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Phnom Bakheng Hill

It is a testimony to the love of symmetry and balance which evolved its style....in pure simplicity of rectangles its beauty is achieved. It is a pyramid mounting in terraces, five of them ...Below Bak-Keng lays all the world of mystery, the world of the Khmer, more mysterious ever under its cover of impenetrable verdure.

Phnom Bakheng is located 1,30 meters (4,265 feet) north of Angkor Wat and 400 meters (1,312 feet) south of Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat view from Bakheng
Angkor Wat View from Phnom Bakheng

Enter and leave Phnom Bakheng by climbing a long steep path with some steps on the east side of the monument (height 67 meters, 220 feet) In the 1960 this summit was approached by elephant and, according to a French visitor, the ascent was "a promenade classic and very agreeable

Arrive at the summit just before sunset for a panoramic view of Angkor and its environs. The golden hues of the setting sun on this vista are a memorable sight. When Frenchman Henri Mouhot stood at this point in 1859 he wrote in his diary: 'Steps.. lead to the top of the mountain, whence is to be enjoyed a view so beautiful and extensive, that it is not surprising that these people , who have shown so much taste in their buildings, should have chosen it for a site.

It is possible to see: the five towers of Angkor Wat in the west, Phnom Krom to the southwest near the Grand Lake, Phnom Bok in the northeast, Phnom Kulen in the east, and the West Baray.

Phnom Bakheng was built in late ninth to early tenth century by King Yasovarman dedicated to Siva (Hindi).

Sunset at Bakheng
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

BACKGROUND

After Yasovarman became king in 889, he founded his own capital, Tasoharapura, Northwest of Roluos and built Bakheng as his state temple. The sites known today as Angkor and thus Bakheng is sometimes called 'the first Angkor '. A square wall; each side of which is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, surrounded the city. A natural hill in the center distinguished the site.

A DAY ON THE HILL OF THE GODS

This is most solitary place in all Angkor and the pleasantest. If it was truly the Mount Meru of the gods, then they chose their habitation well. But if the Khmers had chanced to worship the Greek pantheon instead of that of India, they would surely have built on Phnom Bakheng a temple to Apollo; for it is at sunrise and sunset that you feel its most potent charm.

To steal out of the Bungalow an hour before the dawn, and down the road that skirts the faintly glimmering moat of Angkor Wat before it plunges into the gloom of the forest; and then turn off, feeling your way across the terrace between the guardian lions (who grin amiably at you as you turn the light of your torch upon them); then clamber up the steep buried stairway on the eastern face of the hill, across the plateau and up the five flights of steps, to emerge from the enveloping forest on to the cool high terrace with the stars above you is a small pilgrimage whose reward is far greater than its cost in effort.

Here at the summit it is very still. The darkness has lost its intensity; and you stand in godlike isolation on the roof of a world that seems to be floating in the sky, among stars peering faintly through wisps of filmy cloud. The dawn comes so unobtrusively that you are unaware of it, until all in a moment you realize that the world is no longer dark.

The sanctuaries and altars on the terrace have taken shape about you as if by enchantment; and far below, vaguely as yet but gathering intensity with every second, the kingdom of the Khmers and the glory thereof spreads out on every side to the very confines of the earth; or so it may well have seemed to the King-god when he visited his sanctuary how many dawns ago.

Soon, in the east, a faint pale gold light is diffused above a grey bank of cloud flat-topped as a cliff, that lies across the far horizon; to which smooth and unbroken as the surface of a calm sea, stretches the dark ocean of forest, awe-inspiring in its tranquil immensity.

To the south the view is the same, save where along low hill, the shape of a couchant cat, lies in the monotonous sea of foliage like an island. Westward, the pearl-grey waters of the great Baray, over which a thin mist seems to be suspended, turn silver in the growing light, and gleam eerily in their frame of overhanging trees; but beyond them, too, the interminable forest flows on to meet the sky.

It is only on the north and northeast that a range of mountains the Dangrengs, eighty miles or so away breaks the contour of the vast, unvarying expanse; and you see in imagination on its eastern rampart the almost inaccessible temple of Prah Vihear.

