prasat banteay chhmar, banteay meanchey province – On a topographical map of Cambodia, Banteay Chhmar is hard to ignore. The outlines of the sprawling Khmer temple show that it dominates the countryside. Once upon a time, it even dwarfed Angkor Wat.
Yet few travelers or Cambodians ever make it up to the deep northwest to see this ancient wonder. And who could blame them? Banteay Chhmar is on the road to nowhere: two-and-half hours north of Sisophon, down a potholed dirt road with sagging bridges.
But it’s worth the trip, because its jumbled stones and intricate carvings, still shrouded in the jungle, make it one of the most romantic, exotic sites in Cambodia. Visitors feel like they’ve discovered a lost city.
The temple made international headlines last month when Thai authorities stopped a truckload of Bangkok-bound goods containing more than 100 stone sculptures believed to have been stolen from the temple late last year. Looted at least since the mid-1980s, Banteay Chhmar highlights the difficulties in protecting remote Angkor-era treasures.
The vandalism is evident: some the faces of sculptures have been carved away. And the visitor has to wonder what else has been plucked from the pile of stones.
Most of Banteay Chhmar, or Fortress of the Cat, was built during the late 12th and early 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII. He probably ordered its construction as the funerary temple of his son, the crown prince Indravarman, according to Michael Freeman, an expert and author on Khmer temples.
Banteay Chhmar’s outer enclosure measures 2 km by 2.5 km—nearly as large as the temple-city of Angkor Thom and more than twice the size as the Angkor Wat enclosure. But there’s not much left to see in the outer area. The best stuff is along and inside the inner enclosure.
A moat still exists around the main gallery of the temple, and you can cross it on the east side, near a stone chapel once used as a rest house, or dharmasala.
Unlike many other temples, there are no guides, armed guards, vendors or shirt-tugging children with souvenirs. The only hustle and bustle comes from the nearby village of Ban-teay Chhmar, along the east and south of the temple, just across the moat. But once you’ve crossed the waterway, the village seems a world away.
There’s no apparent place to begin your tour, so a fellow traveler and I walked around the outer wall of the inner enclosure, inspecting carvings, peering through thick vines and looking for ways to approach the interior. There’s a dirt path around the wall, which, although broken in many places, features a var iety of bas reliefs from battle scenes to multi-armed Lokesvaras.
The only sounds were the calls of birds in the trees and lizards rustling through leaves.
We ultimately entered from the gate at the south wall, which seemed to offer less resistance in the way of prickly brush. We climbed over wobbly stones, under trees and along dead branches. The main passage was blocked with rubble, but we climbed through a small window in the gallery and soon were inside.
Only later did we notice a small path used by locals (and probably looters) leading from the north of the central building to the northern side of the east wall. It’s difficult to find this entrance from the outside, though.
The scramble was well-rewarded. Inside the central sanctuary are three towers featuring serene, smiling Bayon-like faces.
The portraits, like those at the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, probably bear the likeness of Jayavarman VII.
Looters haven’t been able to take these away — yet.
How to get there:
Banteay Chhmar is about 58 km north of Sisophon. Sisophon is the nearest base to explore the temple, unless you’re willing to find your own accommodations in the market town of Thma Puok. From Sisophon, you can get a taxi near the central market, which will take you up Route 69. We spent 1,000 baht (about $28) for our own taxi, but, if you’re really on the cheap, you can probably get to Thma Puok for less than a dollar by sitting in the back of a pickup, then hire a moto the rest of the way. Thma Puok is about 42 km north of Sisophon, and Banteay Chhmar is another 16 km north of Thma Puok. The main road is considered safe, but parts of the province have been subject to unrest in the past year or two. There is no admission charge.