Bakong temple was one of the first temples to be constructed once the Khmer Empire moved its centre of power from Phnom Kulen down to the flatlands that lay closer to the Tonle Sap. It is, in the view of many, a stunningly beautiful yet underrated temple, surrounded by a moat and dense wall of towering trees, far away from the crowds thronging the temples around Angkor. It is also home to a peaceful little pagoda that shouldn’t be overlooked on any trip either.
Six years ago, the murals in Bakong Pagoda were restored by a joint Cambodia-Thai initiative led by Restaurateurs sans Frontières. Before they set to work, the pagoda was in a deep state of ruin, but over the course of a year — while their governments traded bullets and insults — this team diligently set about the painstakingly intricate work of restoring these depictions of the Buddha’s life. Unlike many restorations that were carried out in the 1980s, the colours and tones deployed at Baking are soft, luminous and soothing, reflecting the sense of serenity that pervades throughout this entire temple site.
Hariharalaya — of which Bakong Temple was the state temple — was a capital for the Khmer Empire’s first king, Jayavarman II, even before he declared himself universal monarch of the country in 802AD. But it was his successors, Jayavarman III, Indravarman I and Yasovarman I, who would build this beautiful temple and those of the Roulos Group around it. The pagoda is set within the grounds of Bakong, protected by its moat, and shaded by the trees. Entering it is to have one’s breath taken away by the luminous beauty of the murals within that recount the story of the Buddha’s life.
But there is more to the murals than that. First illustrated 70 years ago, the murals also reflect a little of the painter’s life, and a careful search will reveal French and Japanese fighter planes among the scenes. The original painter was taught by a French art teacher who had fought in the War. Indeed, the teacher himself is depicted receiving teachings from the Buddha.