Banteay Chhmar provided a unique opportunity in rural Cambodia: see an ancient Angkor-era temple, and stay with a Cambodian family in a small village in the countryside.
The temple itself is not big, but it is interesting to explore for a few hours. Very few foreigners make it here, so I only had to share it with a few Cambodian tourists. By staying almost until sunset, I had the place totally to myself. I gazed in awe at the ancient bas-reliefs and four-faced towers, the only ones beside the Bayon in Siem Reap.
Banteay Chhmar is not just one temple, but a temple complex. The main temple is surrounded by the remains of the big moat on all four sides. The moat is partial rice and wheat fields now. Outside the moat there are eight satellite directional temples and a huge baray.
However, the satellite temples are mostly totally ruined, and impossible to find. It’s fascinating that they are located in people’s back yards, past their banana trees and vegetation too thick to walk through. Despite the big signs marking them off the main road, you will need a $10 guide to take to you to them.
The giant baray, or reservoir, constructed by the ancient Khemers was surprisingly tricky to find too. I had to walk through some forest before I reached the huge open expanse. Now it’s rice and wheat fields, but it’s remarkable how big it is. It is a scenic and peaceful place. In the middle is an island overgrown with forest. There is a ruined temple on it, but no way to get to it.
My guide, a local farmer who spoke perfect English and really knew his history, provided some interesting insight on the temples. He said the complex was built by the King to unite the people to end a civil war. They built it amazingly fast, in only two years, so the quality was not good.
Then the king died, and work stopped. They would have been finished in two more years. The next king was “lazy,” retreating to Siem Reap, and only maintaining the temples there. Banteay Chamar fell into neglect and ruin.
Still, the amazing carvings survived… until the Cambodian cival war. There was no government to protect the temples, so Thais came and took many of the carvings. My guide showed me where they cut the stone. Fortunately, not all of the carvings were plundered.
How To Visit Banteay Chhmar Independently
Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism makes it possible. They provide homestays with locals, food, and guides, at very reasonable prices. The homestays are clean, and the bathrooms have been upgraded to a standard that Westerners are more familiar with, for those who aren’t comfortable with the more rustic arrangements that the locals use.
Driving to Banteay Chhmar is easy. But call ahead using the number on their website. There is never anybody in the CBT office. After all, CBT is just local farmers, and they are always busy doing their regular work.