Bantaey Chmar, The Mystery of Cambodia

Bantaey Chmar Temple

Banteay Chmar is 12th century a not often visited temple ruin in Northerwestern Cambodia quite near the volatile Thai border.  The ruin itself will immediately look familiar.  It is one of two known temples with the mysteriously smiling four-faced deity, Avalokitesvara, staring into the cardinal directions.  This Bodhisattva, or Buddhist salvation figure, is better known throughout Southeast Asia in the form he took on after passing into China through Tibet—Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion.  He was reimported into Southeast Asia in female form through Chinese influence and she is a significant deity in Vietnamese and Cambodian Buddhism.

The other temple with this same memorable face is the spectacular Angkor Thom, usually one of the first temples visited at the complexes north of Siem Reap.  Banteay Chmar also resembles the temple known as Bayon: its outer gallery is carved with bas-reliefs  similar to those found at Bayon.  There is a reason for this resemblance—their builder was the same, and likely many of the artisans who built these more visited temples also worked on the carvings at Banteay Chmar.

Jayavarman VII, The God-King

Like the smile of Avalokitesvara, Banteay Chmar is a mysterious place.  It is believed to have been constructed by the prolific builder Jayavarman VII. It is known to have housed the largest Buddhist monastery of Angkorian times, but the purpose of its construction remains a mystery.   Jayavarman VII rose to power after the Khmer kingdom was reduced to shambles by Cham invasions from the East and some theorize that this temple was built as an offering to thank the Gods for the Khmers’ triumph over their enemies.  Whether this is the case or not may never been known.  What is know, however, is that Jayavarman VII was the second Buddhist Khmer king, and his identification with Avalokitesvara indicates that unlike the majority of Khmer today, Jayavarman was a Mahayana Buddhist.

Like previous and subsequent Hindu kings, he sought to assume the role of devaraja, “God-King.”  These mysteriously smiling faces bear a striking resemblance to the king himself.    After consolidating his own power he embarked on many great construction projects in part to solidify his position as God King.  These construction projects would continue to transform Khmer society.  Requiring hundreds of thousands of workers, all of whom came to a centralized location to work, he helped continue the urbanize the kingdom.  Ta Prohm,  Preah Khan, Bayon,  Angkor Thom, Neak Pean  are among his other constructions, and perhaps except for the last, they all bear some similarity to Bantaey Chmar.  Visiting Bantaey Chmar is, however, singularly unique.

Its size is not readily apparent, but Bantaey Chmar’s outer enclosure, mostly tumbled down, is 1.9 by 1.7 km and that is surrounded by a moat that still holds water in the rainy season.  To the east is a dried out baray—a man-made lake.  Unlike the “Western Baray” west of Siem Reap, which still holds water some 800 years after its construction, the one at Bantaey Chmar is merely an impression.  Within the first enclosure, there is a middle enclose mostly standing.

Within the middle enclosure, and surrounding the main temple, is the inner wall that features some of the most beautiful bas-reliefs of any Cambodian temples with only Bayon and Angkor rivaling them.  These carvings provide a snapshot back in time just like the paintings of the Flemish or Italians give us a glimpse into Western culture.  The reliefs depict religious deities but also martial scenes and dipictions of everyday life, frozen in stone for over 800 years.  Scenes of going to market, working, and fishing line the same walls as Buddhas of compassion and military campaigns.

Daily Life and Tomb Raiders

Notable is the relief of Avalokitesvara and the propitiation scenes of villagers delivering up offerings.  They enforce the idea that the God King needed these rice offerings to feel his army of temple builders as well as secure the kingdom and fend off Cham invaders.  And of course, there are the every present Apsara dancers, of the celestial dancers of the Royal Court.  It was reported that the Cham’s kidnapped the court’s Apsaras in the raids before  Jayavarman VII repealed them.  No doubt their depiction here had an added significance to contemporary viewers.  It was their God-King who had returned the Celestial Dancers.  It modern times, however, it has largely been the Thais who have been stealing Apsaras.

Relief of Avalokitesvara

Since the end of the Khmer Rouge period, Bantaey Chmar has been heavily looted   Bantaey Chmar was listed on the World Heritage’s Watch Sites three times between 1998 and 2002.  A decade ago large portions of the western gallery wall were removed by looters, resulting in the loss of six of the Avilokitesvara reliefs.  Cambodians claim it was the Thais who did it.  Whether this particular accusation is true or is merely a part of Cambodia’s ongoing rivalry with its bigger neighbor is unknown, but certainly many Khmer artifacts can be found in Thai antiques stores as well as Cambodian ones.  Be cautious, however, and buying Angkorian artifacts no matter where you are.  The United States has a reparation policy with Cambodia, and bring these ancient artifacts into the United States without the proper import approval is illegal.  This important legislation gave a way for these “tomb raiders” to prosecuted for their real crimes against humanity—deriving the whole world the opportunity to experience these sites intact.

