Banteay Chhmar Temple
Vast and remote, Banteay Chhmar (Narrow Fortress) has repeatedly looted over the years and many of its treasures carted off to private collections around the world. The massive temple complex is yet another that was constructed by Cambodia’s most profilic builders, Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1201), on the site of an earlier 9th century temple. Built at the height of the Khmer empire’s indulgence, this area would have been one of the most important in Cambodia after Angkor Thom and Preah Khan. There is some debate over its origins, some scholars suggesting it was built in tribute to Jayavarman VII’s son Indravarman and the leading Cambodian generals responsible for the defeat of the Chams. Other sources suggest it may have been built as funerary temple for the grandmother of the king.
Originally enclosed by a 9km-long wall, it housed one of the largest and most impressive Buddhist monasteries of the Angkorian period. This is one of the few temples in Cambodia to feature the faces of Avalokiteshvara as seen at the Bayon in Angkor Thom. However, many of the towers have collapsed over the centuries and it is now only possible to make out three towers with their enigmatic expressions.
The temple was deservedly renowed for its intricate carvings, including scenes for daily life in teh Angkorian period similar to those at the Bayon. Unique to Banteay Chhmar was a sequence of eight multi-armed Avalokiteshvara adorning an outer gallery, but six of these were hacked up and trucked into Thailand in a brazen act of looting in 1998. The two that remain are spectacular and offer a glimpse of how this temple must have looked before it was pillaged. Fortunately, Cambodian and Thai authorities have begun to clamp down on the illicit trade in Cambodia antiquities and intercepted on the road to Bangkok and have since been returned to Cambodia. Unfortunately, it is too late for Banteay Chhmar.
This temple was pretty much off-limits until the end of civil war in 1999. Like Beng Mealea, 60km east of Angkor, the romantic image of the all-powerful jungle slowly consuming the ancient buildings pointed to massive potential for visitors. However, the authorities decided to clear away the jungle encroaching on the stonework and while this has undoubtedly made exploring the temple as safer experience, it has taken away much of the magic. Tourists with a genuine interest in Cambodia’s temples will enjoy a visit here, as will travelers who want to see more real Cambodia than Siem Reap has to offer. However, don’t expect anything quite as spectacular as the principal temples at Angkor.
There are as many as a dozen smaller temples int he vicinity of Banteay Chhmar, all in a ruinous state. These include Prasat Mebon , Prasat Ta Prohm , Prasat Prom Muk Buon , Prasat Yeay Choun , Prasat Pranang Ta Sok and Prasat Chiem Trey .
To get into this site, you take the road No69 from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar , which has recently been overhauled with assistance from USAID. The 39km section to Thmar Puok is in very good condition, while the last 15km to Banteay Chhmar is a little bit messy in places. All said it takes just over an hour on a trail bike and one and a half hours by moto or car. Try the hotel in Sisophon if you want to rent a motorbike. It is possible to get to Banteay Chhmar by taking a pick-up from Sisophon to Thmar Puok and arranging a moto for the round trip from there. Some pick-up may even carry on to Samraong, passing through Banteay Chhmar village, but this is rare.