The Phnom Bakheng temple was build around the year 900 in Yasodharapura by King Yasovarman I, also known as the leper King, as he suffered from leprosy.
Yasovarman I moved the capital of the Khmer empire from Hariharalaya to Yasodharapura, near current day Siem Reap where Angkor Wat was to be build more than 200 years later.
Mountain temple dedicated to Shiva
The Phnom Bakheng is a mountain temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. King Yasovarman I made this the state temple, the most important temple of the Kingdom. It harbored the most sacred linga in Angkor.
The temple is located on top of a 70 meter high hill. From the top there are great views of the surrounding area including Angkor Wat and and two other temples build on hill tops, the Phnom Krom and the Phnom Bok. It is a popular place to view the sunset, which can make the temple very crowded at times.
Representation of the mythological Mount Meru
The Phnom Bakheng is the first Angkor temple that has five prang towers on top of the pyramid to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru. In comparison, the Bakong temple, build around 2 decades earlier, has just one prasat. Many of the Angkor temples were build to be a representation of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain with five mountain peaks from Hindu mythology.
Layout of the temple
The temple area was surrounded by a moat. In front of the stairway leading to the hilltop temple are two 2½ meter high lion statues standing guard. A path leads to the main entrance, that faces East.
Just before the remains of the laterite wall with the gopura entrance gate are a few pillars that remain of a building, and a structure of a later date that contains a footprint of the Buddha. In front of the Eastern side of the stepped pyramid are two sandstone library buildings with entrances to the East and West.
Five stepped pyramid
The pyramid of the Phnom Bakheng consists of five receding tiers measuring 76 meters at its base and 47 meters at the top level. On the platform of the fifth tier are the large central sanctuary, surrounded by four smaller sanctuaries. The towers enshrined lingas, some of which are still there. The large central tower had four doors, whereas usually there is just one entrance (usually East), while the others are false doors. The North side of the central prang contains an inscription dating from the reign of King Jayavarman V (968 - 1001).
On the towers are finely carved statues of devatas (guardian spirits) and apsaras (a divine female usually depicted dancing). The lintels and pediments on the prasats show several depictions, like naga snakes and warrior figures.
109 Sanctuary towers
A total of 109 sanctuary towers were build at the site, 44 around the base of the pyramid, 60 on the five tiers of the pyramid and the 5 large prasats on top. Today only part of the central prang still exists, while very little remains of the four surrounding smaller towers. Most of the 60 around the base have not survived.
At the center of each side of the pyramid is a stairway leading to the platform on top. The very steep stairway is guarded by lions. Opposite each of the stairs was a Nandi bull (the mount of Shiva), of which fragments remain.