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. You can hire a local guide from the Community Based Tourism programme for $10, and we thoroughly recommend doing so.
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.
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.
Left to its own devices for so long, the restoration of Banteay Chhmar is still very much a work in progress although this simply adds to its allure; it feels like a wild place, burning with mysteries. The profusion and confusion of huge blocks from collapsed walls, halls and galleries, many of which you have no choice but to climb over, create a sense of adventure that is irresistable, while the simple beauty frequently compels you to just sit and wonder at it all. And all of this under the cool shade of 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.
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.
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.
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 confontred 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.
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 yoursef 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.
Looking around the site, which is still under restoration, it would be easy to imagine that the effort to shore and preserve the temple is a relatively low-tech affair. Piles of stones lay in a sort of grid to the eastern end, and when you look at some parts, you can see how putting the temple back together again may be like dealing with a giant, albeit rather complex, jigsaw puzzle.
But Global Heritage Fund, the organisation behind Banteay Chhmar’s restoration, has brought a lot of hi-tech wizardry to the project. Using state-of-the-art 3D camera technology, they are creating a digital database to record and reassemble the stones.
Hundreds of thousands of carved and uncarved stone blocks lie strewn around the site. When archaeologists were restoring the Baphuon in Angkor, they did it in the field, mixing and matching thousands and thousands of pieces until they found the right one. Hence the project took 16 years to complete. Thanks to scanning technology, the project for Banteay Chhmar may be quicker, though they are dealing with a much larger, more complex site.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.