Bakong is the first temple mountain of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor near modern Siem Reap in Cambodia. In the final decades of the 9th century AD, it served as the official state temple of King Indravarman I in the ancient city of Hariharalaya, located in an area that today is called Roluos.

The structure of Bakong took shape of stepped pyramid, popularly identified as temple mountain of early Khmer temple architecture. The striking similarity of the Bakong and Borobudur temple in Java, going into architectural details such as the gateways and stairs to the upper terraces, suggests strongly that Borobudur was served as the prototype of Bakong.

There must have been exchanges of travelers, if not mission, between Khmer kingdom and the Sailendras in Java. Transmitting to Cambodia not only ideas, but also technical and architectural details of Borobudur, including arched gateways in corbelling method

Background

Bakong was the center of the town of Hariharalaya, a name derived from the god Hari-Hara; a synthesis of Siva and Visnu. It is a temple representing the cosmic Mount Meru.

Four levels leading to the Central Sanctuary correspond to the worlds of mythical beings (Nagas, Garudas, Raksasas and Yaksas).

History of Bakong Temple

In 802 AD, the first king of Angkor Jayavarman II declared the sovereignty of Cambodia. After ups and downs, he established his capital at Hariharalaya. A few decades later, his successors constructed Bakong in stages as the first temple mountain of sandstone at Angkor. 

The inscription on its stele (classified K.826) says that in 881 King Indravarman I dedicated the temple to the god Shiva and consecrated its central religious image, a lingam whose name Sri Indresvara was a combination of the king's own and the suffix "-esvara" which stood for Shiva ("Iśvara").

According to George Coedès, the devarāja cult consisted in the idea of divine kingship as a legitimacy of royal power, but later authors stated that it doesn't necessarily involve the cult of physical persona of the ruler himself. 

Bakong enjoyed its status as the state temple of Angkor for only a few years, but later additions from the 12th or 13th centuries testify that it was not abandoned. Toward the end of the 9th century, Indravarman's son and successor Yasovarman I moved the capital from Hariharalaya to the area north of Siem Reap now known as Angkor, where he founded the new city of Yaśodharapura around a new temple mountain called Bakheng.

Layout and Design

Bakong was the first temple mountain constructed from sandstone. The site is 900 x 700m and there are three enclosures and two moats.

Most of the structures for the outer enclosure don’t exist today and only part of the moat is still visible.

The main access is through the second enclosure where you can see an entry tower and a long causeway with large seven-headed serpents. There are also some brick buildings around.

Towards the end of the causeway, there are two sandstone structures on either side. It is thought that these may have been used as stores or libraries.

There are also some towers which can be explored and still contain many decorative features.

The pyramid part of the temple was built on five levels and at the bottom it measures 65 x 67m. It was reconstructed in the 1930s. A tower was added later in the 12th century.

Although the pyramid would have been covered in ornate carvings, very few exist today. There is a partial scene of what appears to be asuras in battle. There are also large stone statues of elephants and lions which act as guardians of the temple.

What to see at Bakong Temple?

State temple of King Indravarman I

The Bakong was build by King Indravarman I, who also build the Preah Ko temple and the huge Indratataka baray, a reservoir where water was stored to be used for irrigation during the dry season.

It was the state temple of King Indravarman I, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. A stele found at the site states that the Bakong’s main linga named Sri Indresvara was consecrated in the temple in the year 881. The main linga, which is a representation of Shiva, is usually enshrined in the central tower of the Khmer temple.

One of the main attractions of the Bakong temple is its lintels, that contain very intricate, detailed and well preserved carvings of mythical creatures like Nagas and Makaras.

Moats and the first Naga bridges

The Bakong is a sandstone monument enclosed by two moats. The outer enclosure is delimited on each side by a laterite wall with a gopura, an entrance gate with a tower on top of it. Between the inner and outer moat are the remains of 22 brick temple buildings, most of which have collapsed. They contained statues of Vishnu, Shiva and a number of lingas.

The moat outside the inner enclosure is crossed by paved causeways, with huge seven headed Naga snakes on its sides. They are the first examples of Naga bridges, found in many of the later Angkor temples.

