana to save others from suffering, certainly fit the bill.

The Bayon was the last state temple to be built at Angkor Thom

Scholarly debates about origins and symbolism still rage today. However, one fact captured my interest: regardless of whether the state religion was Buddhism or Hinduism, Khmer dynasties always preserved and expanded upon this intersection of cultures. Later, the complex was serendipitously forgotten for hundreds of years, enabling the architectural works to stay nearly intact and stand as testaments to humans’ infinite capacity to create. In the passage of time, we are but tiny individuals who have the chance to reflect on the towering achievements of the past. Among hundreds of Bayon faces radiating hallowed grace and mercy, we feel comfort and joy.

I left the Bayon as the day began to fade. Light poured onto the road through the canopy of old trees surrounding the temple. Every hurried step stirred clouds of dust. My tuk-tuk driver was waiting patiently in front of the gate of the ancient citadel. The people of Cambodia have such kind smiles. Much like their Vietnamese neighbors, they have gone through hardships from past struggles, but life still grows in these arid and desolate lands.