The Bayon Enigma: Southeast Asia’s Mona Lisa

Visit the Bayon Temple and stay at Navutu Dreams, one of the many hotels in Siem Reap

From the Italian Renaissance to ancient Cambodia, it would appear women have always made the best muses.

The ancient Khmer civilization that flourished from the 8th to the 14th centuries was not restricted to Cambodia, but rather encompassed most of Southeast Asia. More so than many modern societies, Khmer culture gave women social, political and spiritual power that was equal to if not greater than that of Khmer men. This ancient society is especially important because women made vital contributions to a culture that continues to flourish even today.

The 12th century Bayon Temple

Nowhere are these influences more obvious than the crowd favorite, Bayon Temple. Dating all the way back to the 12th century, Bayon Temple is the jaw-dropping central temple of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, just north of the only monument more recognizable than Bayon: the infamous Angkor Wat.

Why do we all love Bayon? With hundreds upon hundreds of empty eyes following your every move, the air of intrigue surrounding the temple is still potent. Imagine the prevailing mystery surrounding Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, then multiply that level of mystery by a hundred and make it much older and Asian.

The Bayon Temple is located in Angkor Archeaological Park in Siem Reap Cambodia. Stay at Navutu Dreams, a Luxury Resort a revered hotel in siem reap

Archaeologists and historians are still unable to agree on the identity of these mysterious faces. Some believe they were carved in the likeness of the king himself while others believe they may simply be bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, or enlightened souls.

The ancient King Jayavarman VII pumped his temple full of feminine energy and commissioned over 10,000 figures to be carved into the temple itself along with the surrounding walls. Many of these figures are female and many sacred. Whether they are dressed in fancy robes standing guard along the wall or dancing the classical Apsara, thousands of these female figures were carved into Bayon to depict ancient Buddhist traditions and important historical events alongside classical Hindu mythology and cosmology.

Bayon Temple bas rellief carvings

The Bayon Temple is known for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes

Amidst all of these beautiful prominent female figures, atop the main tower of Bayon, are four faces carved in stone, each one looking out in a different direction. The city of Angkor Thom was built in a square, with the sides running exactly north to south and east to west. Like such ancient structures as the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, these structures are a testament to the impressive abilities of such a highly advanced society as the Khmers. Right smack in the middle of the walled city, Bayon Temple represents the intersection of heaven and earth.

At the center of it all, we know the figures of Bayon must be of the utmost importance to the Khmer culture, most of all the distinct and conspicuous faces adorning the temples most prominent towers. Although the faces are decidedly masculine, their enigmatic expressions have gotten them the nickname of the Southeast Asian Mona Lisa.

Identity of these mysterious faces

Archaeologists and historians are still unable to agree on the identity of these mysterious faces. Some believe they were carved in the likeness of the king himself while others believe they may simply be bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, or enlightened souls. Word on the street is that the king – as too many did and do – considered himself to be part king and part deity, so the distinction between man and god becomes murky and less important to the quest for identity.

This uncertainty begs certain comparisons to the original Mona Lisa, as the serene face of Da Vinci’s most famous painting has recently been likened to the face of a man that historians believe may have been Leonardo’s male lover. Human or god, male or female, the serene and imposing faces of Bayon temple are endlessly intriguing. Much like the Mona Lisa, the best part of the mystery is not the solution to the ancient riddle, but rather the mystery itself.

Enjoy your stay in Siem Reap

Sip a coconut by the pool at any of the charming hotels in Siem Reap

Sip a coconut by one of the many pools at Navutu Dreams Resort

From Paris to Siem Reap, a healthy dose of prolonged eye contact with these historical celebrities is sure to cause you to scratch your head and marvel at the human condition. So while you sip your café at a café in the nineteenth arrondissement or sip a coconut by the pool at Navutu Dreams Resort, one of the charming hotels in Siem Reap, and you’ll inevitably be pondering: what were they thinking?

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