One of the main reasons I had for making the photoshoot to Thailand and Cambodia this time was to go to the remote temple of Banteay Chhmar, which is tucked away inside Cambodia, just short of the Thai border and the Dangrek Mountains, but on no easily accessible route.
Four of us had joined up for the trip, myself and my friend and helper, Wilhelm; and the enthic Khmer monk, born in Vietnam, Ven. Dhammanando, and his former English teacher, Kevin, a spirited 73 year-old.
Early in the morning we hired a taxi from Bangkok to the Poipet border crossing which arrived around lunchtime; and after we got through the border we hired another taxi. The taxi was astonishly cheap, but there was a reason for that: the driver had little idea where he was going.
He took a ‘short cut’ which took us across bumpy and sometimes almost impassible roads, stopped to ask where he was and what road to take and zig-zagged across the landscape a few times, before we arrived, weary but grateful, just before dusk.
We decided to get Wilhelm and Kevin settled first, and then go to find a temple to stay in. There is homestay accommodation at Banteay Chhmar on stilted houses in the villages. It was late and when we saw it we decided to stay together, so we hired four rooms.
This turned out to be a mixed blessing, on the one hand the house was lovely and in the village, and we could stay together without problem. On the other hand there was a wedding starting the next day around 100 metres away, and the big, bad bass speakers were pointing in our direction.
The next morning we were woken up at 4.00am with terrifically loud banging on the bottom of the floor. I think we all wondered what was going on. We soon found out: the wedding had started. But in a nice kind of way, as they were playing traditional music, which had decidedly interesting cross-rythms.
We got up and got ourselves ready in the dark: there was electricity only in the evenings, from around 5.00pm – 10.00pm. We took breakfast and went off to greet the sunrise in the temple according to plan. Only problem was there had been a heavy rainfall overnight, the roads were muddy and the skies were overcast.
The temple was very nice though at this time of day, and our host, Sopheng, turned out also to be a great guide, having trained in the background history of the temple and it’s relief depictions, with the Global Heritage Fund who are helping with its preservation.
I managed to take around 150 photographs before my camera battery gave out, and I discovered I had forgotten both the spare batteries and the supplementary camera. Anyway it was nice to walk around without having to photograph it, though I could see photos on all sides.
By the time we returned to our homestay for lunch the party had heated up and they were now playing unbearably loud Cambodian pop music, powered by generators, to honour the bride and groom. We were promised it would stop sometime around 10.30pm – 11.00pm.
In the evening we made an excusion, past what was described to us as the Pol Pot Baray (an artificial lake built during Khmer Rouge times, and on to to Banteay Torp, a largely collapsed, but still striking set of structures, around 10km away from Banteay Chhmar.
Some of the buildings that are standing are in a precarious position, and it felt like a strong wind might blow them down. I wasn’t able to clamber all over the buildings, and there were warnings of snakes, which out me off also, so I didn’t get enough photos for an album, but I include a photo below.
Back at the wedding the pop music blasted away till 10.30pm as promised and the traditional music started again at 4.00am. Ven. Dhammanando and Kevin headed off for Phnom Penh and eventually for Vietnam to attend a kathina in Bhante’s home village. The rain had been lighter that night so myself and Wilhelm headed for Benteay Chhmar again to get the photos I had missed the previous day.
Unencumbered by guides and friends this time, we were free to roam around a bit more and found a lot of reliefs which had been by-passed on our first look round. The reliefs are very similar to the ones at the famous Bayon temple which I had photographed a couple of years back, showing mainly military and everyday life scenes.
They would be much more extensive than the Bayon temple reliefs, but around 75% of them have fallen down, and other fairly large sections had been looted. This includes a number of the famous multi-armed Avalokiteshwara reliefs, which looters had tried – and failed – to smuggle across the Thai border and are now in the National Museum in Phnom Phen. There are plans to return them to Banteay Chhmar eventually, and resituate them.
We kind of rested during the day as our wooden homestay throbbed in harmony with the music, and then in the evening went out to see some of the satellite temples. Luckily, Sopheng accompanied us, else I think we may have given up in despair, as they were not easy to find, let alone access.
We first went to Ta Prohm, which was the easiest to get to. Situated near an idyllic pond, which may have been part of the moat, there were some good facetowers to photograph; then on to Ta Nem, much harder to find and access; and then Samnang Tasok, almost impossible to find, and only accessible up to about 100 metres from the facetowers.
We could have spent much more time in Banteay Chhmar, but Wilhelm wanted to have a look at Angkor, which he had never visited, and so we made the decision to move out the next morning. It had rained overnight and there were no sealed roads until the main Siem Reap-Poipet highway, so that was also a long and at times muddy adventure.
128 phototgraphs from the trip to Banteay Chhmar have just been published on the Photo Dharma website, and there is more information about the temple there too. There is also a very good introductory video by Olivier Cunin on the same page.
Mud Road to Sisophon
Facetower, Samnang Tasok
Carving at Causeway
Avalokiteshwara Arms and Devotee