CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Banteay Srei - The Jewel in Angkor's Crown
All the reports I'd read on the Internet before my departure for Cambodia suggested a visit to the exquisite temple of Banteay Srei was now a safe option. Bandits and Khmer Rouge guerrillas had been cleared from the area and a small trickle of visitors had resumed trips to the site, some 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. Variously described as Angkor's "Jewel in the Crown" and "the finest example of classical Khmer art", I was aching to see it for myself and Soydy, my moto-guide, somewhat cautiously agreed to take me there. We left the hotel at 7am and rode eastwards alongside the moat surrounding Angkor Wat, past Srah Srang lake and took a right turn soon after the temple of Pre Rup. The road was tarmacked and the traffic light as we stopped a few yards in front of a police checkpoint. Soydy dismounted and with a great degree of deference, handed the uniformed officer sitting on a wooden bench a $5 note, to allow us to continue.
We soon reached the village of Phum Pradak, strung along both sides of the road and sited in the middle of the now dry East Baray. With the villagers going about their early morning business, we dodged chickens and pigs in the road and turned left at the local school and onto a potholed and dusty part-paved track that was to lead us to Banteay Srei. Passing through a couple of hamlets and negotiating the wooden planks spanning two poorly-maintained bridges, we reached the temple, at the foot of the Phnom Kulen mountain range, just before 8am. As Soydy parked the moto under a tree, my first impressions were mixed. The sun bouncing off the reddish sandstone of the eastern entry gate was warm and inviting, although the whole site, compact and at ground-level, lacks the monumental feel of other temples in Angkor. However, as I was soon to find out, what Banteay Srei lacks in bulk, it more than makes up for in a wealth of decoration and sculpture unsurpassed at any other site I've encountered. Banteay Srei is something of an anomaly. It wasn't built by a King but by a spiritual teacher, Yajnavaraha, the Brahman of King Jayavarman V, in 967. At that time it was called Tribhuvana Mahesvara and stood in a town called Isvarapura. The name Banteay Srei means the 'Citadel of Women', primarily due to its size and was one of the first temples to be restored by the French earlier this century, using a process known as anastylosis. Because of its location, a dozen or so miles north of Angkor, it hasn't always been accessible, particularly during the wet season and the death of an American tourist in 1995 put it out of bounds until recently.
Through the eastern entry gate and onto a paved causeway, lined at regular intervals with stone boundary posts, a handful of female souvenir hawkers were milling around at the start of their working day. At the mid-point and on either side of the 70-metre processional walkway are a couple of ruined buildings, with the one on the right containing a superbly carved fronton above the doorway and another lying on the ground at the end of the causeway. Both whet the appetite for what is to follow. A moat filled with stagnant water surrounds the temple's central complex. As we approached, the locals had disappeared and we were alone for a few magical minutes. Those moments of calm and quiet amid a mass of glorious decoration already visible on the walls of the group of buildings before me, made the early morning start worthwhile.
The central area of Banteay Srei contains half a dozen buildings, crammed into a small space and on a raised platform, accessible by steps guarded by sculptures of mythical animals. Each building is covered profusely in decorative carving, no space is left untouched and the quality of workmanship is exceptional. The three central towers, side by side, have intricate male and female figures (dvarapalas and devatas; guardians and deities) standing in niches at the corners (top of page) and glorious lintels and frontons abound above each doorway (left & right). As it was still early, the sun had lit up all the carvings facing east whilst those with a westward aspect were shrouded in darkness. I was already on my third roll of camera film as I gazed, almost hypnotized, at each building, not really able to absorb it all in one hit. It's one of those places that you have to visit more than once, on a par with the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. There were too many outstanding scenes depicted in the carvings to recall them all but Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, Indra and the forest fire and the dual between Valin and Sugriva are truly magnificent specimens and I'm surprised they haven't been spirited away for safekeeping at either the National Museum or the Angkor Conservatory. Lost in all this splendour, the spell was broken when I heard voices and realised that other tourists and sightseers had arrived unannounced. With its compact size, the temple began to fill up quickly and I agreed with Soydy that we would leave and head back towards Angkor, stopping off at Banteay Samre on the way.
Our visit had lasted just over an hour and judging by the numbers of cars, minibuses and other motos speeding past us on our return journey, we'd timed our departure perfectly. The day was hotting up and the red sandstone dust kicked up by the passing traffic was covering both Soydy and myself in a fine layer, as we weaved ineffectually from one side of the road to the other to avoid the dust clouds. We stopped a couple of times to snap some scenes of local life before reaching Phum Pradak, turning left and then right, a few hundred metres past the last house in the village. The dirt track took us to Banteay Samre, a rarely-visited temple, erected by King Suryavarman II in the twelfth century. This site was reconstructed by the French using the anastylosis method and despite a lack of maintenance over the last few years, it remains an elaborate ground-level sanctuary with good quality decoration and a similarity to Angkor Wat, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Soydy remained at the drinks stand near the east entrance and at the end of a long laterite causeway, as I walked through the gopura of the outer enclosure alone (left). The inner courtyard is surrounded by a gallery with sandstone pillars and lit by windows with at least five balusters. A unique interior moat, now dry, surrounds the temple's main area, cramped with libraries, pavilions and the central tower. The passage of time, vandalism and theft has robbed the temple of its best lintels and frontons but it is still evident in those that remain, that Banteay Samre, in its heyday, would've held its own with the best Angkor has to offer. Decorative, multi-headed nagas and sculpted colonettes abound throughout and one feature of the temple I'd not noticed elsewhere were stone spikes running across the centre ridge of the roof of most of the galleries and key buildings.
Outside, I rejoined Soydy for a cold drink with some youngsters in tow, as word spread that their first visitor of the day had arrived, an indication that the site is overlooked by many visitors to Angkor. I would recommend you try it, and of course Banteay Srei, you won't be disappointed. Back on the moto, we began our journey home to Siem Reap, looking forward to a much-needed shower to clean away the dust, happy in the knowledge that our early morning expedition had been a roaring success.
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