How do you visit a medieval, ‘Tomb-Raider style’ temple like Angkor Wat, but leave the heaving crowds behind? Drive approximately three hours north to Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia.
Banteay Chhmar is Cambodia’s fourth largest Angkorian period temple. At nearly 900 years old, it was built in the late 1100s by King Jayavarman VII whose is famous for expanding the Khmer empire beyond Cambodia, building other temples at Angkor such as Ta Prohm, developing the city of Angkor Thom and, perhaps just as impressively, for living well into his 90s – a grand old age for anyone born in medieval period!
Striking Buddhist and Hindu imagery stretches cross the temple’s impressive sandstone towers, friezes, and halls, amounting to almost one kilometre of reliefs. These reliefs show princes wrestling with snarling beasts, domestic scenes, powerful deities, and military triumphs.
Banteay’s name is thought to have originally meant ‘small citadel’ or ‘narrow fortress’, but the word ‘Chhmar’ has changed it’s meaning over the years and is nowadays known as ‘citadel of the cat’.
The whole thing is made up of complex colonnaded galleries, and five interconnected sanctuaries. But one of the biggest achievements of its Angkorian architectural design is the use of water to create artificial landscapes within.
Banteay Chhmar is located on a dry plain and water was sourced from the Dangrek mountains to create six artificial ponds, a reservoir (rahal in Khmer) and a mebon temple (artificial island).
This Mebon temple is just one of 9 satellite temples which dot the surrounding landscape, and which remain relatively unstudied by archaeologists, and un-signposted; getting to them requires traversing dense forest, full or mosquitoes. If you do manage to find it (Google maps comes in surprisingly handy) it is immenseley rewarding; the artificial island is stunning, and there’s a little walkway going over a ditch leading you through yet more arched doorways with beautiful intact reliefs on top.
In terms of conservation, Banteay Chhmar has needed a lot of work. It had suffered a partial collapse, been looted, and become overgrown with trees and plants growing through the walls, but in recent years, Global Heritage Fund has been helping to conserve the site and make it accessible.
Now, there’s a walkway across most of the site to protect the stones, stabilisation and reconstruction of some of the walls, as well as reinforciements to the impressive, smiling-faced towers.
Local communities are also being helped to organise and manage the tourism industry, with homestays and local food, which makes any journey here a real authentic Cambodian experience – everyone was so welcoming when I was lucky enough to visit.
I feel immensely privileged to have been able to visit this place. It was really peaceful, serene and, compared to Angkor Wat it was so quiet and empty I felt like I had the place to myself. It felt a little bit unreal! It remains one of the most stunning ancient sites I have ever visited, and it’s definitely one for any archaeology-lover to take note of.
If you want to learn more, and see a really neat reconstruction of whole temple complex, visit the official website here.
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