“Though the identity of Phnom Bakheng is today firmly established, the place hardly gets the respect it deserves…..Late every afternoon, just before sunset, crowds troop up the hill, on foot or by elephant at 20 dollars a ride. Then they climb the temple’s steps to the standing room only, plaza-like upper tier. …….Then they throng back down the hill as darkness closes in. Most never realise that they have stood in a spot that in its day was the centre of the universe.”
Came across that in a rather good book by John Burgess; ‘Stories in Stone – The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History’ – Page 89 (River Books).
If the ruins on Phnom Bakheng aren’t the most spectacular of the Angkor sites it is certainly one of the most important historically and the view from the top of the hill on a clear day is truly spectacular.
The temple mountain of Bakheng was the centre of Yasorvarman’s early 10th-century capital of Yashodapura. A moat and surrounding earthen rampart stretched for 5-6 kilometres on either side enclosing a city of some 30 square kilometres, (even larger than Angkor Tom). This is around the year 900 – at that time no other city on earth could have compared – and if not the ‘centre of the universe’ then Bahkeng was certainly the centre of Southeast Asia’s greatest ancient civilization.
Anyone having visited Angkor will have seen the lines of tour buses at the hill’s foot every late afternoon and the ‘standing room’ only summit will have definitely got worse since Burgess’s visit a few years back! His point that tourists only go to watch sunset and not visit the temple is very valid and an alternative morning visit to this fascinating temple is highly recommended.
You’ll have the place pretty much to yourself, the views will be tremendous and the hike up through the trees not so hot. The ruins are actually in surprisingly good condition considering it is one of the oldest sites in the area; further maintenance and consolidation work is on-going and the design, layout and astrological symbolism of Bakheng is more complex than most sites.
You can find our Cambodia tours and Angkor temple itineraries – including an early morning visit to the former centre of the Universe – at the corresponding link.