Banteay Chhmar & Sisophon


Photos to follow

Spoken of in revered tones when I first went to Cambodia in the early 90s, this ancient temple was in the middle of the battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces at that time. In recent years it's been in the news for all the wrong reasons, as indiscriminate and large-scale looting has robbed the temple of many of its priceless treasures. One of the major temple cities built by King Jayarvarman VII in the twelfth century, Banteay Chhmar is famed for its massive size, giant face-towers and remote location and I was hoping to enjoy the romance of a quintessential lost Khmer city as I rose at 6am after my first night in Siem Reap.

My pick-up truck left at 7.30am for the 103 kilometre ride to Sisophon, the nearest major town to the temple site. We'd waited until the driver was convinced he couldn't shoe-horn anyone else onto his vehicle although we had to stop in Kralanh, about midway, when a motorbike toppled over onto some of the dozen Khmer passengers in the flatbed rear. We were also held up for twenty minutes just outside the village of Leap where the flooded road surface of Highway 6 had caused a handful of lorries to get stuck in the clogging mud. Undaunted, our driver Roeun, put his foot down and we slid our way through the blockage, showering some of the stranded drivers and onlookers in wet mud. He didn't hang about to admire his handywork as we sped onto Sisophon for a 10.30am arrival. As I was the only passenger to dismount, Roeun dropped me at the Phnom Svay hotel at my prompting and I booked into my sparse $10 room with air con and a hot water shower before a bite to eat at a nearby street stall.

It was 2pm when I collared my moto-driver, Heang, for a tour of the town and beyond. I was saving my visit to Banteay Chhmar until the following morning and as that trip was a long one, I wanted to be comfortable with my choice of driver. As it turned out, Heang, 25 years old and one of six children, was an excellent choice as we got on well from the first minute, his English was passable and the moto that his uncle had bought him, was in good condition. Our first destination was the Golden Buddha at Phnom Banteay Neang, some 10 kms south of Sisophon on the road to Battambang. A few kilometres after the dusty town of Mongkol Borei, Banteay Neang is a small hill to the right of the road and across the one-track rail-line that links Sisophon with Cambodia's second city. The massive seated Buddha is a fairly recent addition but the handful of sacred caves are home to some paintings and a collection of small statues which the monks make offerings to, while the view from the top of the hill was worth the climb. A little further on, the highlight of Phnom Reach Kol, or Phnom Thom to the locals, was the troop of monkeys that roam around the small hillock.

Returning to Sisophon, or 'Svay' as Heang called it throughout my stay, we took a tour of the town stopping at the railway station where a goods train was parked alongside some shacks that I was reliably informed housed 'ladies of the night.' We crossed the covered bridge over the river that snakes through the town and called in at Wat Preah Ponlia before heading back towards my hotel. Nearby, Wat Sopheak Mongkol was awash with monks who pointed me towards a concrete killing fields stupa in the corner of the compound. However, they had no idea where the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims that the glass-fronted memorial contained, came from. Five kilometres west along Highway 6, we came to another hill, Phnom Chogn Charng, topped by a newly-built pagoda, caves, a large standing Buddha and lots of steps. At the top, Heang pointed out Phnom Bak, a little further west and renowned for its labyrinth of caves and grottoes. We stopped for a refreshingly cold coca-cola at the foot of the hill before returning to Sisophon to watch the sunset from the summit of Phnom Svay, a distinctive hill overlooking the town and topped by a lookout tower and telephone masts. On our way to the hill, we passed by the town's football pitch and I couldn't resist joining in with the game taking place between a group of local students. Twenty minutes later, I realised why playing soccer in that heat wasn't such a good idea and left my new-found friends with handshakes and waves, as we made our way to the top of the mountain.

From our spot on the lookout tower, Sisophon was laid out below us and the panoramic view, topped off by the blood-red glow of the setting sun, capped the afternoon's exploration nicely. Half an hour later, Heang and I were sat drinking tikaloks at a stall near the busy Vishnu-roundabout, we agreed on a 6.30am start in the morning for the long trip to Banteay Chhmar and we parted company at the hotel gates. After a shower, I walked around the market area to build up an appetite before settling down in the Pkay Proek restaurant, just fifty metres from my hotel. Chicken curry and french fries in this popular eatery was a good choice although with no windows, the local insect population also ate heartily at the same time. By 9pm, I was ready for bed and slept well, ahead of my Banteay Chhmar adventure in the morning.