Immediately below you there is morning is windless; but one after the other, the tops of the trees growing on the steep sides of the Phnom sway violently to and fro, and a fussy chattering announces that the monkeys have awakened to a new day.

Near the bottom of the hill on the south side, threadlike wisps of smoke from invisible native hamlets mingle with patches of mist. And then, as the light strengthens, to the southeast, the tremendous towers of Angkor Wat push their black mass above the grey-green monotony of foliage, and there comes a reflected gleam from a corner of the moat not yet overgrown with weeds. But of the huge city whose walls are almost at your feet, and of all the other great piles scattered far and near over the immense plains that surround you, not a vestige is to be seen. There must surely be enchantment in a forest that knows how to keep such enormous secrets from the all – Seeing Eye of the sun.

In the afternoon the whole scene is altered. The god-like sense of solitude is the same; but the cool, grey melancholy of early morning has been transformed into a glowing splendor painted in a thousand shades of orange and amber, henna and gold. To the west, the bray, whose silvery waters in the morning had all the inviting freshness of a themes backwater, seems now, by some occult process to have grown larger, and spreads, gorgeous but sinister, a sheet of burnished copper, reflecting the fiery glow of the waste ring sun.

Beyond it, the forest, a miracle of color, flows on to be lost in the splendid conflagration; and to the north and east, where the light is less fierce, you can see that the smooth surface of the sea of treetops wears here and there all the tints of an English autumn woodland: a whole gamut of flowing crimson flaring scarlet, chestnut brown, and brilliant yellow; for even these tropic trees must 'winter

By this light you can see, too, what was hidden in the morning that for a few miles towards the south, the sweep of forest is interrupted by occasional patches of cultivation; rice fields, dry and golden at this season of the year, where cattle and buffaloes are grazing.

As for the Great Wat, which in the morning had showed itself an indeterminate black mass against the dawn; in this light, and from this place, it is unutterably magical. You have not quite an aerial view the Phnom is not high enough for that; and even if it were, the ever encroaching growth of trees on its steep sides shuts out the view of the Wat's whole immense plan. But you can see enough to realize something of the superb audacity of the architects who dared to embark upon a single plan measuring nearly a mile square.

Your point of view is diagonal; across the north west corner of the moat to the soaring lotus-tip of the central sanctuary you can trace the perfect balance of every faultless live. Worshipful for its beauty, bewildering in its stupendous size there is no other point from which the Wat appears so inconceivable an undertaking to have been attempted much less achieved by human brains and hands.

But however that may be even while it, the scene is changing under your eyes. The great warm-grey mass in its setting of foliage, turns from grey to gold; from the fold to amber, glowing with ever deeper and deeper warmth as the sun sinks lower. Purple shadows creep upwards from the moat, covering the galleries, blotting out the amber glow; chasing it higher and higher, over the poled up roofs, till it rests for a while on the tiers of carved pinnacles on the highest tower, where an odd one here and there glitters like cut topaz the level golden rays strike it.

The forest takes on coloring that is ever more autumnal the Baray for ten seconds is a lake of fire; and then, as though the lights had been turned off the pageant is over...and the moon, close to the full, come into her owe, shining down eerily on the scene that has suddenly become so remote and mysterious; while a cool little breeze blows up from the east, and sends the stiff, dry teak-leaves from the trees on the hillside, down through the branches with a metallic rattle.

There is one more change before this nightly transformation-scene is over: a sort of anti-climax to be seen in these. Soon after the sun has disappeared, an after-glow lights up the scene again so warmly as almost to create the illusion that the driver of the sun's chariot has turned his horses, and come back again. Here on Bakheng, the warm tones of sunset return for a few minutes, but faintly, mingling weirdly with the moonlight, to bring effects even more elusively lovely than any that have before. Then, they too fade; and the moon, supreme at last, shines down unchallenged on the airy temple.

It is lonelier now. After the gorgeous living pageantry of the scene that went before it, the moon's white radiance and the silence are almost unbearably deathlike far more eerie than the deep darkness of morning with dawn not far behind. With sunset, the companionable chatter of birds and monkeys in the trees below has ceased; they have all gone punctually to bed; even the cicadas for a wonder are silent. Decidedly it is time to go.

