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Visions of Bayon

Louis Delaporte, Pierre Loti, Somerset Maugham ... ... and you!!!


Louis Delaporte, Gravure in Voyage, Album pittoresque. Note the tiger (in the courtyard) and the idealization of the face towers. Though overcrowded by the jungle at Delaporte's visit, they appear virtually intact. Strange modification: The windowed gallery and the porches at the foot of the towers have been taken from Angkor Wat!
What did "the visitors before you" feel and think when they saw the Bayon for the first time?
Read the reports of famous visitors and compare their visions with your own experiences.

Pierre Loti

Pierre Loti's report is famous for its romantic and personal style, bringing the author's deep feelings to life:
And then, suddenly, the rare birds that were singing become silent: and, suddenly, too, we are aware of a deeper obscurity. And yet the hour is not late. There must be something more than the thickness of the overhanging verdure to make the pathways seem so dark. A general drumming on the leaves announces the advent of a tropical deluge. We had not seen that, above the trees, the sky had suddenly become black. The water streams, pours in torrents upon our heads. Quickly, let us take refuge over there, near to that large, contemplative Buddha, in the shelter of his roof of thatch.

The involuntary hospitality of the god lasts for a considerable time, and there is in it something inexpressibly mournful in the mystery of the forest twilight, at the fading of the day.

When, at length, the deluge abates, it is time to take our departure if we wish to avoid being overtaken by the night in the forest. But we have almost reached Bayon, … celebrated for its quadruple-visaged towers. Through the semi-obscurity of the forest trees we can see it from where we stand, looking like a chaotic heap of rocks. We decide to take the risk and go to see it.

Through an inextricable tangle of dripping brambles and creepers, we have to beat our way with sticks in order to reach the temple. The forest entwines it strictly on every side, chokes it, crushes it; and to complete the destruction, immense "fig-trees" are installed there everywhere, up to the very summit of its towers, which serve them as a kind of pedestal. Here are the doors; roots, like aged beards, drape them with a thousand fringes; at this hour when it is already growing late, in the obscurity which descends from the trees and the rain-charged sky, they are deep, dark holes, which give one pause. From the first entrance that we reach, and were sitting in circle as if for some council, make their escape, without haste and without cry; it seems that in this place silence is imposed upon everything. We hear only the furtive sound of the water as it drips from the trees and stones after the storm.

My Cambodian guide is insistent that we should depart. We have no lanterns, he tells me, on our carts, and it behoves us to return before the hour of the tiger. So be it, let us go. But we make up our mind to return, expressly to visit this temple so infinitely mysterious. Before I leave, however, I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhang me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile again, beyond, on another stretch of wall, … and then three, and then five, and then ten. They appear everywhere and I realise that I have been overlooked from all sides by the faces of the quadrupled-visaged towers. I had forgotten them, although I had been advised of their existence. They are of a size, these masks carved in the air, so far exceeding human proportions that it requires a moment or two fully to comprehend them. They smile under the great flat noses, and half close their eyelids, with an indescribable air of senile femininity, looking like aged dames discreetly sly. They are likenesses of the gods worshipped, in times, obliterated, by those men whose history is now unknown; likenesses from which, in the lapse of centuries, neither the slow travail of the forest nor the heavy dissolving rains have been able to remove the expression, the ironical good humour, which is somehow more disquieting than the rictus of the monsters of China.

Our oxen trot smartly on the return journey, as if they, too, realised that it was necessary to escape before nightfall from this soaked and steaming forest, which now becomes dark almost suddenly, without any interval of twilight. And the memory of those over-large old dames, who are smiling yonder behind us, secretive above the heaps of ruins, continues to pursue me throughout the course of our jolting, rocking flight through the bush.

