Photo: Classic Khmer artistry.

Introduction

Our rating:

An immense city temple complex to rival that of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Banteay Chhmar is a glorious site rich in treasures, shrouded in trees, and yours to enjoy in relative isolation.



Why should you go to Banteay Chhmar?

To many, Banteay Chmmar is the perfect antidote to over-touristed Angkor and over-commercialised Siem Reap. Visit to stay in a traditional Khmer homestay and visit magnificent ancient sites with barely another soul on site. While the main attraction is the central Banteay Chmmar site, satellite temples and the rural surrounds encourage a longer stay. Slow down.

Banteay Samnang Tasok. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Nicky Sullivan.

Banteay Samnang Tasok. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Those with time and comfortable with slow travel and traditional hospitality will enjoy two to three nights here, mixing it up between historic sights and cycling the countryside. While it is possible to visit Banteay Chmmar on a long day trip from Siem Reap or Battambang, we would strongly recommend at least an overnight stay.

When to go to Banteay Chhmar

Angkor sees more visitors in a day than Banteay Chmmar sees in a year, so busy this place is not. When we visited in early 2019, we saw one other group of foreign travellers at the main temple and met two others staying at our homestay. So, in summary don’t worry about crowds.

Refreshments are available. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Refreshments are available. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Weather wise, as with the rest of Cambodia, from November through to February will see the coolest and driest weather. April and May will be blisteringly hot and with June comes the rain. A visit in wet season will see the forests surrounding the monuments (and the greater countryside) to be considerably more lush and photogenic, though yes, you may get a bit muddy and wet.

Orientation

Constructed by the famous Khmer warrior king Jayavarman VII, who was also one of the empire’s most prolific builders responsible for Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Srah Srang, Terrace of the Elephants, Preah Palilay, Banteay Kdei, and many more, Banteay Chhmar may be a little out of the way but is more than rewarding for those willing to take up the adventure.

Banteay Top. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Nicky Sullivan.

Banteay Top. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

It’s around 170 kilometres away from Siem Reap, of which 105 kilometres brings you to Sisophon, the capital of Banteay Meanchey province, and a further 65 kilometres gets you from there straight north up to the temple on a good road. Getting there is much easier than it used to be and is doable by taxi from Siem Reap or Battambang, or public bus to Sisophon and share taxi from there. Tour companies also run dedicated trips with a guide, which may also include an overnight stay and tour of the nearby area. If you want to stay overnight under your own steam, there are several homestays run by by the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism group (which we seriously recommend).

The town has the main temple at its centre, surrounded by an enormous moat. The moat in turn is encircled by a road with smalled lanes and paths radiating out. All are lined with typical Cambodian wooden houses and local shops and restaurants. It is a hard place to get lost in.

Battling with the Chams. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Nicky Sullivan.

Battling with the Chams. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Upon arrival, following the road around the corner of the moat and carrying on for about 300 metres will bring you to the Community Based Tourism Centre on your right. If you show up on the fly, there may or may not be people here, but if you contact them in advance they will make arrangements to ensure that someone is there to greet you. Through the CBT, you can arrange your homestay and/or a guide to take you around the temples. The helpful staff here can also assist with renting bicycles/scooters, the arrangement of other tours and onwards transport should you need it.

Visit Banteay Chhmar National Road No. 56A Banteay Chhmar. T: (097) 516 5533 https://www.visitbanteaychhmar.org/

Other sights definitely worth a visit include Prasat Samnang Tasok and Prasat Ta Prohm, both evocative temples located within such thick forest that you won’t even know they are there until you’re only a few metres away—look up and realise you’re stumbling around under a Bayon-style tower. There’s also Banteay Top, tucked away behind a nearby village passing beautiful rural landscapes along the way.

When you’re through with the temples, the countryside is worth some exploration. Hire a bicycle or scooter and spend hours enjoying the countryside. Expect 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.

Weaving up a storm. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Nicky Sullivan.

Weaving up a storm. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

There is also a silk centre, Soieries du Mekong, which was set up by a couple of French NGOs in 2001 and now provides viable employment to about 100 local women and men, making high quality, beautiful, richly coloured silk scarves and kramas that are spun, dyed and woven here. Prices are high, with scarves ranging from around $40 to $65, but so are the standards.

Soieries du Mekong: Mon–Fri 08:00–17:00 T: (054) 690 1570 https://www.soieriesdumekong.com/

The closest ATM machines are in Sisophon. You can exchange money or purchase food and drinks at the market located on the southeast corner of the temple. The stalls close around 17:00.

