I’ve always been a bit of a temple nerd. Particularly those that are deserted and semi-ruined, I love to picture how they would have looked in their heyday and imagine their day-to-day life. I'd been to Angkor Wat three times, and that had only served to whet my thirst for more, so when I decided to teach English in Cambodia, I realised it would give me the opportunity to see what lay beyond Angkor. So when my first public holiday weekend arose, I was keen to do some exploring. Unfortunately, there weren't too many options within striking distance of my school in Battambang; it seemed there was only one option – Banteay Chhmar. Not to say it was a last resort – from what I read, it sounded well worth a visit.
Once I began talking about my plans with my fellow teachers, a group was quickly formed – Julia from Germany, plus Victoria and Greg from France. Before long, most of the school family decided to join us – our principal Kamnat had to stay but his wife Rath and two of their children, Mana and Sanai, tagged along for the ride. As our group was now seven, it made sense to hire a taxi. This seemed decent value at US$125, given it was big enough for our group size and that the price would cover an overnight return journey. The only other way of reaching Banteay Chhmar is to catch a bus to the highway town of Sisophon and then organise seats in a shared taxi to reach the town itself – not ideal for a short weekend trip and also untenable due a group of our size.
Saturday morning quickly rolled around and our taxi pulled in the gate at 8am sharp. We piled in and 3 ½ hours later we were 130km north of Battambang in the small village of Banteay Chhmar. After a quick lunch of lok lak, it was time to hit the temples.
The complex at Banteay Chhmar consists of around 10 temples – 9 satellite temples scattered in the nearby countryside around one main temple, the eponymous Banteay Chhmar.
This is where we decided to begin our exploration. Lending it's name to the entire complex, Banteay Chhmar (“temple of the cat”) dates back to the late 12th century. Built by Jayavarman VII, considered to be one of the most powerful and significant of the ancient Khmer rulers, little is known about why Banteay Chhmar was built and what purpose it served.
From the outside, Banteay Chhmar shares a similar layout to Angkor Wat, with a causeway crossing a moat that surrounds the entire temple grounds. The sheer scale of it was amazing -
almost a perfect square, with each side 700 metres long. Since we were coming out of the dry season, the moat was almost entirely devoid of water, with the few remaining pools choked by lilies.
Our first impression was the tranquillity. Given the dearth of transport options, it was unsurprising that workers outnumbered visitors – in our two hours within Banteay Chhmar, we saw just one other group.
Whereas it’s exterior was reminiscent of Angkor Wat, it’s interior design shares a similar layout to the famous Bayon temple in Angkor, no surprises given Bayon was also built by Jayavarman VII. But what makes Banteay Chhmar significant is another similarity with Bayon – the serene and enigmatic smiles of it’s many carved faces evokes memories of its more famous counterpart at Angkor.
Having entered via the main gate in the eastern entrance, we began to explore. Large piles of rubble meant many areas were a no-go, although several wooden walkways allowed us to gain a better perspective of Banteay Chhmar. As we worked out way through the temple, we approached the west gate. Here we found another thing that makes Banteay Chhmar special – its carvings. Several outstanding avalokiteshvaras reminded us of Banteay Chhmar’s Buddhist origins, although some Hindu imagery remains. There were also intricately-carved bas reliefs depicting mythical battle scenes.
After that, our group temporarily went our separate ways – young Sanai was feeling the pace so the family took him back to the guesthouse, while Julia, Greg, Victoria and I headed off to the first of the satellite temples.
Chin Chem Trei lies around 1km north of Banteay Chhmar, easily found via several small lanes running between farms. Little restoration has been done here; most of the temple lies in ruins, with just a small portion of the central structure crudely reconstructed. We had the place almost to ourselves, our only companions being a large number of bright coloured caterpillars crawling over the temple walls.
The next morning, we had time to visit a couple more temples. Our taxi wasn’t leaving until noon so we hired bikes from the guesthouse and set off.
First up was Samnang Tasok. It wasn’t the easiest temple to find. We could see it on our map yet several dead ends frustrated us. We cycled down dusty trails, across fields, encountered several unmapped forks in the path. Finally we reached it, only to find there was a paved alternative route, still new enough to have eluded Google Maps and Maps.me. Again, no other tourists were to be found. Samnang Tasok was once surrounded by jungle; now it is just sparse forest, with just enough cleared to allow a safe and easy visit.
Our last temple was Ta Prohm, much easier to reach and find than Samnang Tasok since it led just a few hundred metres south of town. It seems almost every temple complex in Cambodia has a Ta Prohm, the most obvious example being the 'Tomb Raider' temple at Angkor, although one thing the Banteay Chhmar temple has over it’s Angkor rival are it’s Bayon-style carved faces.
There was another thing about Banteay Chhmar that appealed to me.
Often tourism is a race to the bottom, with providers ruthlessly undercutting each other, particularly in the low season when they are all competing to attract a dwindling number of tourists. Not in Banteay Chhmar, though – by embracing a community-based tourism (CBT) approach, they ensure that all members of the community benefit. Bookings are allocated by the CBT office, meaning there is no need to compete with their neighbours.
You will find several guesthouses on platforms such as booking.com, however using their services will do you no special favours as the CBT office manage these bookings and will still allocate based on availability.
We were allocated Svat Sarin, a two-storied wooden house with three guest bedrooms just a short 5-minute walk from the CBT office. It's run by a charming elderly couple; as is common away from the cities, they spoke no English but communication was easy with smiles and gestures.
Our brief weekend visit meant we were limited to just temple visits but the CBT also offers a tabs of activities, such as cooking classes, traditional music and village tours on an ox-cart.