Phnom Bakheng: an Angkor Period Heaven on Earth

The Phnom Bakheng temple is one of the favorites among visitors. Photo by Ky Chamna

The Phnom Bakheng temple, which is located 1.3 kilometer north of the western entrance of Angkor Wat, is one of the favorites among visitors.

And for good reasons. As they reach the top of the monument built in the shape of a pyramid, they may decide to linger to look at Angkor monuments and the plains stretching over the horizon or, if it’s at the end of the day, watch the sun go down.

Phnom Bakheng is also a favorite among people who enjoy mountain hikes, especially in the cool air of early morning. But those hoping for a less physically-demanding climb no longer have to face the entranceway that is at a steep angle: They now can use the spiraling gently-inclined pathway, which goes from ground level at the front of the temple nearly to the very top.

But efforts made to accommodate visitors have gone beyond making it less physically demanding to reach the top of Phnom Bakheng. Wooden terraces extending outward like balconies enable people to rest and catch their breath, take photos or simply sip some water while looking at a stunning view of Angkor Wat seemingly floating amid the thick forest. And at some times of the day, people can view an astonishing sunset or post-rain golden light that overlies the Angkor Wat temple.

Originally dedicated to Shiva, this Hindu sanctuary of the Angkorian era was built in the late 9th century during the reign of King Yasovarman I when he decided to move the country’s capital from Hariharalaya city—present-day Roluos about 12 kilometers from Siem Reap City—to the area around Bakheng mountain. The new city was named Yasodharapura after him with the mountain at the center of what soon became a sprawling urban area.

Based on the traces, watermarks and soil residues from dams identified during archeological digs and investigations, researchers have concluded that Yasodharapura city spread approximately five kilometers from the mountain on each of its four sides, making it bigger than the Angkor Thom city that would be built in the late 12th century.

Historically, it was said that King Yasovarman I had this mountain temple built after he had inaugurated the Lolei temple at Roluos. Also referred to as Mount Kandal (the Middle Temple) or Mount Yasothor, it is now known as the Bakheng mountain. This Hindu Mountain temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of the Shiva Lingam which goes by the name Yasothresvara.

The temple has one very distinct feature. Unlike other temples, the mountain surface was directly sculpted to form the five tiers of the temple. Then, larger sandstones were brought in and put in to form the external skin of the tiers.

King Yasovarman had a fondness for mountain temples and had temples dedicated to Shiva, Lord Narayana, and Lord Brahma of the Hindu religion built on mountains such as Mount Bok and Mount Kraom in today’s Siem Reap Province.

Phnom Bakheng Temple, which consists of a ground level, five tiers and an upper terrace, had 108 towers on its five tiers. Setting aside the main tower, these towers may have been linked to beliefs regarding the universe whereas the number 108 itself is sacred in Hinduism.

Throughout history, Cambodia has gone from embracing the Hindu religion such as during the reign of King Yasovarman to adhering to Buddhism as was the case during the reign of King Ang Chan I during the 16th century when Theravada Buddhism was blossoming significantly.

Although bricked sanctuaries were not as frequently seen as during the Angkorian period, it is evident that temple-building styles were inspired by the Hindu temples of that era. Other regions beside Yaśodharapura city incorporated tiers in wooden temples and also used Hindu sanctuaries as geographical points of reference.

After the religious shift from Hinduism to Buddhism in the country, certain regional temples were transformed into Buddhist shrines. At Phnom Bakheng temple as at other Hindu temples, statues of the Buddha were set up. For instance, on the highest tier, there is a giant-size statue of the Buddha sitting in a lotus position, which covers the entire mid-tower and certain parts of the four primary-direction towers.

In 1922, because a Buddha statue had been affected by severe fragmentation, researchers removed what was left of that statue in order to examine the original state of the Bakheng temple. Today, we can still see statues of the Buddha at the monument. Meticulously cared for, they can be seen in the southeast tower and along the eastern entrance.

Since 2004, the World Monument Fund and APSARA Authority have conducted projects to handle restoration issues at the temple. They have also developed long-term initiatives to handle long-term preservation of the monument and the flow to tourists who come to visit.

There also are projects for archeological studies and research on the buildings surrounding the site of the temple.

Long Ton is a Cambodian with a passion for Angkor and that era. A university graduate who speaks several languages, he has conducted tours at Angkor.

Song Daphea contributed to the story

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