Five almost perpendicular flights of narrow-treaded steps leading down into depths of darkness are still between you and the plateau on the top of the Phnom: the kind of steps on which a moment of sudden, silly panic may easily mean a broken neck –such is the bathos of such mild adventures. And once on the plateau you can take your choice of crossing it among the crumbled ruins, and plunging down the straight precipitous that was once a stairway- or the easy, winding path through the forest round the south side of the hill, worn by the elephants of the explorers and excavators.

Either will bring you to where the twin lions sit in the darkness black now, for here the trees are too dense to let the moonlight through, and so home along the straight road between its high dark walls of forest, where all sorts of humble, half-seen figures flit noiselessly by on their bare feet, with only a creak now and again from the bundles of firewood they carry, to warn you of their passing. Little points of light twinkle out from unseen houses as you pass a hamlet; and, emerging from the forest to the moat-side, the figures of men figures of men fishing with immensely long bamboo rods, from the outer wall, are just dimly visible in silhouette against the moonlit water.

HW Ponder, Cambodian Glory, The Mystery of the Deserted Khmer Cities and their Vanquished Splendor, and a Description of Life in Cambodia today) Thornton Butter worth, London, 1936)

It is difficult to believe, at first, that the steep stone cliff ahead of you is, for once, a natural feature of the landscape, and not one of those mountains of masonry to which Angkor so soon accustoms you. The feat of building a flight of wide stone steps up each of its four sides, and a huge temple on the top, is a feat superhuman enough to tax the credulity of the ordinary mortal.

The temple of Bakheng was cut from rock and faced with sandstone. Traces of this method are visible in the northeast and southeast corners. It reflects improved techniques of construction and the use of more durable. This temple is the earliest example of the plan with five sandstone sanctuaries built on the top level of a tiered base arranged like the dots on a die, which became popular later. It is also the first appearance of secondary towers on the tiers of the base.

SYMBOLISM

The number of towers at Bakheng suggests a cosmic symbolism. Originally 109 towers in replica of Mount Meru adorned the temple of Phnom Bakheng but many are missing. The total was made up of five towers on the upper terrace, 12 on each of the five tiers of the base, and another 44 towers around the base. The brick towers on the tiers represent the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac. Excluding the Central Sanctuary, there are 108 towers, symbolizing the four lunar phases with 27 days in each phase. The levels (ground, five tiers, upper terrace) number seven and correspond to the seven heavens of Hindu mythology.

LAYOUT

Every haunted corner of Angkor shares in the general mystery of the Khmers. And here the shadows seem to lie a little deeper, for this hill is like nothing else in the district.

Phnom Bakheng is square with a base of five tiers (1-5) and five sanctuaries (6-10) on the top level, occupying the corners and the middle of the terrace. The sides of the base are each 76 meters (249 feet) long and the total height is 13 meters (43 feet). Each side of the base has a steep stairway with a 70 incline. Seated lions flank each of the five tiers. Vestiges of the wall with entry towers surrounding the temple remain.

Seated lions sculpted in the round are on each side of the slope near the summit. The proportions on these lions are particularly fine. Further on, there is a small building on the right with sandstone pillars; the two lingas now serve as boundary stones. Continuing towards the top, one comes to a footprint of the Buddha in the center of the path. This is enclosed in a cement basin and covered with a wooden roof.

Closer to the top, remains of an entry tower in the outside wall enclosing the temple are visible. Two sandstone libraries on either side of the walkway are identified by rows of diamond-shaped holes in the walls. Both libraries open to the west and have a porch on the east side.

Small brick sanctuary towers occupy the corners of each tier and each side of the stairway.

TOP LEVEL

Five towers are arranged like the dots on a die. The tower in the middle contained the linga. It is open to all four cardinal points. The other four sanctuaries on the top level also sheltered a linga on a on a pedestal and are open on two sides.

The evenly spaced holes in the paving near the east side of Central sanctuary probably held wooden posts, which supported a roof. The Central Sanctuary (10) is decorated with female divinities under the arches of the corner pillars and Apsaras with delicately carved bands of foliage above; the pilasters have a raised interlacing of figurines. The Makaras on the tympanums are lively and strongly executed. An inscription is visible on the left-hand side of the north door of the Central Sanctuary.