Baphuon: A Puzzle No More

Asia, Cambodia, Southeast

The grand approach to Baphuon

In the beginning of the 11th century CE, the Khmer Empire plunged into yet more internal strife which saw a protracted conflict to determine the rightful claimant to the throne.

It began during the reign of Jayavarman V, the son of Rajendravarman II who became king at the age of ten following the death of his father. Due to his young age, the new king was put under the mentorship of Yajñavaraha, a courtier who was also responsible for the construction of Banteay Srei, which in my opinion is the most beautiful Khmer temple ever built. In the absence of a powerful central figure, the ruling elites dominated royal affairs, a factor that paved the way to another chapter defined by a power struggle within the empire.

Jayavarman V’s reign lasted for more than 30 years, a period marked with peace and stability in an empire which almost a century earlier saw a split of the royal court, resulting in two parallel governments running the kingdom from two separate capitals. After Jayavarman V’s death in 1001, his maternal nephew ascended the throne and became the new ruler of the Khmer Empire. However, the reign of Udayadityavarman I – the new monarch – ended only a few months later following his demise. What happened afterward triggered a multiyear conflict between two main claimants to the throne: Jayavirahvarman and Suryavarman I. While there are different opinions among scholars about their origins, a study links the latter to the powerful Saptadevakula family who established themselves as the descendants of the founding father of the Khmer Empire himself. The Saptadevakulas were probably growing uneasy with the increasing influence of other families within the ruling elite (which translates to how much land they controlled) and thus maintained that their candidate had the right to claim the throne.

Eventually, Suryavarman I managed to consolidate his power and began his reign as a Mahayana Buddhist ruler of an empire whose population was still predominantly Hindu. Probably as an effort to cement his position, he followed a tradition that had been carried out by his predecessors: building a grand state temple. Today, this large structure is known as Baphuon, a multi-tiered monumental structure situated right at the heart of Angkor.

Almost one thousand years after it was completed, James and I followed in the footsteps of ancient Khmer people who entered this imposing temple from the east – its main entrance. I had come across images of Baphuon long before this trip. But upon seeing it in person, I was surprised to find out how much larger the entire structure actually is. After taking a short flight of stairs, we were presented with what is probably one of the most dramatic approaches to an ancient temple. Raised a few meters above the ground, a long causeway connects the compound’s entrance to the base of the main structure. As we walked on it, which in parts were covered with fallen dipterocarp flowers emanating a sweet scent in the air, I couldn’t help but imagine how fitting for royals and foreign dignitaries the setting was. However, on the day of our visit, to our right was a pond filled with stagnant water which had partially turned green probably because of the algae, and to our left was a shaded area with dense vegetation (which I will mention again later in this post). The closer we got to the temple, the bigger it appeared… which begged the question: why wasn’t I aware of this when I came to Angkor for the first time in 2011?

Walking on the flower-covered raised causeway

The state temple of Suryavarman I

Going up to enter the main courtyard

Windows with no view

The inner structure of Baphuon

The raised causeway to enter the temple

True windows at the upper level of the temple

A view from a corner

It turned out I went just a few weeks after Baphuon was inaugurated by the Cambodian king and the then-French prime minister following decades-long restoration efforts on a massive scale. Due to the sandy soil upon which the temple was built, the heavy structure became unstable over time, and you can imagine the damage this caused over the course of centuries. In the 1960s, the EFEO (École française d’Extrême-Orient) initiated a project to restore Baphuon to prevent it from falling apart any further. To reinforce the core of the structure, they decided to dismantle around 300,000 stone blocks which were then carefully labelled to allow them to be placed in their original positions once the reinforcement had been completed.

Then the civil war happened, which was followed by the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. The plans containing information about the stone blocks were lost, and the site was deemed too dangerous for the archaeologists to continue their work. It wasn’t until 1996 – three years after the reinstatement of the Cambodian monarchy – that the EFEO launched another project to reconstruct Baphuon. The lack of information about which stone blocks belonged to which part of the structure essentially made it a massive 3D jigsaw puzzle, which is why it took them around 15 years to complete the restoration. Now, modern-day visitors are able to see why this magnificent temple was once referred by a Chinese envoy under the Yuan dynasty in the late 13th century CE as “a truly astonishing spectacle”.

