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Bakong: Ancient Temple Complex in Siem Reap


Bakong is an ancient temple complex in the Roluos group of temples in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. Built in the late 9th century during King Indravarman I’s reign, Bakong is the first temple mountain of the Khmer Empire. It marks the start of the classical period of Khmer architecture and inspired many later temples, including the famous Angkor Wat. Its five-tiered pyramid structure symbolizes Mount Meru, the sacred mountain in Hindu mythology. The temple is decorated with detailed carvings and bas-reliefs showing Hindu mythology, particularly stories of Shiva and Vishnu.

Historical Significance

As the state sanctuary of Hariharalaya, the Khmer Empire’s capital before moving to Angkor, Bakong is essential to understanding the growth of Khmer architecture and the rise of the Angkor civilization. Its unique Preah Ko architectural style combines Hindu and Cambodian designs, using sandstone and laterite. The temple’s standout features include its five-tiered pyramid structure, eight brick towers, and detailed bas-reliefs. A picturesque moat surrounds the temple, and well-preserved guardian statues add to its mystery.

Bakong served as the state temple of King Indravarman I, acting as the political and religious center of Hariharalaya, the Khmer Empire’s capital before Angkor. The temple was a monumental achievement, representing the divine connection between the king and the gods, confirming Indravarman I’s rule. It was the first large-scale sandstone temple, setting a new standard for later Khmer architecture. The design, with its five-tiered pyramid structure representing Mount Meru, deeply influenced later temples, including Angkor Wat.

Little-Known Details

In addition to its well-known highlights, Bakong contains lesser-known treasures that reveal more about the site’s rich history. Originally, 22 smaller temples surrounded Bakong, but only a few ruins remain today, offering a glimpse into the vast religious complex that once stood. In the central sanctuary, original inscriptions remain visible, offering insights into the temple’s dedication to Shiva and the rituals performed there. The discovery of several sandstone linga (phallic symbols representing Shiva) in the central tower shows Bakong’s religious importance in the Hindu culture of the Khmer Empire.

Interestingly, the central sanctuary originally had a golden pinnacle, representing the divine connection between the king and the gods. Although the original pinnacle is long gone, its legacy lives on through the temple’s symbolism and the pyramid structure’s representation of Mount Meru. Inscriptions in both Khmer and Sanskrit provide clues about the temple’s construction and its role in establishing King Indravarman I’s divine legitimacy.

Accessibility and Admission

Bakong is easy to reach from Siem Reap city center by car, tuk-tuk, or bicycle and is best explored over a 2-3 hour visit. As part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, admission is included in the park’s entrance pass:

  • $37 for one day
  • $62 for three days
  • $72 for a week

The temple provides stunning sunrise and sunset views, offering perfect opportunities for photography enthusiasts to capture the temple’s silhouette against the sky.

Wildlife and Natural Beauty

Bakong has a moderate level of restoration, preserving its historical charm despite ongoing conservation efforts. The lush vegetation around the temple provides a calm setting for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Visitors may see bird species, butterflies, and small animals, while the moat and nearby ponds offer a home to fish and aquatic plants. The moat is an impressive feat of engineering, fed by canals and reservoirs known as barays, which sustained the ancient Khmer civilization.

Tips for Visitors

Hiring a local guide is helpful to uncover Bakong’s rich history and architectural significance. Wear comfortable clothing, bring plenty of water, and apply sunscreen, as the site has little shade. For deeper insights into the Khmer Empire, visit the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, which has comprehensive collections of artifacts from Bakong and other nearby temples.

Religious Significance

Today, Bakong remains sacred to locals, and some practicing Hindus still visit the temple for worship. Whether you’re a history buff, a photographer, or an adventurer, Bakong’s captivating blend of history, culture, and natural beauty makes it a must-see destination in Cambodia.

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