Banteay Chhmar (15 kilometers from the Thai border, north of Poipet, and 60 kilometers north of Sisophorn) is an enormous temple that covers more than 500,000 square feet and contains splendid bas-reliefs. Often compared to Angkor Thom in size and structure, this enormous complex, which was a temple city, is one of the most intriguing in the Khmer empire, both for it's scale and it's remote location. Never excavated, Banteay Chhmar fits the picture of a lost Khmer city with its ruined face-towers, carvings, forest surroundings and bird life flying through the temple. It has a romantic and discovery feel to it. It is possible to camp out at the temple. However, getting to it entails hours on very bumpy and dusty dirt roads.

Like Preah Khan, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom,Banteay Chhmar originally enclosed a city with the temple at the heart. No traces of the city that surrounded the temple remain. Banteay Chhmar dates from the late 12th to the early 13th century. It name means Narrow Fortress. It is thought to have been built by Jayarvarman II. It was later rebuilt by Jayarvarman VII as a funerary temple for his sons and four generals who had been killed in a battle repelling a Cham invasion in 1177.

John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post, “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 mile on each side. At its center, within another square moat system half a mile on each side, they built the temple. More than a century ago, French archaeologist Etienne Aymonier found the temple to be in a state of "indescribable ruin." Exploring it means climbing over huge piles of large fallen stones, something to be tackled by only the sure-footed. 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. When rain is needed, local people are reported to walk in a procession around the temple, imploring heaven to help.

Banteay Chhmar was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Banteay Chhmar Temple was an ancient site in the Angkorian period (802-1432). It was situated strategically along the network of royal roads leading to the furthest northwest reaches of the territory controlled by Jayavarman VII (reigned c.1122-1218) during the Angkorian Empire. Recent surveys show that the site was continuously occupied from pre-historical times until now. The temple was situated at the heart of a new city located on a dry plain, requiring an elaborate hydrological system to bring water from the Dangrek Mountains to the north. To the east of the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar a rahal, or reservoir measuring 1.6 x 0.8 km was built, with a mebon, or artificial island at its centre. On the hill of this island today stands a crumbling sanctuary, surrounded by rice growing in the baray.[Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

The temple of Banteay Chhmar is a unique complex of Angkorian period of structural style with the associated baray and water control systems, reflect outstanding aspects of architecture, engineering, arts, skilled craftsmanship, stone building, irrigation, governance and theology, landscape, human settlement and land use. However, a special feature of Banteay Chhmar temple is that in the middle on the island in the baray a sandstone sanctuary was erected, surrounded by a double moat. In the golden age, water was vital to the endurance of the Angkor’s civilization, and at Banteay Chhmar, uniquely the Dangrek Mountain acted as reservoirs.

The Banteay Chhmar complex is unique in the Angkorian world for its juxtaposition into a complete whole. The temple complex was selected for the construction of sacred monuments by the local elite lineage. Based upon the architectural and iconographical evidence, the temple complex was built during the end of 12th to early 13th centuries C.E in Bayon style of Angkor Civilization. The sanctuaries themselves represented kingdoms of deities, and comprisedmain face towers, walls, galleries, gopura with realistic stone carving depicting the Great Epics of Buddhist iconography (notably Lokeśvara), a processional walkway, ponds and reservoirs in a unified architectural plan. In Ban Teay Mean Chey province there are some other temples such as Pra Sat Preah Chhor and Pra Sat Pram that are mostly abandoned, in ruins and unattended.

Banteay Chhmar Layout and Infrastructure

The Banteay Chhmar temple area covers two kilometers by two and a half kilometers. It contains the main temple complex and a number of other religious structures and a baray to its east. A moat filled with water and a huge wall inside of that encloses the center of the temple. This moat is still used to present day by locals for fishing and daily chores. A bustling small market and village bounds the east and south east and perhaps there has been continuous habitation there since the founding of the temple.

Inside the moat, a stone rest house and chapel can be seen. The highlight of Banteay Chhmar is the bas-reliefs, which are comparable with the Bayon. They depict battle against the Chams, religious scenes and a host of daily activities. In parts, the outer wall has collapsed. On the west side a spectacular multi-armed Lekesvara can be seen. The temples central complex is a jumble of towers, galleries, vegetation and fallen stones. Beautiful carvings can be seen throughout.