(Pierre Loti, Siam, p. 68-71)


Of the remaining buildings the Temple of Bayon is in a class of interest by itself. Mutilated, overthrown, the lodgement for a forest of trees and vines, it is still the most original and fantastic temple in the world. Formerly it contained fifty-one towers, each faced near the top of all four sides, with a great carved countenance of Brahma eight feet high. Although many of the faces are lost, a number remain, and the sight of them, looking calmly out to the four quarters of heaven as passive as Sphinxes, is weird and wonderful. The cracks and yawns in the joints of the stones upon which they are carved give each of them a different and contorted expression, some wry, some smiling, some evil. Lianas have crept across the eye of one; lichens and moss have blinded another. They peered at me from the treetops; they pursued me with their scrutiny like a bad conscience, no matter where I tried to escape. Stamped with the wisdom of a thousand years, they seemed to read my puny soul and mock the awe of them that rested there.

Slowly and wonderingly I climbed about these fabulous ruins. The sun set beyond the western jungle-tops, and before I realized that day had gone twilight enveloped me. Every bird became hushed; the faintest breeze seemed to hold its breath. Not even a cricket broke the pall of silence that sank upon this mighty corpse. From the shadows, death and oblivion crept forth to seize the city from the retreating sunshine; ghosts drifted beside me as I moved and dreamed through the gathering darkness. Loneliness – loneliness – in all this stupendous graveyard of man and monument, I stood – the only living human being.

(Halliburton, The Royal to Romance, p. 306-307)


Many visitors will be watching at this time for the great ceremonial sortie from Angkor Wat of the bats inhabiting it, which, suddenly collecting each evening from every nook and roof and dome in the immense building, combine into a dark cloud of leathery wings and fly three times round the temple: but actually to stand here, on one of the upper terraces of the Bayon, and merely to observe the shifting lights and colours of the tropical sunset play among these turrets, affords a spectacle infinitely more interesting and remote from experience. With every modulation they reveal new faces, or change the features and expression of those at which you are looking. They attain, now, to a numerical and problematic beauty, like that of a recurring decimal, that has no end, but goes leaping away into infinity, behind it trailing the indivisible progeny so soon to become itself. Never will you be able to penetrate beyond the barrier of repetition, a similarity that yet alters as you attempt to focus it. No longer architecture, this temple has become a vast, prophetic poem, a vision such as was granted to William Blake. From here nothing else exists, except in the sky, in which the evening star is now beginning to appear, and the moon, so clearly belonging to the same world as these crags: nothing else exists, even though the dying glory of the sun still rests upon the stones, throwing back its heat, and upon the jungle, whence come up to meet you on the scented evening air cries and chattering, and the sound of scuffling and branches crackling, which serve to emphasise the death and stillness, wherein only dreams can live, of this great building.

(Sitwell, O., Escape with me! p. 119-120)


Somerset Maugham

It surprised me because it had not the uniformity of the other temples I had seen. It consists of a multitude of towers one above the other, symmetrically arranged, and each tower is a four-faced, gigantic head of Siva the Destroyer. They stand in circles one within the other and the four faces of the god are surmounted by a decorated crown. In the middle is a great tower with face rising above face till the apex is reached. It is all battered by time and weather, creepers and parasitic shrubs grow all about, so that at a first glance you see only a shapeless mass and it is only when you look a little more closely that these silent, heavy, impassive faces loom out at you from the rugged stone. Then they are all round you. They face you, they are at your side, they are behind you, and you are watched by a thousand unseeing eyes. They seem to look at you from the remote distance of primeval time and all about you the jungle grows fiercely. You cannot wonder that the peasants when they pass should break into loud song in order to frighten away the spirits; for towards evening the silence is unearthly and the effect of all those serene and yet malevolent faces is eerie. When the night falls the faces sink away into the stones and you have nothing but a strange, shrouded collection of oddly shaped turrets.

(Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour, p. 224)


De Beerski sums up what means the Bayon for Cambodia:
The Bayon is the whole Cambodian nation turned to stone; from the summit of the central tower to the level of the ground all the qualities and vices, all the greatness and baseness which distinguished the race are disclosed.

(De Beerski, Angkor, Ruins in Cambodia, p. 128)

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