Beautiful, peaceful and covered in astonishingly intricate bas-reliefs, Banteay Chhmar is one of the most impressive temple complexes beyond the Angkor area. About a two-hour drive from Siem Reap, these remote ruins are also the site of a superb community-based homestay and tourism program. If you're looking for an opportunity to delve into Cambodian rural life and spend some quality time amid a temple complex far from the crowds, you could hardly find a more perfect spot.
Banteay Chhmar and its nine satellite temples were constructed by Cambodia’s most prolific builder, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219), on the site of a 9th-century temple. The main temple housed one of the largest and most impressive Buddhist monasteries of the Angkorian period, and was originally enclosed by a 9km-long wall. Now atmospherically encroached upon by forest, it features several towers bearing enigmatic, Bayon-style four-faced Avalokiteshvara (Buddhist deities) with their mysterious and iconic smiles. The temple is also renowned for its 2000 sq metres of intricate carvings, which depict war victories and scenes from daily life.
The artistic highlight are the bas-reliefs of multi-armed Avalokiteshvaras, unique to Banteay Chhmar, on the exterior of the southern section of the temple's western ramparts. Unfortunately, several of these were dismantled and trucked into Thailand in a brazen act of looting in 1998; of the original eight figures, only two – one with 22 arms, the other with 32 – remain in situ, but they still evoke the dazzling, intricate artistry involved in creating these carvings. The segments of the looted bas-reliefs that were intercepted by the Thais are now on display in Phnom Penh's National Museum of Cambodia.
The nine satellite temples, many hidden deep in the jungle and with Bayon-style faces of their own, are well worth exploring for serious tomb-raider types. Guides booked through the CBT Office can show you the way. The easiest to find is Prasat Ta Prohm, hidden in the bush just 200m south of the main temple’s southern wall, its single crumbling tower bearing a well-preserved four-faced Avalokiteshvara.
The Global Heritage Fund (www.globalheritagefund.org) is assisting with conservation efforts here, and a wonderful community-based tourism (CBT) scheme gives visitors incentive to stay another day. The scheme includes fantastic homestays, activities and guides for temple tours, all encouraging community development and booked through the CBT Office. Activities include ox-cart rides and traditional music shows, and the office can arrange trips to outlying temples by local transport. The office is opposite and just south of the Banteay Chhmar main (eastern) entrance.
Banteay Chhmar can easily be done as a day trip with private transport out of Siem Reap. Shared taxis from Sisophon, 61km south of the temple along the sealed NH56, usually only go as far as Thmor Pouk, although a few continue on to Banteay Chhmar (15,000r, one hour) and Samraong. A moto (motorcycle taxi) from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar will cost US$15 to US$20 return, a taxi US$50 to US$60 return.