Monday, July 9, 2012

Top Pick - Banteay Chhmar

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 sandstone.
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 site.
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
Andy 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.
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.

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