Warning: While there is a network of raised wooden walkways through the main site, if you decide to go off piste, you’ll have to walk across piles of sandstone blocks. A loose brick could result in a smashed camera or worse, so walk slowly and test each brick before taking a full step. Do take care.


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Where to stay in Banteay Chhmar


Wooden houses at various locations surrounding the temple
Under US$10

Community Based Tourism Homestay
# Wooden houses at various locations surrounding the temple
T: (097) 516 5533
info@visitbanteaychhmar.org
https://www.visitbanteaychhmar.org/

Banteay Chhmar’s Community Based Tourism programme organises homestays with local villagers and this is absolutely the best way to get the full experience when visiting.

The hosts are given support setting up one or two bedrooms comfortably and cooking for foreigners. We stayed with a family in the southeast part of the village, and loved it. They spoke very limited English, but the welcome was warm, and settling in and being able to observe ordinary Cambodian family life across three generations was like glimpsing through a window onto a world you’ve always known was there but never had a chance to peek through before.

Your home away from home. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Your home away from home. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Dinner and breakfast were prepared by the family and taken together (either at the house or the CBT office), and you can communicate any allergies or intolerances to the CBT coordinator, who will pass the information on to the family. The fee for these was additional to the cost of the stay.

The room, as they all will be, was comfortable though far from fancy, with a blankets, a mosquito net, fan and towel. It is a private space to yourself. In our case the shared cold water bathroom was downstairs and to the side of the main house, though the exact layout will vary from house to house.

Simple but comfy. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Simple but comfy. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We arranged everything by email beforehand with the CBT coordinator, who speaks perfect English, ahead of time. He was also helpful overall, and will work hard to ensure that your stay is as comfortable as possible. Homestays can also be booked through Booking.com, but we would recommend using the CBT to do your part in supporting an organisation doing good work in Banteay Chmmar.


Map of where to stay in Banteay Chhmar

Map of where to stay in Banteay Chhmar

Map legend

Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Where to eat

As far as food is concerned, the offerings in Banteay Chhmar are all pretty indistinguishable


We ate at one of the restaurants just on the northeastern corner, just south of the market and under the shade of a huge albizia tree, where we enjoyed a more than passable plate of mee cha sayk chrouk (fried noodles with pork) and a few cold beers.

Simple fare that will fill a hole after a day walking the temples. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Simple fare that will fill a hole after a day walking the temples. Photo: Stuart McDonald

There are a few other minor spots dotted around, but there is really little to separate them. If you have specific dietary requirements, you are best to eat with CBT and let them know in as far as advance as possible.

Dinner and breakfast can be prepared and served at your homestay or the CBT office if you prefer to skip the local restaurant scene.


What to see and do

Banteay Chhmar temple

Banteay Chhmar

For so long lost in the forests, scarcely known to even those who lived nearby, the immense temple complex of Banteay Chhmar is a must for adventurous souls who love the beautiful things in life.

Many labour under the misapprehension that Banteay Chhmar means “Citadel of the Cat”. But the Khmer for “cat” is “chmaa”. In fact it means “small city”, although at more than three square kilometres, Banteay Chhmar is hardly small, unless you compare it with its capital at the time it was constructed, nine-square-kilometre Angkor Thom.

Strike a pose. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Strike a pose. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Banteay Chhmar is not only of interest for its size, or the magnificent blend of temple and tree represented so much more beautifully here than in the better-known Ta Prohm, or the iconic face towers we also know from Bayon, but also for possessing features that you won’t find in the temples at Angkor.

Being far from the centre of power, and intrigue, Banteay Chhmar escaped from the so-called Hindu reaction, when almost all of the Buddhist iconography within the Angkorian temples was destroyed. Despite what guidebooks say, historians still don’t know when this was carried out, by whom or why. Banteay Chhmar also has some unusual features that are rarely found elsewhere.

The site is atmospheric. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

The site is atmospheric. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Banteay Chhmar feels like a wild place, burning with mysteries. The profusion and confusion of huge blocks from collapsed walls, halls and galleries, some of which you have no choice but to climb over, create a sense of adventure that is irresistible, while the simple beauty frequently compels you to just sit and wonder at it all. And all of this under the cool shade of some magnificent strangler fig trees, silk cotton trees, teak and more.

But the trees are an enormous part of the temple’s problems. One archaeologist has estimated that it took 20,000 labourers almost 30 years to construct Banteay Chhmar, and they did it by simply building up from the soft, sandy ground. There are no foundations, which helps to explain the extreme state of ruin. But the structures’ vulnerability is compounded by the thick roots of trees that work their way between and under carefully placed and carved stones, destabilising and eventually toppling the huge structures.

