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Banteay Chhmar

Travel Guide

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Cambodia's best kept secret, and very far from the beaten-tourist track, Banteay Chhmar is an enchanting ancient temple complex in northwest Cambodia. Despite most of it being in shambles and suffering years of looting, what remains is simply stunning.

In addition to Banteay Chhmar temple complex, the surrounding area has points of interest such as Banteay Top, Samnang Tasok, Boeung Cheung Kru (or Pol Pot's lake) and other ancient temples, also in delightful ruin. Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been cleared of overgrowth and has a well-ordered appearance, here you can have a true Indiana Jones-like experience exploring the rambling site.

On our first visit to Banteay Chhmar in late 2010, we had the temple to ourselves. Unlike at Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, there were no paved roads, tuk tuks, Western restaurants, banana pancakes or internet cafes. The two hour road to here from Sisophon has to be one of the worst in the country, but once you arrive you'll be rewarded with a side of Cambodia rarely seen by tourists. Take advantage of this opportunity while you can as this will probably change one the site receives World Heritage inscription, as it's currently a top candidate.

If time allows, the Banteay Chhmar experience is certainly worth a couple of days on your Cambodian travel itinerary. A rushed day trip from Sisophon is really not enough time, but will suffice at a pinch. Spending at least a night or two at a nearby homestay is highly recommended.

Upon arrival, your first stop should be a visit to Banteay Chhmar itself, with the remarkable bas relief and relics that lie within making it the area's premier destination. From there head to Prasat Samnang Tasok, a hidden jungle temple nearby located within such thick forest that you won't even know it's there until you're only a few metres away — look up and realise you're stumbling around under a Bayon-style tower.

Another top destination in the area is Banteay Top, with the outstanding views you'll encounter along the way making it well worth the trip.

When you're through with the temples, the countryside is worth some exploration. Hire a bicycle or scooter and spend hours enjoying the rural scenery. We encountered golden rice fields, friendly locals and an intriguing way of life, with stops on the road from time to time to allow herds of cattle to cross the bumpy dirt roads.

There are a number of interesting initiatives taking place here. Heritage Watch is running English classes and will have most likely been responsible for the training of your guide to Banteay Chhmar, while CBT, Community Based Tourism, is a programme supported by Global Heritage Fund, which is the same organisation working to preserve the temples of Banteay Chhmar. They run a homestay programme at Banteay Chhmar to ensure that the local community reaps the benefits of the emerging local tourism industry while preserving the local community. Currently six houses participate. You don't get to choose which house you stay in, as they take turns strictly to ensure that each family involved benefits equally.

Warnings to travellers
Stay on marked paths when exploring the countryside surrounding Banteay Chhmar temple. The area hasn't been completely demined.

When exploring the inner portion of Banteay Chhmar temple, you'll have to walk across piles of sandstone blocks. A loose brick could result in a smashed camera or worse. Walk slowly and test each brick before taking a full step.

You can hire an English speaking guide, rent bicycles/scooters or arrange various activities through the CBT office, located just east of Banteay Chhmar temple. As of late 2010 no internet cafes or banks were in the area. Plan ahead as you can access the internet or use ATM machines in Sisophon.

You can exchange money or purchase food and drinks at the market located in the southeast part of town. The stalls close around 17:00.

Shared taxis can be found across the street from the market in the morning. Otherwise you can arrange a taxi through the CBT office.

There is a tiny health centre near the temple but for anything remotely serious head to Phnom Penh.

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Text and/or map last updated on 20th September, 2011.

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