Preservation intends to change visitor dynamics as well as tomb raiders.  While not planning on heavily restoring it like the structures of Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat, it will be preserved as a ruin.  However,  a suspended cable platform is planned, turning a visit to the ruin into touring it on a walkway.

Visiting Bantaey Chmar

Currently, however there are no suspended walkways and only one viewing platform made out of roughly hewn two-by-fours.  There are not even the lurking guides who will give you a tour for a dollar or children selling guide books.  There are a few Khmer boys who take your entrance fee—expect to pay $5 or $10.  That is because there are not many ways to get to Bantaey Chmar, meaning that tourists rarely visit it.  Some days none come at all, and sometimes there may be two groups of two or three.  It is also too far out of the way to attract locale Khmer for a picnic stop.  That means that here you find the idyllic peace that looking at a photograph of Ta Prom can give you—a sense of abandonment, of solitude.

What you will actually find at Ta Prom is someone asking you to please move your elbow as it is in their shot, or waiting an interminable long time to take a photo while couple after couple has their picture taken infront of that “haunting scene” you wanted to capture.  The sounds at Bantaey Chmar will be of the birds singing, of a passing tractor, of insects humming.  Those God-Eyes staring serenely out over a largely tumbled down temple help one survey the history that stands before you, penetrated by trees and touched by time.  You often will have the entire grounds to yourself.  Outside a few shaky structures (that is what the single viewing platform is for), nothing is roped off.  Your access if unfettered.  Surely this would destroy the ruins if the hordes of Angkor stamped through here.  As it is, it is an abandoned ancient ruin far in the Cambodian countryside.

One can’t be completely free, however, and there are grim reminders on the way there.  Roadside landmine warning sighs with their “Death Symbol” mark areas just outside the outer moat’s walls.  This area of the country is among the most heavily mined in Cambodia.  The temple compound has been cleared of  mines, but you should not explore too far afield from the middle enclosure.  It is a real danger—landmines left by the Khmer Rouge still kill and main hundreds in Cambodia every year.

Most visitors reach this largely ignored temple through Sisaphon, a small, nondescript town about an hour east of the Thai border-crossing at Poipet.  It offers a single hotel and a few guesthouses that really are extra rooms rented out to travelers, most of them locals.  Don’t expect English to be spoken.  Adventurous travelers who don’t plan ahead can stay at one of these accommodations and make the trip the following day.  It can easily be reached by bus or taxi from the Arayanaprathet/Poipet border-crossing, about an hour drive east, and it makes an excellent stop to break up the right from Siem Reap to Bangkok.  It is located about one hour and forty-five minutes west of Siem Reap.

Road to Bantaey Chmar
Finding you way the next morning usually involved finding your way back to where you were dropped off—in front of the Golden Crown Hotel.  At a small junction in front of the only real hotel in town is usually where you will find moto drivers, the taxi cab drivers of Cambodia.  There are few tuk-tuks to be seen in Sisaphon, not that they could take the treacherous dirt roads to Bantaey Chmar.  Only four-wheel drives, bikes, oxen and other farm equipment ply these roads, and unless you planned ahead you will be going there on the back of a Khmer’s motorcycle.  Be prepared to be uncomfortable, and if you can bring a face mask or a bandana, you will appreciate it.

In the monsoon season, mostly between May and November, it can be at times unreachable.  When it is, even during these rainy times, you will be showered by clouds of red dust.  Sunglasses and something to cover your mouth and nose are not essential, but they are recommended.  For the adventurous, the ride there can be as exhilarating as the ancient ruins.  Of course, your drivers should fill up with at least a Johnny Walker bottle’s worth of petrol.

For those seeking something a little more chaperoned but just as adventurous, you can arrange homestays through the French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge.  You can also make arrangements with tour operators in Siem Reap to make the journey from Siem Reap and make in the day (a long day) in a four-wheel drive or even rent a dirt bike in order to make your own trip or even make arrangements for a stay in Sisaphon with transportation.

However you get to Bantaey Chmar, it is worth the effort.  And while the preservation features planned for it will protect it for generations to come, for the moment you can walk through its ruined corridors and look at the images of ancient God Kings, alone, and it feels, if only for a minute, you are standing in a place that has only been touched by time.


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