the Western Baray

Leaving Siem Reap by route 6 in the direction of Sisophon towards the north-west, a branch in the road to the right after 12 kilometres, leading north, takes one in 500 metres to the south-west corner of the western baray. The view on arriving at this vast artificial lake is superb, particularly at the end of the day. The entire expanse of water is contained within a levee of earth which forms a dike, shaded by large trees and with the forest of Angkor as its backdrop - set against which is the verdant foliage of the western Mebon at its centre, with Phnom Bakheng off to the right. In the distance, Phnom Bok stands out in silhouette from the long line of the Kulen hills which bar the horizon. At sunset the whole is coloured in sweet pastel tones.

The baray forms a vast rectangle of 8 kilometres by 2. At its present level, the water only covers its western two thirds with, in places, depths of 4 and 5 metres - the remainder having been turned to rice fields. The water is quite clear, and the gently sloping sandy bottom allows very pleasant bathing - though one should always beware of the weeds that sometimes grow at some distance from the bank.

Previously filled only by the rains, it is now, since the construction of a barrage on the Stung Siem Reap not far from the temple of Ta Nei, replenished by a system of channels which make use of the north and part of the west moats of Angkor Thom.

To judge by the small temple of the western Mebon which marks the centre - in the same style as the Baphuon - the baray must have been realised in the 11th century, with its eastern dike corresponding to the western limit of "Yasodharapura", the first Angkor centred on Phnom Bakheng. It is, to the west of Angkor Thom, the replica of the eastern baray that is similar in size and was excavated to the east of the capital towards the end of the 9th century, during the reign of Yasovarman.

Traces of ancient pathways and the remains of buildings found in the baray - the bases of walls and the jamb stones of openings, brick steps, the remains of tiles and pots and copper jewellery - show that before the formation of the lake the region must have been inhabited. An eighth century stele (713) has been discovered, defining the rice fields offered to a certain queen Jayadevi, who seems to have been a daughter of Jayavarman I. The discovery of some pieces of sculpture - pedestals, a large statue of a badly decayed dvarapala and an exceptionally large round colonnette in primitive style - also shows that at least one important sanctuary was submerged which must have belonged to the "city of the baray" of Jayavarman II (9th century), investigated by Philip Stern.

Some think that the western baray, perhaps linked with the Great Lake by canal, could have served as a port for royal barges - besides its function as an immense reservoir and fishpond. On occasion, it has also provided an excellent landing strip for sea-planes.