From a distance, the Bayon looks like a crumbling pile.
And indeed it's not as over-restored and manicured as Angkor Wat is in certain parts.
But as you approach the site more closely, you begin to see that the crumbly texture is due to the fact that myriad faces are carved into the 37 surviving towers.
Eventually, it dawns on you that the faces are actually the SAME face.
A thousand copies of the visage of the Angkorean king Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1218) gaze out at the jungle.
The Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts in Paris has helpfully reproduced the peak of the Bayon's central tower, offering a very clear view of Jayavarman's face.
Elsewhere in the museum is a colonial-era model of what the Bayon might have looked like in its early days.
Perhaps a few words about Jayavarman VII and the Bayon's historical context would be useful here. Jayavarman came to the throne at a time of great disorder in Angkor following the sack of the capital by the Chams. Jayavarman, still a very young man, rallied the kingdom's forces and drove the Chams out. Once he had consolidated his hold on power, he built a new capital: Angkor Thom. Apart from the Bayon, other major sites in Angkor Thom include the Baphuon and the Terrace of the Leper King. In addition to his military achievements, another reason that Jayavarman VII is a highly consequential king in Angkorean history is that he was a devoted practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism. The Bayon, the state temple at the heart of his new capital, was in fact the most important purpose-built Buddhist temple erected up to that time in Angkor. Although Jayavarman VIII attempted to undo the influence of Buddhism, it was to remain the state religion for the remainder of the Angkor period.
The faces on the Bayon's towers could not be erased, but Jayavarman VIII had the Buddhist statuary smashed or otherwise removed. Miraculously, the broken pieces of the image of the main sanctuary, a seated Avokitesvara, were found at the bottom of a well by archaeologists and it's been re-assembled. I don't have a photograph of it, but I took one of an image that has been robed by modern Buddhist devotees.
The Bayon was originally enclosed by an outer wall, which is no longer extant. In a way, that's a help to the modern visitor because it allows an unobstructed view of the central complex from all angles, unlike at Angkor Wat.
Some of the perimeter towers, being lower, are silhouetted picturesquely against the surrounding greenery.
The Bayon is my favourite site in the Angkor historical park. What's yours? Let me know in the comments below, on the L&P Facebook page, or under a relevant image in the L&P gallery on Instagram (@lotusandpersimmon).