A bit of Ta Phrom without the hordes. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

A bit of Ta Phrom without the hordes. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Another persistent enemy has been looters profiting from the temple’s isolation. In one bold attempt, looters used jack hammers to sheer off the face of a section depicting four mutli-armed Avalokiteshvara (the Buddhist embodiment of compassion). The thieves were picked up in Thailand along with half of the 11 metres of carvings, which are now on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The complex consists of a large, moated outer enclosure with walls measuring 1.9 by 1.7 kilometres. You enter from the eastern end, which brings you to the next enclosure walls, which are also moated although that is now the path along which you explore the outer walls and all their bas reliefs.

The crowds are generally not too bad. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

The crowds are generally not too bad. Photo: Stuart McDonald

It is worth taking the time to explore the temple’s outer walls before diving inside. They tell the story of the Khmer defeat of the Chams who had taken the Empire seven years before. King Jayavarman VII was a great warrior king who, at 53, was relatively old when he ousted the Chams in 1178 after a great war, much of it fought on the waters of the Tonle Sap.

On the eastern wall, to the left of the central gate, you’ll find scenes describing the land and water battles fought against the Chams. More battle scenes take you around the southern sections, including people falling into the waters only to be consumed by huge crocodiles.

On the western side, you’ll find scenes describing civil life, including one of the two remaining Avlokiteshvara. There were eight. Two have collapsed and the other four were looted in 1998, though fortunately two of the stolen carvings were recovered.

Mayhem in stone. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Mayhem in stone. Photo: Stuart McDonald

On the northern wall there are more military scenes, with a long section just before the central gate showing the mighty Khmer army marching towards the east. At the far, eastern end of the wall, three men, with birds’ heads, pay homage to the king.

Inside the temple proper, you are confronted with a confusing profusion of tumbled sandstone, entwined with tree roots and vines. If you happen to be passing a spot that looks like it has bits of white waxy litter strewn about the place, look up. You’re underneath a tree that is full of natural beehives—common in the Banteay Chmmar area.

Sticking to the raised walkways is safest. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Sticking to the raised walkways is safest. Photo: Stuart McDonald

To the eastern end, the Hall of Kinnaris, like the Halls of Dancers found at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, features carvings of mythical creatures, half-women, half-birds, as well as some beautifully carved pediments among the collapsed ruins.

As you direct yourself west, you’ll go through the library, a rather rocky road now. The next section includes a face tower, showing the features of Jayavarman VII (or perhaps of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion; it has never been definitively confirmed who is meant to be represented in the face towers that are so distinctive of Jayavarman VII’s reign). Among the unusual features you’ll come across in here, there is a pediment featuring the three Hindu Great Gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, on a pediment as you pass out of the central eastern gopura.

We love the trees. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

We love the trees. Photo: Stuart McDonald

To get the most from the site, it is best explored with a guide. You can hire a local guide from the Community Based Tourism programme for $10 for a complete tour, and we thoroughly recommend doing so. Allow two to three hours on site depending on your level of interest in Khmer monuments. Early morning or late afternoon offers the best light for photographs. When clambering over uneven stonework, especially after rain, watch your footing as it is easy to take a nasty fall. Or just stick to the elevated wooden walkways which provide a comprehensive circuit through most of the site.

Location map for Banteay Chhmar temple

Click on the map to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Satellite temples

There are nine satellite temples surrounding Banteay Chhmar in total, though you’ll need a guide to find them as they’re not always well signposted, on difficult to follow trails and surrounded by jungle.

Parrots! Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Parrots! Photo: Stuart McDonald

A CBT guide will generally take you on an anti-clockwise circuit, starting at the north of the primary Banteay Chmmar site, and then visiting Prasat Yeay Kom and Prasat Chegnchem Trai to the north, Prasat Ta Nem and Prasat Samnang Tasok to the west and Prasat Ta Phrom to the south. The other major site, Banteay Top is further to the south, around a fifteen minute drive or ride from Banteay Chmmar. For all but the most temple-enthusiastic, the whole collection of these satellite temples fits comfortably into a half day. Here’s the wrap.

First stop is most commonly Prasat Yeay Kom, set due north of the centre of Banteay Chmmar, a hop skip and a jump from the centre of the northern bank of the main moat. Little remains save the central sanctuary atop a pile of collapsed masonry. Some trees still stand, their roots slowly creeping their way between the stones and there is still some notable bas-relief work on site. Look for the very well-preserved carving of what looks like two fighting parrots entwined. Allow ten to fifteen minutes.

