|One of Banteay Chhmar's face towers|
Anyone who has read my blog for a while will know that I'm a massive fan of the temple of Banteay Chhmar
in Cambodia's northwest corner. So much so that I wrote an article for my own book, To Cambodia With Love
, about the temple. In case you haven't bought a copy of my book yet, though I can't imagine why you haven't, here is the article.
Andy Brouwer hunts for hidden temples at Banteay Chhmar
Spoken of in hushed tones
when I first went to Cambodia in the early 1990s, the remote temple of Banteay
Chhmar was in the midst of the battleground between Khmer Rouge and government
forces and off-limits. A decade ago it was in the news for all the wrong
reasons, as indiscriminate and large-scale looting robbed it of many of its
priceless treasures. Today, it has found new life and has opened its doors to
adventurous travelers as archaeologists repair its walls, and it may soon
even attain UNESCO World Heritage status.
One of the major temple
cities built by King Jayavarman VII during a twelfth-century construction
frenzy, Banteay Chhmar is famed for its massive size, giant face towers, and
wild location. I was hoping to enjoy the romance of a quintessential lost Khmer
city when I paid my first visit in 2001. What greeted me was a giant jigsaw
puzzle of fallen masonry, collapsed galleries, towers, and jumbled blocks of
In the previous week an
army of wood-cutters and leaf-clearers had descended on the site, removed much
of the vegetation, and with it, the enchantment of my hoped-for lost city. Some
sections of the temple’s intricately carved perimeter wall were in good
condition, others were covered in lichen and moss, whilst large sections had
simply disappeared altogether, removed by looters. Chisel and drill marks were
much in evidence, and only two of the original eight multiarmed Lokesvara
carvings were still in situ. Graffiti and headless apsaras made me angry, reminding
me that the temple’s remote location, away from prying eyes, made it a perfect
target for this type of desecration.
I returned to Banteay
Chhmar four years later on a mission to uncover some more of its secrets. I was
adopted by half a dozen local teenagers on my arrival. The ringleader was the
only girl, India, “like the country,” she beamed, eagerly showing me the best
bits as we ambled around the temple. We used large sandstone blocks that
littered the floor as stepping stones and climbed onto the roof of galleries to
get a better view of the three remaining towers with the enigmatic, giant,
smiling faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (or Jayavarman VII, depending
on your point of view)—one of the face towers had fallen and shattered into
many pieces a few months before. Despite the occasional bout of laughter from
my companions, who couldn’t keep quiet for longer than a minute, as we walked
through the inner sanctuary the birdcalls and stillness gave the temple an
undisturbed and tranquil presence, so unlike the crowds and trappings of
the main Angkor site.
India whetted my appetite
for further discovery with talk of additional satellite temples nearby. The
first was located behind her village, in the center of a moat surrounding a
tree-festooned island where a giant Bayon-style face peered over the treetops.
Prasat Ta Prohm reminded me of a slimmer version of one of the main gates of
Angkor Thom, with four massive faces at the four cardinal points, still in very
good condition though lacking any lintel carvings. One had lost its nose, but
apart from that the faces—carrying a serene expression with closed eyelids and
thick, slightly curled lips—were identical to those at the main Banteay Chhmar
I engaged the services of
fifteen-year-old Sita, with his machete, to act as my guide, and we set off on
our adventure to find the other temples. The two badly ruined towers of Prasat
Toch offered little by way of excitement. Prasat Mebon was on an island in the
center of a huge baray, but again was
in poor condition, though it hosted some interesting wall carvings. Prasat Yeay
Pum, a sandstone temple surrounded by a laterite wall, showed obvious evidence
of theft, with blocks of sandstone containing the heads of carved apsaras missing from the wall.
We continued north for
another few minutes and came to a large, water-filled moat and a seemingly
impenetrable undergrowth-covered island. It proved impossible to cut a way
through the eastern approach, as we came under attack from the spiky thorn
bushes, equally vicious red ants, and itchy kha pods, so we tried the
western entrance, with more success. After ten minutes of inching our way
through the tangled, thick bush, we entered the dark interior, under a canopy
of tall trees. Adjusting my eyes to the darkness and to the large tower in
front of me, I could make out a giant face. The temple, called Prasat
Chiemtrei, was similar to Ta Prohm in the form of its main tower, though only
two faces remained, with two sides of the structure having fallen down. This
was temple exploration at its most exciting and challenging.
After lunch we located
Prasat Yeay Chor in a clump of bushes, but with little to see we moved on to
Prasat Yeay Chy. Surrounded by a dry moat and dense vegetation, this was
another large gate tower with giant faces on two sides, north and east, but
missing from the other two compass points. Farther west through a forest
of trees and across a series of dry rice fields, we arrived at another moat,
this time filled with water. The path into the complex of Prasat Samnang Tasok
was easy aside from the ferocious red ants, but the floor of the temple was
covered in thick bushes, so it was best to clamber along the walls and roof of
the outer gopura to make our way to the
inner sanctuary, which was topped by four more giant faces and other carvings.
Like the majority of the
hidden gems I’d located, not another soul was anywhere to be seen, and the only
sounds to be heard were birds and the occasional rustle of a lizard amongst the
undergrowth. On the way out, I was perched precariously on the lintel of a
gateway when two red ants bit into my stomach after crawling up my trousers,
reminding me that temple exploration has an occasional downside.
After years of exploring,
Banteay Chhmar is one of my top picks amongst Cambodian temples. It’s a genuine
ruin where you have to clamber over the fallen remains and shimmy
up onto the roofs of galleries. There’s something special to see in all of
its nooks and crannies, and the thrill of adventure to be found within—and
outside—its walls takes me back there time and again.
Banteay Chhmar is sixty kilometers north of Sisophon. Finding the
satellite temples will require the services of a local guide. The community
offers overnight homestay options and can be contacted through the phone number
and email address below. Temple admission: $5.
Article reproduced by kind permission of ThingsAsian Press.
adds: On my most recent trip, I saw the Global Heritage Fund conservation work
underway. The fund is currently developing a master plan for the temple to
preserve and protect the site, which has been receiving international press
coverage and will soon apply for World Heritage status. I’ve a feeling it won’t
be long until this temple changes forever, with roped-off pathways and more
tourists, so try to make a trip as soon as you can.
Labels: Andy Brouwer, Banteay Chhmar, To Cambodia With Love