Banteay Chhmar: One of The Lessor Known Angkorian Temple
Once you make it to Siem Reap, then you are in the heart of Angkor. However, not so far from the ancient capital are many less visited Angkorian temples. There is Beng Mealea and Preah Srey, perhaps Phnom Koulen; one much over-looked place is Banteay Chhmar.
As all roads led to Rome, so did all roads lead to Angkor. Along one of these ancient roads is the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar, and from there it went to the outer reaches of empire via Phanum Rong, Phimai and what was to become the Khmer civilisation’s nemesis, and perhaps its descendants a more recent thorn, Sukhothai.
Banteay Chhmar is off the beaten track.
It is about mid-point between the towns of Samraong and Sisophon. Not only is it off the beaten track but to get there also means using a very beaten track and alternate modes of transport are needed. However, the government has promised a paved road; probably the next election. Getting to Sisophon is the easier option, as many buses ply National Highway 6 to the town. You can also access Sisophon from the Battambang direction as Sisophon is at the junction leading to the town of Poipet on the Cambodia-Thai border and going the other way the junction sends roads off to the northern and southern sides of Ton Le Sap.
No Buses or Mini-Buses
Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar is another story. No buses or mini-buses go there, so a traveller has to resort to a private taxi, bycle or a mototup. Be wary of local groups running taxi cartels. They overcharge and spout rules such as “Three passengers in the back and one passenger in front only as per Cambodian taxi law,” perhaps, but a regulation ignored by most taxi drivers. In addition, anyone who has used private taxis in Cambodia knows they are more stuffed than a Christmas turkey.
Taxis to Banteay Chhmar can be caught at the Phasa Chamkako Market (Phasa Thmei – New Market) on National Road 56 just north of town.
Or you could try what an elderly Dutch couple did while cycling around Cambodia. When sunset arrived, they would stop and set up camp in a road-side field. The Khmers didn’t seem to mind, and I suppose the reason for that is Cambodians seem to kip whenever and wherever they like.
There’s a bit of a shortage of five-star hotels in town, but there are some great homestay options: Ouch Nary Homestay, Khoeun Sreymom Homestay, Khlot Sopheng Homestay, and Phoeu Sopheann Homestay. You can simply arrive and find one of these places or make a reservation through https://www.visitbanteaychhmar.org/homestays/ or https://www.visitbanteaychhmar.org/
It seems that the bumpier the road the faster and more erratic the taxi driver is. My driver roared along the pot-holed road with one passenger, an irate mother, yelling at him. A baby in her arms was not happy either. As the driver off loaded her at a dusty village, she continued her deluge of insults even as we drove off. As for the driver, he looked at me and smiled and said something in Khmer.
“At least it isn’t the rainy season,” I thought.
Temple Bridges And Moats
As the taxi rattles into Banteay Chhmar, you set sight on one of the entrances to the temple where a bridge crosses a moat. The bridge’s Naga-styled balustrades are stone statues of gigantic warriors. They are the Devas and Asuras who used the Naga King Vasuki to the churn the Ocean of Milk in the quest of amrita or elixir of immortality. The stern looks of exertion define their struggle. On the other side of the bridge the road passes under a massive sandstone gateway and disappears into the jungle. The taxi turns right and moves parallel to the moat and temple wall, which goes on forever; this place is huge. We pull up in front of a restaurant and in I go.
Inside was a large group of Cambodian men. I sat down and ordered a coffee. One man lent over and asked where I was from. He introduced everyone and told me that they were part of an Italian archaeological dig that was excavating a 2,500-year-old burial site just outside of town. I told him that I planned to visit the temple in the morning. He offered to give me a lift to the front entrance, which was a bit of walk from here.
PLaces To Stay
I stayed at a nearby homestay, and it was interesting. However, the town shuts down by 9pm and gets up at 4am with a blistering loud speaker outside my room blaring out music and, I assume, some kind of propaganda: Good Morning!
When I returned to the restaurant in the early morning, my new friend was waiting and after breakfast we headed off to the entrance. When we arrived, he said it was $5 to get in. He then said that he operated the entry point, apparently. He took my $5 then strung up a hammock and went to sleep.
The temple was mine, literally, there was no one inside.
It is a majestic place now, so it is hard to imagine what it was like in its heyday. There are all sorts of carvings on the buildings: Apsaras, buddhas and other deities. You can walk through corridors and galleries and explore the central temple site. There is a lot of sandstone piles about as time has taken its toll on the place.
King Jayavarman VII
Banteay Chhmar and its satellite temples are one the great temple complexes of Angkor. The temples was constructed by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. It is one of the largest temples from the era and is one of only two sites outside of Bayon Temple with the enigmatic Bayon-style face towers. Bayon is also one of Cambodia’s most important and least understood temples from the era. The temple is similar in style to Bayon and may have originally had over 50 towers within its main enclosure. There are some stunning bas-reliefs of Khmer domestic and military life from the Angkorian era.
The most important and spectacular bas-reliefs are the two remaining images of the Avalokitesvara on the west gallery.
Just outside the complex are four satellite temples, and three are worth visiting: Ta Prohm Temple is a short walk just south of the main temple. Ta Prohm has an excellent four-sided, Bayon-syle face tower.
Samnang Tasok Temple is about one kilometre west of the main temple and can be reached by walking or bicycle. This rather large satellite temple also bears Bayon-style face towers. Chinchem Trey Temple is a bit over one kilometre to the north of Banteay Chhmar Temple. Use a bicycle or motorbike to get there.
Near the main temple is Meborn Baray. This is a large reservoir constructed during the construction of Banteay Chhmar. The baray stretches nearly 1,000 metres by 1,500 metres. There is a temple on the island in the middle of the baray, which can be reached during the dry season: negotiate a ride with a local.
The most popular half-day trip is to Banteay Torp Temple. This temple is nine kilometres south of Banteay Chhmar and off Highway 56. The temple has three soaring and precarious looking towers on the verge of collapse. The nearby pagoda has some beautiful wall paintings. It is best reached by motorbike or taxi.
There is also a silk factory not far from town. Here, women produce amazing products. It is part of the town’s efforts to reinvigorate local industry.
It seems that many people have a superficial appreciation of their country’s heritage, but a greater appreciation of selling that heritage for a quick buck. Banteay Chhmar has suffered years of looting and destruction.
Back in the 90s a bunch of Cambodian soldiers pillaged Banteay Chhmar. They made off with about 30 tons of sandstone including a 30-metre section of the temple’s wall that had a 32-armed Avalokitesvara carved on it. The loot was loaded onto six trucks and hauled off to Thailand. Thai border police nabbed one truck. The stolen artefacts were returned to Cambodia and the wall can be seen in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The other trucks, well, the cargo can be found in illegal collections around the globe.
When I returned to the restaurant, I bumped into an American volunteer who was working at the local school. He told me it was enjoyable, and you quickly become known by the locals who are friendly, appreciative and curious about this foreigner wanting to work in this remote place. Thinking of volunteering then try Banteay Chhmar.