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Seeing Cambodia's temples - but without the crowds

Written By vibykhmer on Sunday, July 12, 2009 | 10:45 AM


It's early on a Sunday morning in Cambodia and I'm standing at a 12th-century moat. Traces of mist hover above the lotus leaves that dapple the water. Across a causeway, through a tumbled-down gate, lies Banteay Chhmar, one of the largest temples ever built by the ancient Khmer Empire. My friends and I will have the place all to ourselves.

We walk in. It turns out that we do end up sharing it, with a local man who brings his cows onto the grounds to graze. And with an affable mason who leads us across acres of fallen stone to see a message from the past, an inscription chiseled into the door jamb of a holy tower. This kind of company we welcome.

Cambodia's great temples of Angkor, 100 kilometres away, have long since been rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year, not a few of whom regret that so many other people had the same idea. At peak hours, human traffic jams can form at temple steps.

But go beyond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old solitude and sense of discovery.

Banteay Chhmar is among the most spectacular of these places. Getting to it entails hours on very bumpy and dusty dirt roads. Staying the night means making do with primitive accommodations: candlelit rooms in local homes, bath water drawn from that same moat.

I stayed the night, and it turned out to really make the visit. The next morning I rose early, as everyone here does, and took a walk in clean country air. I passed hens foraging with their chicks and boys tending to a mud oven in which charcoal was being made. I was seeing not only a temple but a way of life.

Today several thousand people -- rice farmers, cattle herders, market vendors -- make their homes on all four sides of the temple. They grow vegetables on the banks of a series of moats; they pile straw within the walls of lesser ancient buildings that dot their settlement. The ancient and present day coexist.

Spending time here also means doing a good turn, spreading a bit of wealth in a part of a war-recovering country that has largely missed out on the tourist dollars that Angkor is bringing in. People do have cellphones (charged by generator), and some have small tractors, but there are few other signs of affluence.

Banteay Chhmar was created in the Khmer Empire's last great burst of construction, under the 12th-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. His engineers were thinking big even by Khmer standards: To contain a great settlement, they built earthworks and moats that formed a square measuring roughly one 1.5 kilometres on each side. At its centre, within another square moat system, they built the temple.

More than a century ago, French archeologist Etienne Aymonier found the temple to be in a state of "indescribable ruin.'' It still is, despite the efforts of the friendly mason, who is part of a small reconstruction team. But that's part of what makes the site so enticing.

Exploring it means climbing over piles of large fallen stones. We passed ruined towers, courtyards and ceremonial walkways. Sometimes the stones were so high that we were walking at roof level.

The temple is no longer a formal religious site, but Cambodians believe that it, like all those that their forebears left behind, remains a holy site. In one surviving chamber we found a small contemporary shrine, with a Buddha image wearing a cloth robe, where people made incense offerings.

One of the best parts of this temple is the many bas-reliefs on its outer walls. We had to scramble up more stones to get a good view. Before us was a full sample of life 900 years ago: processions of elephants, prominent ladies tended by maids, children roughhousing, villagers in a sampan, servants tending a stove.

There were also many scenes of war with Champa, a long-vanished rival state to the east: The temple is in large part a memorial to four generals who lost their lives in that long conflict. On land, the men of arms go at one another fiercely with spears (you can identify the Chams by the curious blossom-shaped headdress they wear). On water, rows of men pull at oars from galleys as others strike at the enemy with spears. There are also images of the divine, notably the god Vishnu, with 32 arms arrayed like rays of light.

The carving style is similar to that of the Bayon temple reliefs in Angkor. The difference is there's no need to fight for a view. We did cross paths for a few minutes our first day with a party of about 20 French-speaking tourists. We saw no other visitors that day or the next.

Late in the afternoon, we went to see what the ancient Khmers could do with water. Just east of the temple, they created a big reservoir. Academics disagree over whether it did only symbolic duty as an earthly stand-in for the mythic Sea of Creation, or was part of an irrigation system, or both. Whatever the truth, I was awed by the scale.

The reservoir was now largely dry, but because its floor is low and collects water, it has been divided into rice paddies. We went for a stroll, walking along paddy dikes to keep our feet dry. We said hello to members of a farming family who were tinkering with a small tractor. A woman had caught a bucketful of paddy crabs and insects, which she would sell as food.

I spent the night at the house of a Cambodian family, friends of a friend. They couldn't have been more gracious. They gave me a room, bottled water, mosquito coils and a big luxury: a car battery hooked to a fluorescent light.

Other members of our party slept at a formal homestay, the term given to guest houses. It had two rooms with large beds covered by mosquito nets. Downstairs there was a basic bathroom with a squat toilet and scoop bath.

In the morning we had breakfast at a stall in the town's market; there are no proper restaurants. It was noodle soup with chicken, and very good.

I first visited Angkor in 1969. Back then, you could be alone in the big temples there. I once walked through the largest of them, Angkor Wat, encountering hardly a soul.

It's good to know that such an experience can still be had. You just have to work a bit harder for it.


Getting around: There is no public transportation to the sites described here; wheels are on a bring-your-own basis. Tour companies in Siem Reap will arrange visits. If you feel adventurous, strike deals directly with taxi or motorcycle drivers and go on your own.

Being Mealea and Koh Ker can be visited in one long day. Banteay Chhmar, at four hours each way, is a bigger challenge to reach. If you're entering Cambodia overland from Thailand, you can save time by turning north at Sisophon town to reach the temple.

When to go: Winter is Cambodia's peak tourist season. Avoid March, April and May, the peak time for heat. Don't be scared off by the summer-through-fall rainy season. The rains typically occur only in late afternoon.

Where to stay: A French non-profit organization has been helping Banteay Chhmar operate a homestay program. It provides for overnight accommodations, often in a guesthouse next door to the host family's home; meals; local culture performances; and an ox cart ride. Tour companies can book you. Or you make direct contact by emailing program co-ordinator Tath Sophal at tathsophal (at) yahoo.com.

Koh Ker has guesthouse accommodations.



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