Close to Siem Reap, with its own unique appeal and much quieter than your average Angkorian ruin, Banteay Kdei offers the perfect antidote the crowds at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. It is also conveniently close to the Big Three so you can easily add it to your one-day itinerary, enjoy a little solitude and impress your friends with photos of more than just the usual tourist traps.
Banteay Kdei is located just beyond Ta Prohm in the direction of Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre. It is also close enough to visit by bicycle from Siem Reap if you are reasonably fit and want to save on transport costs. Do note however that while it is possible to bypass the main temples entirely to get here from Siem Reap, unless you already have your temple pass you will still need to go to the Apsara Authority booths on the road to Angkor Wat to buy your ticket first.
Many visitors choose smaller temples for their sunrise tour, simply to experience daybreak in a more peaceful setting than the free-festival atmosphere of Angkor Wat. In fact if you arrive at any of the main attractions and find they are just too busy, then you may be advised just to get back into your car or tuk tuk, or on your bike, and head straight for the relative tranquility of an outlying temple. You can then return to the tourist behemoths later in the day, when visitor numbers may have dropped, even if the temperature will have risen.
Banteay Kdei and the nearby lake of Srah Srang provide one of those great early morning alternatives. Srah Srang was built as a vast royal bathing pool by Jayvarman Vll in 953, and its stepped sandstone terraces with sculpted lions and nagas provide a peaceful spot to watch the sunrise, or even have an early picnic. From here it is a gentle stroll to Banteay Kdei.
Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overgrown, and always anything but overcrowded, this 12th century temple is all on one level and was originally built as a monastery, hence the name, which translates as Citadel of Cells. The walk to the entrance is shady, and although you will probably find more hawkers than fellow tourists, it is cool and usually peaceful – unless, as we were, you happen to be treated to the sound of what is undoubtedly one of the loudest insects known to man. A species of cicada lives in the trees here which, when excited, emits a sound not dissimilar to a 100 decibel car alarm. Strangely, it is much less annoying when you know that it’s an insect rather than your neighbour’s Lexus. It is impressive.
Entering the temple you pass a small shrine guarded by a Buddhist monk or nun who will offer you their blessings and the obligatory thread bracelet in return for a small donation. The blessing and the donation on the other hand are not obligatory so you can always quietly slip by either side of the shrine if you prefer.
From here you are free to wonder the length of the main passageway with the tumbling and overgrown courtyards and halls either side. Lichens and oxidation add splashes of colour to the stone carvings which you can photograph to your heart’s content without having to queue up behind amorphous tour groups.
If you were excited at the prospect of the loudest cicada on earth, then you will be positively thrilled by the prevalence of large and exotic arachnids, some of which we discovered purely by chance, others which were shown to us by a very enthusiastic hawker. We were more than happy to tip him in return for leading us like the children of Hamelin along dark, narrow corridors in search of ever fatter beasties, rather than having to buy his souvenirs.
At the far end of the temple is a handful of stalls selling wood carvings, stone rubbings, and other assorted trinkets, many of which are of decent enough quality and definitely worth considering for your haul of mementos. Be prepared to haggle politely however, as prices here may quickly tumble, given that you can find very similar souvenirs at lower prices elsewhere.
From Banteay Kdei you have a world of options open to you, from other crowd-free temples to the iconic ‘Tomb Raider’ temple of Ta Prohm, and from the delicate loveliness of Banteay Srei to the sobering exhibits at The Landmine Museum. Whatever you decide to combine with a trip to Banteay Kdei, you are unlikely to be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. And for now at least, you will almost certainly have visited somewhere that few other tourists will have ticked off their Angkor checklist.
By Simon Hare.