The temple of Banteay Srei or the Citadel of the Women, boasts superbly well-preserved and highly intricate stone carvings that adorn the pink-hued sandstone of the delightfully small and intimate site.
Inside the volcanic laterite outer walls, virtually every available surface is covered in carvings with a predominance of apsaras — celestial nymphs in Hindu tradition — from which the temple takes its name. It has its own picturesque lotus bud towers too, but what makes Banteay Srei all the more remarkable is that it was completed some 150 years before Angkor Wat in the year 967.
Banteay Srei, never a royal temple, is thought to have been built by a guru of the king and it is believed that this lack of a royal go-ahead is one of the reasons why it is so small. What Banteay may lack in size it more than makes up for in beauty. Some have suggested that the temple was built by women as no man could have created something so beautiful and with so fine a hand. The carvings cover an incredible amount of the temple’s surface and the reliefs are often deep.
As with many Khmer temples, the main sections of Banteay Srei were built of laterite, but instead of the carving being done into a plaster coating normally layered onto the stone, the temple was faced with pink sandstone and the carvings done into that. The results are breathtaking. Throughout the monument are lintels, door jambs and window columns all layered with amazingly well executed and preserved carvings.
When the French came across the site in 1914 it was totally covered by forest and partly buried by earth. It didn’t take them long to realise they’d stumbled upon an outstanding find, so outstanding in fact that French author Andre Lalraux decided to take a chunk of the temple home with him. He cut out over a tonne of the finest apsaras and other carvings and carted them back to Phnom Penh where he planned to surreptitiously freight his plunder back to France. Fortunately he was arrested and sentenced to a couple of years in prison (a term he never served) and the carvings were saved. Lalraux was later appointed Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle.
At about 25 kilometres from town the journey in a tuk-tuk should take less than an hour each way and cost you in the region of $20-$25 including any stops you might make en route. If you splash out on a car with English-speaking driver you can expect to pay up to $40 for the privilege of air conditioning, some useful words of guidance and a cooler full of bottles of iced water. It’s best to check exactly what is included when you book your driver.
On arrival you may be pleasantly surprised to find a very well organised complex with a large car park, official gift shops, wall-mounted site plans, clean, modern toilets, souvenir stalls and restaurants. If you want to stay for lunch, restaurant menus include all the usual Khmer rice and noodle staples, and although prices were listed from $5 upwards, on my recent visit we were instantly offered “anything on the menu” for just $3.
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times to visit to avoid any tour buses but if the temple entrance looks busy when you arrive, turn right instead of left and take the short circular walk around the small wetland nature reserve. It’s a haven of birdlife – at the right time of day and year — and provides a peaceful and shady walk along good paths with various viewpoints on wooden piers constructed over reedy lakes.
The path from the lake to the temple also takes you past a small raised platform that gives you a clear view over the temple’s outer walls and moat for a good chance of capturing that elusive stranger-free photo.
You will of course need a temple pass to access Banteay Srei and unfortunately the only place you can buy one is at the main Apsara Authority ticket office on the road from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. Which is not exactly the most direct route from town to Banteay Srei.
To save time, buy a three-day pass when you tackle The Big Three on day one. It costs the same as two single-day passes – currently $20 for one day and $40 for three — and it gives you the luxury of being able to take your time and see more than the average package tourist. You could even mix up some half-day temple visits with a lazy afternoon by the pool, a spot of shopping or a long lunch without feeling guilty about the cost of your pass.
What’s more a three-day pass can also be used on any three days within a seven-day period which means you don’t need to spend any consecutive days at the temples if you don’t want to. Dare I say it, it’s one of the few pieces of Apsara Authority logic that actually works in favour of the tourist.
By Simon Hare.