Inner enclosure

The inner enclosure contains a five stepped pyramid surrounded by eight brick towers. On top of the pyramid is a single sanctuary tower. In front of the temple on the Eastern entrance are two long halls positioned between two of the surrounding towers. At each of the four corners of the inner enclosure are brick buildings called libraries, although they probably did not contain any scriptures.

Around the pyramid are eight square brick towers, some of which have collapsed. Originally they were plastered on the outside and contained figures of dvarapalas and devatas, a few of which have survived. All towers have a real door facing the East, the other three are false doors. The door knobs on the false doors are shaped like lion heads. The lintels in the towers contain some of the finest decorations to be seen in Angkor, with very intricate depictions like Vishnu on top of Garuda, warrior figures, animals and mythological creatures like makaras and Naga snakes.

Five stepped pyramid

The five receding terraces in the inner enclosure in the shape of a stepped pyramid were built to resemble Mount Meru, the sacred mountain in Hindu mythology. The tiers of the pyramid measure 67 by 65 meters at its base and 20 by 18 meters at the fifth tier. At the center of each side is a stairway flanked on either side by guardian lions. The stairway, divided into five parts becomes narrower at each higher level to make the temple look larger than it actually is using perspective.

In front of the stairway is a large entrance gate. Opposite each of the stairs is a statue of Nandi, the sacred bull and mount of Shiva. The corners of the first three tiers contain statues of elephants. All the way around the perimeter of the fifth terrace is a frieze with bas relief sculptings, that have mostly eroded.

Central sanctuary

On top of the pyramid is a single central sanctuary. The tower that completely collapsed was rebuild during the late 1930’s into the early 1940’s by Maurice Glaize, a conservator of Angkor. The restoration was done to resemble the original using the method of anastylosis, which involves reconstructing the monument as near as possible to the original, using the original materials if available.

Judging from the style of the decorations, the original tower was probably build some 200 years later than the rest of the temple. Inside it is a sanctuary chamber, that probably contained the main linga. Niches in the tower contain devata figures, most of which are in a bad state of repair. The pediments of the sanctuary contain several depictions of the Hindu Gods Shiva and Vishnu.

Practical information

Temple Facts

  • Date: 881 AD (9th Century)
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Built By: Indravarman I
  • Dedicated To: Shiva
  • Style: Khmer
  • Best Time to Visit: Anytime, but morning is best.
  • Length of Visit: 45 - 60 minutes
  • Temple Pass: Required

Location

Bakong Temple is located about 15km outside of Siem Reap along National Road 6 towards Phnom Penh. Check the below Google Maps for your reference.

Getting There

There are two options for getting to Bakong. The quickest route is to head out of Siem Reap along Road 6 towards Phnom Penh. Keep going for around 15km and turn right when you reach Bakong Village, just before the Bakong Commune Hall. Most tuk tuks and taxi drivers will prefer this route as it is the most direct way to get to the temple.

Alternatively, you can take the back streets south out of Siem Reap towards the Tonle Sap. Then turn left and head towards Bakong Commune. This way is much further, but if you’re cycling and want to avoid the main road, this is a more preferable route to take.

There are many transport options available to visit this temple. It only takes around 20 – 30 minutes to reach by tuk tuk or taxi. For larger groups, minivans, minibuses, and buses are available. It’s also possible to cycle to Bakong.

Bakong Tours

Tours of Bakong temple generally incorporate the other temples in Roluos. In most cases, these temples are combined with other temples and attractions. Popular options on this tour include Beng Mealea or the floating villages.

It is possible to spend half a day exploring the temples here. There are small restaurants around where you can stop for lunch. Many guests like to combine exploring the temples here with a cycle or quad bike ride in the Cambodian countryside.

Accommodation

There are a few options if you want to stay in Bakong. There are some small guesthouses and homestays. However, other than visiting the temples, there is not much to do in Bakong and most tourists will stay in accommodation in Siem Reap.

As a major tourist hub, Siem Reap has all kinds of accommodation available from small guest houses to large five-star resorts. You’re bound to find something within your price range in Siem Reap town.

If you’re looking for a more rural experience, you might want to consider a home stay in the area. You can stay in traditional Khmer homes and experience the local life.

Why Visit Bakong?

Bakong is a beautiful temple which predates Angkor Wat by a few hundred years. It’s also not as busy as the main temples at Angkor Wat, so you can explore in relative peace and quiet.

Bakong Temple photos

 

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