However, despite the completion of the structural reconstruction of Baphuon in 2011, multiple research projects on other aspects of the temple were (and probably still are being) carried out in the following years. In 2015, a group of researchers from France and the U.S. published their findings which shed light on who actually built the temple. For a long time, Baphuon was always associated with Udayadityavarman II, the Khmer king who reigned from 1050 to 1066 CE. However, AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) radiocarbon dating on four iron crampons integrated into the original structure provides conclusive evidence that Baphuon was in fact commissioned by Suryavarman I, the monarch who was linked to the powerful Saptadevakula family and the predecessor of Udayadityavarman II.

Although first built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, at one point in its history, the western façade of Baphuon underwent modifications done by Theravada Buddhists associated with Ayutthaya (in modern-day Thailand) – which is an indication of the Khmer society’s gradual shift from Hinduism to Buddhism. Today, the Khmer people are overwhelmingly Buddhists, but they treasure all the ancient Hindu temples scattered across their land with so much respect.

After one hour exploring the temple, it was time for us to move on. However, when I saw the crowds entering Baphuon through the same causeway we walked on earlier that day, I suggested to James that we should take another route to exit. That took us to the same shaded area with dense vegetation we saw during our approach to the temple. There was a footpath which I thought would lead us back to the main road. But it didn’t. Instead, we were met with a patch of inundated land, leaving only the top of the grass above the water level. Instinctively, I looked around to find a rock or something solid to jump onto with the hope that I could carry on across to drier ground. I saw a dark, round thing which I assumed was a rock, jumped onto it, and landed on my right foot… only to find out it was not something solid. As soon as my shoes touched it, it sank, and I quickly realized what it actually was: a blob of fresh, warm cow dung. Fortunately, my left foot was able to land somewhere else. I lifted my right foot, took the water bottle I had with me, and washed the greenish substance covering half of my blue footwear. What an ungraceful way to exit from what was an otherwise stately temple! But we had to carry on.

Naga watchers

Beautiful carvings from almost one thousand years ago

Among many spires and relief panels of Baphuon

Some of the stone blocks from this section must have been lost forever

A local boy showed us many carvings that are hidden from plain sight

I find the stories from the Ramayana to be the main inspiration for the carvings at Baphuon

A covered walkway; a decorated spire

With all these carvings, Baphuon must have been quite a sight to behold during its heyday

What remains of the structure at the highest level

Looking at where we came from

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

40 thoughts on “Baphuon: A Puzzle No More”

  1. Oh god the cow dung story! My worst nightmare! Lol. I shouldn’t laugh at your misfortune, but it is kind of funny! (Knowing my luck when i go walk the dog later ill step in some as payback for laughing,) 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    • Believe me I really wanted to swear at my own stupidity. If only I was fine with walking back on that causeway despite the crowd. Oh well, this kind of experience always makes a good story. 🤣 I’ve learned my lesson.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful visit you and James enjoyed at Baphuon – cow dung or not! I can see why it is referred to as a spectacle with its beautiful architecture and carvings.

    Hearing you describe the multi year process which the government and researchers restored the site is interesting. It takes real skill and patience to work on a project such as this.

    I also keep getting fascinated by young kids who ascend to the throne at such a young age and can’t imagine what the pressure must be like at that age. I look at my son who’ll be 10 soon and definitely can’t imagine him as a ruler – mentor or not. 😆

    You’ve visited a lot of interesting places and look forward to seeing more – maybe your Vietnam updates!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite the cow dung incident, that visit to Baphuon turned out to be the highlight of that day for us. It’s the fact that we didn’t know what to expect that made this particular temple memorable.

      I’ve always been curious if I would do better as an archaeologist. But after knowing that this kind of job requires a great amount of patience, I started doubting myself. 😆

      I think kids will be kids. It’s the adults who in the end tell them what to do. It’s the adults we should be careful of, and yes that includes ourselves. 😁

      Today I actually managed to finish writing the draft of my first post on the ancient sites in Vietnam we went to in early April. But that has to wait for the next post, which is on Angkor Wat.


