The Banteay Chmmar temple complex is in a remote area of northwest Cambodia, close to the border of Thailand. The nearset border crossing would be the town of Poipet. The closest town is Sisophon. The neighboring village and temple complex itself seem almost as one, but my guide told me that the local villagers think nothing of the temples at their front doorstep, only about survival from day to day in this province so off the beaten track. Some things have not changed much in over a thousand years. Water is still pulled daily from a temple lake to supply local water, as was the case in the Angkor period.
Visitors right now are few to Banteay Chhmar temple, due to the poor road from Sisophon, a “road” that is nothing more than dirt at the time of this writing. For those pedaling on two wheels, this is either a “fun challenging ride for the cyclist seeking adventure” or “one really long day of hell that you will never forget”. Perception is everything. Be sure to wear a dust mask while you ride, or like me you will spend the next two weeks waiting for the accumulated muck in your lungs to finally work its way out.
At the time of writing, about thirty visitors a day come to Banteay Chhmar, and arrive via either day tours from Siem Reap or arrive from Thailand, on their way to Siem Reap. And then, there are the “cyclists”, many of whom think, for whatever reason, that this ride is ‘fun’. One of my guides told me that the cycling groups are the largest groups who come visit, and they usually fill all the beds of the local home stays in the village, a total of about 14 rooms when I visited.
The road up to Banteay Chhmar is not much of a cyclist’s friend in the midday sun. At times I wondered why the people who stripped this area of seemingly every last tree could not have left at least one under which to get shade. But, for most of the road the trees that I imagined would line this remote region were gone. Only empty land. How does an entire area so large get deforested so thoroughly? The vast majority of the tall hardwoods that previously graced this stretch of road are now gone.
Even the stumps are now hauled off to furniture makers, such as the one I visited in Sisophon, who makes chairs, tables, desks, and more … all creatively tooled out of the last remnants of the great trees … stumps. Today, I did not even see stumps.
There are no accommodations other than the “Community Based Tourism” guesthouse network, from whom it is easy to arrange a guesthouse and food for staying in the village. The village has no running water or electricity, but my 3G wireless network card worked wonderfully for high speed internet access on my laptop powered by a battery. I spent the first night before bed reading world news … a world so far away.
A new road is coming soon, one reason for all the dirt. When that road IS completed, Banteay Chhmar shall no longer be remote, one won’t be able to ride through the temple complex to breakfast at dawn, tour buses with thousands of camera laden visitors will descend upon the temples, tuk-tuks will roam everywhere, and hawkers of t-shirts and other essentials of life will not be in short supply. In fact, the plans are to make Banteay Chhmar “the next Angkor Wat”. Many of the villagers told me of the items they wish to sell these future visitors.
However, for now, there are no tuk-tuks at Banteay Chhmar.
Now is the time to visit Banteay Chhmar. Now, one can still enjoy a candlelight dinner on the grounds of the temple under a full moon. Now, one can catch a moon rising in the evenings and ride a bicycle amongst the temples and awe in the wonder at the marvelous engravings ,,, and do so in the privacy of silence and solitude.
One of my nights I visited, I watched a nearly full moon rise over one of the temples. Everywhere was silence. The temple grounds were empty. I had to sit down and enjoy. A moonrise over ancient Angkor ruins. In total privacy. How many times would I get to do this? I sat down and watched the moon rise over the trees that cover the ruins.
As I neared the village on the road from Sisophon, the dirt road narrowed considerably and the traffic increased due to the trucks going south with loaded with bags of newly harvested cassava headed for Thailand. At the end, I was cycling the final “winning kilometers” in cloud after cloud of dust stirred up from these monster trucks, from whence I could only glance up at times to make my way up the road. Grime stung my skin and my eyes, and every part of my body was simply covered in yuck. I simply gave up and accepted that filth was my friend that day.
Finally ,,, I arrived at the entrance to the village. And there in front of me were the walls of the Banteay Chhmar temple.
I looked. I smiled. Yes. It was all worth it.