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: Banteay Chhmar Temple is “an outstanding example of a provincial city comprising an ensemble of sacred monuments and the associated artificial water control system that reflect outstanding aspects of architecture, engineering, irrigation, and landscape. Banteay Chhmar consists of several concentric enclosures.[Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

Banteay Chhmar Temple is a large complex, with the main temple, built of grey sandstone, measuring 770 x 690 metres. The central complex of colonnaded galleries, measuring approximately 250 x 200 meters, enclosed five interconnected sanctuaries aligned along an east-west axis. The area included six artificial ponds or pools, two structures known as “libraries” and two elevated, terrace-platforms. This central core of the structure is surrounded by an expansive moat, 63 meters wide. The area outside the moat includes eight monuments that may have been hospital or monastery structures. On the eastern side of Banteay Chhmar,was contructed a large artificial reservoir named Baray Mebon with a capacity of 2 million cubic metres. Water from the Dangrek Mountain flowed down natural canals to the Baray, and was used to irrigate the rice fields.

Accompanying the habitation and temple complex zone was a substantial system of canals, moats, ponds and other water management features. Water management at the site would have been crucial, given that the region where Banteay Chhmar is situated is subject to annual fluctuations in water flow. Scholars have designated such examples of Angorian-era monumental complexes including extensive water management systems as “theocratic hydraulics”, arguing that their primary purpose was to ensure a supply of water for temple ponds, baray and moats. At Banteay Chhmar, the technology for large-scale water management certainly existed, but may have been directed towards other secular purposes, including transport, town water supply, and defence against periodic inundation.

Banteay Chhmar Structures

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: The temple complex was designed to reflect Hindu theology and astrology. The main towers were built on the axis of four directions encircled with rectangular walls and galleries and surrounded by the moat, representing Mount Meru, home of Shiva and axis of the universe. The main temple bears four gates flanked with images of devata and giants holding the naga snake on the four main directions (east-west and north-south) representing the sacred Hindu universe. The urbanization of Banteay Chhmar brought to life a whole complex of communities in the surrounding area — evidence as a great and enduring masterpiece of Angkorian art and architecture. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

All structures in the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar were built of sandstone and laterite of the highest quality. It was said that the quarried stone blocks were transported by rafts, elephants and carts to the location of the construction place. The techniques of stone masonry followed here involved placing roughly shapedstone blocks on top of each other from foundations to the top with, and then the stone was decorated in situ. Technically, the weight bearing of the stone elements for building construction was skillfully managed, leading to fine preservation over nine centuries, and making restoration feasible. Then, the master sculptors of the day embellished the temple complex with floral and human designs depicting scenes from the daily life, war between Khmer and Chams, religious events, churning of the sea of milk, local fighting, etc.

Each enclosure is surrounded by a wall. Modern archaeologists number these enclosures from the center outwards. The innermost and smallest enclosure is therefore always named Enclosure 1. However, we approach the temple from the outside, of course, therefore from the outermost enclosure, and proceed inward.

Banteay Chhmar has five enclosures. The outermost, fifth enclosure of the temple, bounded by earthworks, measures 2.2 by 1.7 kilometers and contains a large rectangular moat, 63 meters wide, surrounding the main temple buildings in an area of 770 by 690 metres. Between the earth rampart and the moat, four satellite temples are located in the cardinal directions. There is also an additional temple in the south, and one more in the southeast. So there are altogether six satellite temples inside the fifth enclosure.

Outside the earth rampart stand two further axially-sited satellite temples, in the north and west. The original purpose of all these satellite temples is not known, because unfortunately they do not contain any inscriptions. The earth rampart is penetrated on its eastern side by a large rectangular artififical water reservoir or baray, known as the Rahal (1700 x 800 meters), which has an island-temple (mebon) at its center. The reservoir is bordered with laterite steps to facilitate the fetching of water, and at its western end there was a landing stage from which worshippers could cross to the temple on the island by boat. The waters of the moat are crossed by four axial causeways having balustrades in the form of statues of gods and demons pulling on Nāgas, as at Angkor Thom and Preah Khan at the Angkor site.

History, Iconography and Religious Purpose of Banteay Chhmar

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: Banteay Chhmar Temple was consecrated to the memory of Prince Srindrakumara, son or protégé of Jayavarman VII, and to four of the Prince’s companions in arms who had saved his life in battle against the Cham. The exquisitely rendered relief carvings of Banteay Chhmar depict scenes of battle on land and water between the Khmer and Cham, preparations for war, processions, royal audiences and a unique multi-armed Avalokiteśvara on the wall of western gallery. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

Banteay Chhmar was one of the most extensive architectural undertakings Jayavarman VII built in a politically sensitive region in the final years of his reign. The architecture shows signs of haste in its construction, as do his other temples, and it appears to have been left unfinished. There are clear indications that new architectural forms were still being developed at the site in the course of building. The iconography expresses both Buddhist and Hinduist beliefs, as well as the supremacy of the king, themes that are also represented in his other temples. However the representations of individual deities and their juxtapositions are in many cases unique to Banteay Chhmar.