    • Much appreciated, Mike and Kellye. Taking photos of this grand ancient monument on a perfect day weather-wise really helped bring out all the colors.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Again, what glorious vision and art in building these temples ~ and you do such excellent work mapping out the history while also showing us great photos of what you write, to think of the power and talent back then… and compare it to the horror of the Khmer Rouge, it isn’t easy to wrap the mind around such action. But it is heartening to see it coming back to glory for us all to wonder… cow piles and all 🙂 Isn’t this the great thing about adventures, getting into all the misadventures during such travel? Baphuon is a sight I wish to see again and again. Beautiful post, Bama. Enjoy your weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What you said is exactly the reason why ancient temples like Baphuon never cease to amaze me. How did they come up with the idea? And why did they design it that way, with all the unique architectural features? Reading about how Baphuon’s restoration had to stop during the rule of the Khmer Rouge made me think of a few places in the world today where ancient monuments are in danger due to security reasons or just plain ignorance/disrespect from the local rulers for such invaluable heritage sites.

      You’re right about travel misadventures. They’re stressful at first, but never fail to make good stories to tell people.

      Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of your weekend, Randall!


  4. It’s amazing ro think that researchers are still learning about some of the temples of Angkor. What a fascinating history this one had. Sorry about the cow dung 😊 Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had the same reaction when I learned that only recently researchers found out about who actually built Baphuon. It makes me think of the many mysteries just one place holds, waiting to be discovered using the latest technologies.

      I still vividly remember how it felt when my right shoe landed on that cow dung. Such a ‘traumatizing’ experience! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks to those archaeologists who painstakingly restored this temple piece by piece, now we can marvel at it.


  5. It’s pretty amazing to hear that they were able to properly reconstruct Baphuon, even though it was complicated and took so many years. What a treasure. That’s too funny about your river crossing experience with the cow dung! I’m sure it wasn’t funny in the moment, but it makes for a great story afterwards! Thanks for sharing. Linda

    Liked by 1 person

    • And luckily most of the original stones were still intact when they restarted the reconstruction of Baphuon after the end of the civil war.

      After that incident, our tuk-tuk driver took us to the closest public toilet a few minutes away. He didn’t know what actually happened though!

      Liked by 1 person

    • The pleasure is mine, Suzanne. Glad you enjoyed this post. Next up: the one and only, Angkor Wat.


  6. How fascinating, Bama, and you’ve explained a lot for us, too. We were also there in 2011 (amazing, huh?) and didn’t remember much about this structure. Your thorough history and explanation has brought the site to life for us. It looks like the boy who guided you to the beautiful carvings really knew his stuff. And as a girl who grew up on a farm, I feel your pain on hitting the “cow pie” – I ruined many a pair of shoes that way. ☺️ Terri

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if back in 2011 this temple wasn’t well marked. Or maybe because it was newly restored it hadn’t been mentioned yet in any brochures, or online resources, or anything tourists would read. I don’t know. In the end that boy asked for a donation, though. But we didn’t really mind since we knew without his help we would’ve completely missed those hidden carvings. Cow pie!!! That’s hilarious. When I was little I was more used to seeing goat droppings, which to untrained eyes could look like berries. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love how you balance the history and beauty of this temple with your personal story of misfortune, Bama. It is so easy to edit travel experiences in a way that hides our own stupidities and misfortunes, so I couldn’t help but have a giggle at the picture you painted, which I’m sure was no laughing matter at the time. Especially as you had to go all the way back and exit through those throngs you were trying to avoid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve surely had quite a few misfortunes in my past travels, Jolandi. In the past, birds were my nemesis as, for some reason, they seemed to like to poop on me, either when they were flying over me or perching on a branch above me. And this has happened three or four times, if I remember correctly. But yea, this kind of story always becomes something to laugh at later.


      • Oh dear, Bama. You certainly seem to have had a whole array of poop adventures. 🙈 It’s a good thing you can laugh about them afterwards. I’ve once been told that it is good luck when a bird poops on one . . . 😇

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember one day when I was sitting by the Yarra River in Melbourne in the afternoon, there were a lot of seagulls flying over my head. I wanted to enjoy the city atmosphere as the sun slowly set, but in the end the birds kept me tense because I tried to make sure I wasn’t on their flight paths. Or else… 😁


