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.
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.
It’s 170 kilometres away from Siem Reap, of which 105 kilometres brings you to Sisophon, the provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey, and a further 65 kilometres gets you from there straight north up to the temple on a brand new road. Getting there is much easier than it used to be and is doable by taxi from Siem Reap, or public bus to Sisophon and 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 site consists of the main temple complex, surrounded by a huge moat and flanked by roads lined with typical Cambodian wooden houses and local shops and restaurants. These are all pretty indistinguishable, although 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 fried noodles with pork (“mee cha sayk chrouk”). Around that nucleus there are several smaller temple or shrines, and a baray (reservoir) to the east.
Following the road around the corner and carrying on for about 300 metres will bring you to the Community Based Tourism Centre — just before the turn-off for the baray. 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.
On your left, the giant moat and huge enclosed temple can be seen. Other sights definitely worth a visit include 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. There’s also Banteay Top, tucked away behind a nearby village passing a beautiful landscape on 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 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 is also a silk centre, Soieries du Mekong, which was set up by a couple of French NGOs in 2001 and now provides jobs to about 100 local men and women.
A number of interesting initiatives are taking place here. Heritage Watch is running English classes and will most likely have been responsible for the training of your guide to Banteay Chhmar, while the Community Based Tourism programme is supported by Global Heritage Fund, the organisation working to restore the temples of Banteay Chhmar. They set up the homestay programme at Banteay Chhmar to ensure that the local community reaps the benefits of the emerging tourism industry while preserving the community. Currently nine 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.
A new initiative set up by Phnom Penh-based tour company Khiri Travel, in coordination with the Community Based Tourism group and the Ministry of Fine Arts & Culture, means you can now go glamping at Banteay Chhmar in beautiful tents with tonnes of space and proper beds with mattresses and mosquito nets. Set up in cooperation with the CBT, meals are cooked by members of the local community, while you can also wind down a hot, hard day’s exploring with a lovely cool glass of wine (or bubbles). The trip needs to be booked in advance through Khiri Travel.
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 2015 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 on the southeast corner of the temple. 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 small health centre at the southwestern corner of the temple but for anything remotely serious head to Phnom Penh or Bangkok.
By Nicky Sullivan. Last updated on 12th November, 2016.