For years, a rusty, rutted, oftentimes impassable track linked Poipet and Siem Reap, the bane of farmers and tourists alike. Efforts at construction, then re-construction then more re-construction were made, half-hearted and soon thwarted by the elements. If you listened to rumours, they’d tell you that it was all to protect the monopoly one airline held over the route between Bangkok and Siem Reap, though of course that’s unsubstantiated. Then two years ago it finally happened: a good road was built and today visitors are whizzed to temple town from Poipet on smooth, black tarmac. The pitfalls now lie elsewhere, in the scams, deviations and diversions that are perpetrated en route.
But there is another monumental advantage to the opening up of this road, and that is that it is so much easier to get to Banteay Chhmar from Siem Reap now. Located in Beantay Meanchey province, Banteay Chhmar (‘citadel of the cat’) was constructed under the same fellow who was responsible for the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, namely Jayavarman VII, one of Angkor’s greatest kings.
It’s a giant temple, rivalling Angkor Wat in size, with its own moat and vast artificial lake, and could have sustained a population of more than 100,000 people. Sharing with Ta Prohm and Preah Khan not just its origins but also its present day condition, Banteay Chhmar is a glorious fusion of the best of what both people and nature can create. A ‘natural’ approach has been taken to its restoration, and tumbled, carved stones mingle freely with trees and foliage. The effect is magical.
Sadly, Banteay Chhmar has suffered extensive looting which, together with natural deterioration, means that only about a quarter of the bas reliefs can be seen. They are still just as stunning though.
To get there, hire a taxi from Siem Reap to Sisiphon, about 105km on the good new road, and from there you carry on to the temple over 70km of pretty bad roads. We hope the suspension in your taxi is good. The cost will depend on how long you want to stay. If you can get a small group of you together, all the better.
The trip can be made in a day pretty easily, with plenty of time for a good look around and a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants near the temple. Alternatively, and much better, take advantage of the community based ecotourism initiative that was set up with the help of Agir Pour le Cambodge, a French organisation that is also behind the fantastic Sala Baï in Siem Reap.
Through the initiative, you can spend the night at one of the homestays, visit local industries, go on tours and, best of all, enjoy a torchlit dinner inside the temple itself. Just imagine that…
Because it’s that bit more difficult to reach, you won’t find many other tourists here, which is just wonderful. On the day we visited, we had the whole temple all to ourselves, another reason all the images you see here look so peaceful.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 31st January, 2015.