My most recent trip to Angkor took me for the first time into the fabulous Baphuon temple. I’d never been because the temple had been closed for years, convalescing from war, you might say. In the 1960s, the Baphuon had been near collapse. Restorers disassembled much of it, laying out 300,000 pieces of stone for eventual reconstruction. After war closed in on Angkor in 1970, records showing which stone went where were lost. So when peace returned, putting it back together turned out to be an enormous puzzle challenge. The job was only completed in 2011. Now the Baphuon is fully open again and you can climb the great three-tiered pyramid and admire its many bas reliefs.
The temple was built by King Udayadityavarman II as his state temple around the year 1060 AD. If you visit, you should imagine it without certain nearby things--without the Bayon, without Angkor Thom’s walls and gates, without Angkor Wat. All of these came much later. In its glory days, the Baphuon dominated the great capital city.
The Baphuon shows that the temples of Angkor weren’t static. They weren’t just built and left in their original role and state, but sometimes were modified as history progressed and religious beliefs changed. The temple was originally Hindu, dedicated to Shiva. But at some point several centuries later it was rededicated as a Buddhist place of worship. When you reach the back of the temple, you’ll see the most amazing sight--a reclining Buddha that is part of the very fabric of the temple, extending across the west side for about 70 meters. The evidence suggests the image was built from the rubble of a now-missing central tower and other original elements of the temple (if you look closely you can see that some of the stones have decorative carving on them). The holy image is so large that it's hard to take in--what you see in the photo at the top shows the Lord Buddha's reclining head at center left.
All in all, the Baphuon is quite a sight. Don't miss if it you visit.
Beng Mealea temple, 12th Century
One of the big questions about the construction of Angkor is how the stones were transported to the building sites from quarries in the Kulen hills to the north. For years there’s been a theory that the blocks took a rather round-about route, moving by water southward to the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great lake, then along the lake’s shoreline, then up the Siem Reap River (against the current, no less) to Angkor.
Now comes a study that concludes the route may have been much more direct, and made no use of the lake. Geologist Estuo Uchida of Japan’s Waseda University, co-author of the study, says that analysis of satellite images suggests the presence of an ancient canal that connected Kulen quarries pretty much straight to the Angkor area.
Over the years, quite a lot of academic brainpower has gone into trying to answer questions of which stones came from where. Have a look at the website of the Cambodia Stone Project, a fascinating consortium of experts from many countries of the world. Their job requires both a lot of field research and skill at theorizing and connecting dots. There are no records from the era to tell how stones were transported the long distances, and the temples’ bas reliefs of daily life aren’t much help, including only a few scenes that appear to show construction workers.
A stream-bed quarry near Beng Mealea temple
The skills of Khmer sculptors and master masons were remarkable, but I’ve always been moved too by the handiwork of the less celebrated people who birthed the stones. A great place to see that is a humble little quarry on the banks of a stream near Beng Mealea temple. Over the centuries, the flow of water softened sharp edges, but you can still see what resembles a ghostly staircase leading down to the stream, where block after block were removed in sequence. Here and there individual chisel strokes are visible.
Probably the blocks were floated downstream to Beng Mealea to take their allotted places as the great monument rose in the 12th Century.
The quarry’s easy to reach if you’d like to take a look. About a kilometer past Beng Mealea on the road to Koh Ker, you come to a bridge across the stream. The quarry’s right beneath it.