A bit tumbledown at Prasat Chegnchem Trai. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

A bit tumbledown at Prasat Chegnchem Trai. Photo: Stuart McDonald

From here, continue north, either on foot or by bicycle, scooter or car to reach the somewhat tongue twisting Prasat Chegnchem Trai. According to our guide, the trai in the name refers to good fishing around here—though it must be in wet season only as the entire area was as dry as a bone when we visited towards the end of dry season. As with the preceding Prasat Yeay Kom, the main event here is a solitary tower which stands precariously, surrounded by tumble down stone work. In this case a Bayon face can be clearly made out towards the apex, though not on all the sides as much has collapsed. Allow ten to fifteen minutes.

To the west of Banteay Chmmar lies the next site, the forest-clad Prasat Samnang Tasok (Lucky Old Hill Temple). Guides will most likely take you here first, even though it is further out, returning to Ta Nem on the way back in. This is quite a beautiful site, with the main approach straightforward with perhaps the remnants of libraries to the left and right as you walk towards the central sanctuary. The Bayon faces atop the central tower are clear to the eye and the surrounding forest (full of birdsong when we walked through) makes for an evocative atmosphere. Allow twenty to thirty minutes.

The approach to Prasat Samnang Tasok. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

The approach to Prasat Samnang Tasok. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Heading back towards Banteay Chmmar, facing the causeway of giants across the western moat, Prasat Ta Nem can be found. Even though only two of the original four faces remain, Ta Nem is considered by many to be the most important representation of face towers in Banteay Chhmar. It owes its distinction, and preservation, to a row of praying figures added directly below the faces in a kind of necklace. This style, which was then replicated in the last face towers of the Bayon, helped to stabilise the faces (though the top of the tower is wrapped in more modern stabilisers as well) meaning they don’t suffer from the cracking or displacement that distort many of the faces in the central sanctuaries. Allow twenty to thirty minutes.

The next site is our personal favourite of the outlying sites. Prasat Ta Prohm to the south of Banteay Chhmar presents a tranquil well jungled scene. Set within a sacred lake, which even in dry season was filled with water, this is a location that invites serene contemplation. Surrounded by vegetation, the tower is in good condition. On the ground in front of the tower, a broken relief shows a multi-armed Avalokiteshvara holding a book and bottle and is likely the entity to whom the temple was dedicated. To get there, take the road just to the west of the southern causeway and follow until you get to a track heading left, then follow that. Allow thirty minutes.

A benevolent smile at Prasat Ta Prohm. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

A benevolent smile at Prasat Ta Prohm. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Further afield (and not walking distance), Banteay Top is a secluded and tall temple around five kilometres to the south of Banteay Chhmar. The temple has five large sanctuaries that look incredibly fragile despite their size and the stabilising efforts of the restoration. The temple doesn’t look large, but satellite images show it at the centre of an area 800 metres long and 500 metres wide. According to our guide the upper wooden decorative beams here are original—which would be quite amazing if correct as even toward the intricate carved patterns can still be seen. Allow twenty minutes.

Map of Satellite temples

Map of Satellite temples

Map legend

Click on the point of interest name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Getting there and away

Bus

There is no bus to Banteay Chhmar. Instead, you need to take either a taxi directly from Siem Reap or Battambang, or take a bus from either to Sisophon, the provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey province, and take a taxi from there. Sometimes the capital is also called Banteay Meanchey too.

Two wheeled exploring. Photo taken in or around Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia by Stuart McDonald.

Two wheeled exploring. Photo: Stuart McDonald

A taxi from Siem Reap directly to Banteay Chhmar should cost around $50, from Battambang, $65.

A bus to Sisophon, which is en route to both Battambang and Poipet, should cost about $5, and can be arranged through any of the bus companies that route through here, including Phnom Penh Sorya Transport, Rith Mony and Capitol Tours.

Alternatively, a share taxi to Sisophon from Siem Reap should be about $5. You will have to wait until the taxi is full, normally one or two passengers in front and four in the back.

A taxi from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar can be found beside the New Market, Psas Thmei, also known as Chamkako Market (Psas Chamkako), and should cost $25. A share taxi should cost about $5. As above, you’ll need to wait until the taxi is full.

Conversely, if you’re travelling from Battambang or Poipet, you can also pick up a bus or taxi that drops you off in Sisophon and catch a taxi or share taxi from there.

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