I was pleased to see Heang arrive on time and we took off on a good road surface, north out of town and past his uncle's house, where he lives, near the petrol station and new market. With 70 kms to cover, Heang put his foot down and we raced along Route 69 despite the clogging dust clouds kicked up by passing trucks, reaching the village of Thma Puok in an hour. The road deteriorated badly for the remaining thirty minute (fifteen kilometres) trip to Banteay Chhmar, but as we arrived, the sun broke through the grey sky and bathed the outer laterite wall across the wide, water-filled moat in glorious sunshine. The guard on duty at the eastern entrance handed me the visitors book - I was the first to sign for over a week and recognised a few names in the book - and he pocketed the $3 fee, which Heang haggled down from $5. This was his third visit to the temple and we left his moto at the guard-hut and walked into the vast empty complex.

The first building we encountered was an isolated rest house in good condition, known as a dharmasala and similar to one at Preah Khan in Angkor, before stepping over the fallen masonry and jumbled blocks of sandstone that were formerly the eastern gopura, or entrance tower to the central sanctuary. The outer wall on both sides of the collapsed gopura is carved in a similar fashion to its more famous cousin, the Bayon. The carvings aren't as good though in my opinion and show mostly military battles and processions and historical scenes. Rather than press on and enter the central complex through a broken section of the wall, of which there were many, I decided to take my time and walk clockwise around the temple's perimeter to see all of the carvings. Some sections were in good condition, others were covered in lichen and moss and the depth of engraving made it difficult to determine what the carving represented, whilst large sections of the wall had collapsed either through old age or failed attempts to remove portions by looters. There were clear chisel and drill marks on the walls and I was disheartened to find that only two of the original eight multi-armed Lokitesvaras were still in place, on the west wall. It was abundantly clear that whole sections of the perimeter wall had been removed, block by block. I was also angered by the Khmer graffiti chiselled on the carvings that remain and the many headless apsaras, but quickly reminded myself that the temple is in a remote location, away from prying eyes and prone to this type of desecration.

After completing a full circuit of the temple's outer wall, we entered the heart of the complex through the eastern gopura and were confronted by a confusing jumble of collapsed sanctuaries, towers and scattered stone blocks. I was expecting this but any resemblance to an overgrown temple similar to Beng Mealea for example, where the ruined temple is still in the grip of the forest, had disappeared. While tall trees still form a canopy in and around the temple, in recent weeks an army of wood-cutters and leaf-clearers had descended on the area, removed the vegetation and with it, the romanticism of a lost Khmer city, much to my chagrin. Scrambling across the collapsed stones, one of the first recognisable sections we saw was the hall of dancers or 'salle aux danseuses,' where a frieze of dancers and another of garudas remain intact. Also on view are a couple of good quality lintels, the best known of which shows a Brahma flanked by rishis and hamsas.

The plan of the temple shows a long, narrow central sanctuary with interconnecting galleries, gopuras and towers but on the ground its impossible to make sense of any plan. However, near the centre of the complex stand four towers, each with the enigmatic four faces, believed to be in the likeness of Jayavarman VII, and another reminder that the creator of this temple was also responsible for the Bayon and the Great Preah Khan temple of Kompong Svay. Heang and I sat down on the roof of a gallery near the faces to absorb the stillness and quiet of the temple, broken only by the occasional birdcall, and he proudly showed me a carving he'd made on the stump of a tree on a previous visit, dedicated to his sweetheart. We completed our tour of the temple at the western end of the inner sanctum returning via a couple of royal pools and along a path that skirted the northern wall, back to the eastern entrance. As we were leaving, a 4WD vehicle drew up and a Japanese tourist got out, accompanied by the elderly guardian of the temple, whom Heang recognised from a previous visit. Apart from the guard at the gate, they were the first people we'd seen during our two hour stay at the temple.