  8. I don’t know what to comment on first! Having just woven a tale of my silly broken shoe into my own Hanoi post, I am naturally attracted to your mishap on the cow patty. 🙂 These kinds of things always reinforce my memories of certain places, and I’m sure you will always have that event attached to this grand temple in your mind. And what a grand temple it is! I had no knowledge at all of this place, even after a number of days seeing various sites in Angkor. I’m sure that everyone sees the big-name, popular places on a first trip and then ventures out to see the lesser-known structures on future trips. Still, this one seems to be so big and historically relevant that I’m surprised it has not caught on more with tourists and guides. In any case, you will not soon forget Baphuon for two big reasons!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some places will forever stay in our memories exactly because of our mishaps. 😄 I can’t help but think of this incident every time I see photos of Baphuon or talk about this temple. The fact that Baphuon is literally a short walk away from Bayon should technically make the former very popular. But then, from the main road Baphuon might not appear grand at first, which is probably why it’s often overlooked. I remember at a restaurant James and I frequented when we were in Siem Reap, there was this cute dog who seemed to be particularly interested in sniffing my right shoe. Fortunately, I managed to prevent it from doing that.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow – I can’t imagine what the restoration process is for this. Wonderful pictures and the history – thank you. Sorry about the cow dung incident. I can sort of picture James chuckling but of course I’m sure he didn’t. (I would if it happened to my traveling companion) heh heh….

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really mind-boggling to think of the scale of the restoration. Glad it is now complete and they certainly did a great job. You’re right about James. I think he was either being empathetic, or slightly annoyed with my clumsiness. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, fascinating. That restoration is seriously impressive. I especially like your photos of the relief carvings. We were at Angkor in 2013, and I think went to Baphuon – I certainly remember walking down a long stone arched corridor, and have a similar photo to your own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You probably did go to Baphuon, Alison. The arched corridors certainly were among the most interesting features of this temple. To reconstruct this massive edifice a super-detailed plan must have been used, put together through thorough research and possibly some educated guesses as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ira says:

    looking at your post makes me want to visit Baphuon again Bama. There are details that I did not realize when I visit this place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you’ve been to Baphuon as well, Ira. I wonder if the details you missed were what my friend and I would’ve otherwise overlooked had that boy not approached us. The good thing is, now AirAsia flies non-stop from Jakarta to Phnom Penh, which I believe is the first direct flights between Indonesia to Cambodia in many years. Although I do wonder if this is because of this year’s SEA Games in the Cambodian capital.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ira says:

        really?! It really nice, since years ago I need to lay over at KL before continue to Phnom Penh.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was from the airport last night. Apparently that AirAsia flight from CGK to PNH leaves Jakarta at 3:45 in the morning!


  12. hcyip says:

    I remember Baphuon as a really interesting temple because of its imposing size and pyramid shape. The carvings are really impressive as well. It’s good to see all these individual temples featured on your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Its shape really gives Baphuon a distinct look compared to other ancient temples of Angkor. It’s nice that you’ve also been there, and I’m sure you didn’t do anything stupid like I did. To be honest, at first I was thinking of grouping all those sites in several posts. But after some deliberation, I decided to give some of these structures their own dedicated posts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • hcyip says:

        I’m glad that you made dedicated posts about several of these temples. Ha, yeah, I didn’t step onto any cow manure at the temple but it is understandable to sometimes to get very excited when exploring and overlook something. Good thing cow manure is not that disgusting.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. My impression of Angkor is of a vast grounds, full of a temple to this, and another to that, and so on. It’s impressive that you’ve been able to dial in so much history and info on just this one. But I’m not sure of your answer if you were to be asked what you remember most from the visit…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The scale of the ancient city of Angkor really is mind-boggling, and the fact that many of its temples are massive only adds to the appeal. When looking up information about those temples, sometimes I stumbled upon anecdotes I think worth sharing. And Baphuon certainly has a lot of interesting things beyond its magnificent structure. However, as you said, there’s something else I will always remember from this particular visit.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Such a beautiful , intricately designed temple. Reminds me of some of the age-old temples we have in India. Good to know all the work that underwent in the restoration of such heritage temples. Your exit might be have been ungraceful but who cares….and that’ll make it memorable as well. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Speaking of beautiful Hindu temples in India, there are so many of them I don’t know which ones to see in my next trip to your home country. It is indeed always encouraging every time I see an ancient temple that has been successfully restored. Java, the island where I live, certainly has many that are still waiting to be unearthed. Haha, for the rest of that day I really tried not to think of what happened.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.