After a brief halt at one of the stalls near the entrance for a cold drink, we sped off back along Route 69 with another ancient temple as our next destination. Less than twenty minutes later and after a short diversion, we arrived at the quietly impressive temple of Banteay Torp (also known variously as Banteay Teap or Top), located on a small rise and bedecked with colourful flags. The three tall towers (there were originally five) are quite distinctive although the temple was devoid of any decorative carvings that I could find. The location was as peaceful and undisturbed as its sister temple a few kilometres back along the highway and the presence of two very elderly monks sweeping leaves into small piles gave it an air of tranquility, rarely found at most of the temples in the Angkor complex these days. Returning towards Thma Puok, the back tyre on our moto suffered a puncture before we reached the dusty village and forced us to walk the last kilometre. Whilst Heang sorted out the problem, I walked down the village's main street, stopping to buy a lukewarm drink at one stall and to play hide and seek with some small children at another. As per usual, a lone foreigner in their midst certainly raised the curiosity levels amongst the villagers and a smile from me was often returned two-fold with a wide grin and a wave. Heang caught up with me and we stopped off in the grounds of the village's main wat, where the sparse remains of the ancient temple of Prasat Kaa Sen were surrounded by a wide, lily-filled moat. Just a few sandstone and laterite blocks with meagre carvings remain on a small rise although the picturesque setting, alongside a Halo Trust demining compound, rounded off a pleasant hour spent in the village.

I noticed a proliferation of kites in the sky on our return journey (I later found out the national kite-flying championships were in progress), as well as half-naked men and boys fishing with small nets at every pool or stream we passed by. The overhead sun and the choking red dust was making life on the moto pretty uncomfortable by the time we arrived back at my hotel. It had just turned 1pm and I wanted to return to Siem Reap that same afternoon. Heang said he'd get one of the regular pick-up trucks to collect me from the hotel in an hour, allowing me time to shower away the dust and grime from our morning's adventures and to rest. True to his word, a pick-up truck arrived at 2.05pm, full to the gunnels with Khmers and their wordly goods, and a space in the front seat for me. I thanked Heang for his help and promised to seek him out on my next visit to Sisophon as I stepped into the cabin, only to find that Roeun, the driver on the first leg of my journey, was again behind the steering wheel with a smile from ear to ear.

Forty minutes into our journey along Highway 6, we came to the flooded road outside the village of Leap and a major traffic-jam. It had worsened considerably since Roeun had run the gauntlet the day before and there was no way past the large lorries that were stuck solid in the mud. Instead, Roeun and his helpers unloaded the complete contents of their truck and transferred it to a waiting pick-up on the other side of the melee. Including waiting time, this took an hour and thirty minutes. It gave me the chance to meet some of my fellow passengers as we waded through the knee-high water and two in particular caught the eye. They were both recently demobilised from the army (a 'hot topic' in Cambodia during my stay) and proudly showed me their discharge papers which explained that they were guaranteed treatment at the district hospital in Siem Reap. One of them had a false leg, the result of a mine explosion two years earlier, whilst the other, whose English was pretty good, was clearly the centre of attention in the rear of the truck and spoke loudly and effeminately of his 'mental illness.' My attempts to keep everyone entertained, by singing along to my favourite Simon & Garfunkel tape, seemed to do the trick as we waited for the truck to fill up.

The replacement pick-up finally delivered me back in Siem Reap at 6pm and I walked to the Hanuman Alaya guesthouse only to find it was full. One of the Alaya staff, Tun, drove me to the Auberge Mont Royal, who were also chock-a-block before we found a chalet-room at the Angkor Temple Hotel on the road parallel to the river running through Siem Reap. This was a strange coincidence as this hotel was my accommodation back in 1994 when I visited Angkor for the very first time. It was known as the Diamond Hotel at that time and the chalets have been upgraded since then. I was pretty weary, so I walked across the river to eat at the Continental Cafe near the market, one of my favourite western-style eateries, before retiring to bed at 9pm. My trip to Sisophon and Banteay Chhmar had been an unqualified success even if my romantic notion of finding a lost Khmer city had not exactly been fulfilled.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

November 2001 marked my 7th trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.

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