From the epigraphy that survives, however, it is clear that the temple was intended to be a major Mahāyāna institution in which the supremacy of Buddhism over both Hinduism and indigenous Khmer cults was strongly emphasized. The locations of the face-towers show that these structures were not erected exclusively above shrines of any particular cult, but uniformly above buildings belonging to all the religions that were practised in the temple.

Some of the Mahāyāna reliefs suggest that the Buddhism of the time was undergoing internal development in Cambodia. But in broad outline Banteay Chhmar continued to represent the same mixture of religions for which Jayavarman’s earlier temples at Angkor had been built, with the peripheral inclusion of new forms of Lokeśvara. These forms were based on descriptions of Avalokiteśvara in Indian Sanskrit texts such as the Kāra avyūha Sūtra, which had been written in Kashmir in the 4th century CE, 800 years before Banteay Chhmar was built. Eight of these Lokeśvara images were depicted at Banteay Chhmar in the reliefs facing the sunset beside the western gatehouse of the third enclosure.

In keeping with Jayavarman’s Khmerisation of religion, the indigenous cult of the transfiguration of the dead was also performed in numerous shrines of the central complex, a form of religion which had become a standard feature of all his temples. At Banteay Chhmar this cult was thoroughly organized, not in a vertical concentric arrangement as in the Bayon, but on a horizontal linear plan. This resulted in the architectural expansion of the sacred center from a single enclosure into three walled complexes joined together, which accounts for the extraordinary length of the principal enclosure.

The importance of this cult of posthumous deification was powerfully expressed at Banteay Chhmar. The names of these immortalized individuals, and of the gods and goddesses who represented them posthumously, are given in the Khmer inscriptions. This is the context for the well-known Sanjak cult, which was practiced in the east complex, while members of royal families were deified in the center, and buddhicised Hindu and local deities were installed in the west complex.

Banteay Chhmar Bas-Reliefs

John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post, “One of the best parts of this temple is the many hundreds of feet of 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, the 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 emanating from the sun. 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. [Source: John Burgess, Washington Post June 21, 2009]

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: The iconographical forms of Lokeśvara were based on descriptions of Avalokiteśvara in Indian Sanskrit texts such as the Kāra avyūha Sūtra, which had been written in Kashmir in the 4th–5th century CE. Eight of these Lokeśvara images were depicted here in the reliefs facing the sunset beside the western gatehouse of the third enclosure. This location clearly indicates the importance of Amitābha, Red Tathāgata of the West and spiritual father of Lokeśvara, the most popular of the Mahāyāna’s five transcendent Buddhas with his western paradise of Sukhāvatī. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

All these elements reflect the symbolic connection between the gods and humans. Scientifically, the sandstone material and laterite used for Banteay Chhmar and the stone carving is as beautiful as the Bayon Temple in the Angkor site in Siem Reap Province, and serve to form the unique and outstanding appearance of this tangible heritage complex in Banteay Meanchey Province.

One unique feature of the Banteay Chhmar temple is the relief carving on the East Gallery Wall, of a series of extraordinary, images of multi-headed Avaloketdshvara Bodhisattvas, one bearing 32 arms. The relief carvings of this section of the gallery of the temple depict an array of remarkable Tantric Buddhist images, evidence of Banteay Chhmar’s significance as a sacred site for Buddhist practice.

Tourism at Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar Temple is located along the National Road No 69A in Banteay Chhmar commune, Thma Puok district, Banteay Meanchey province, about 60 kilometers north of Sisophon city, via Road Number 56. The site face the Dangrek Mountain chain at the north, and it is surrounded by four villages, namely Banteay Chhmar west, Bnateay Chhmar north, Banteay Chhmar south and Chrey, about 110-km from the Angkor World Heritage Site in Siem Reap province. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

According to ASIRT: Roads were heavily damaged during the civil war. Unimproved roads are heavily potholed and generally lack pavement. Passage is difficult in the rainy season. Upgrades have been completed on several main roads. Landmines and unexploded ordnance were removed before construction began. Be alert for herds of freely wandering livestock, even on main roads. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2010]

Construction of a paved road was scheduled to take place in the early 2010s. This has made access easier and increased the number of visitors. NGO workers at the temple have wanted to install temporary, low-impact viewing platforms, so guests can see the complex from a bird’s eye view. The platforms would allow visitors a safe way to experience the heart of the temple, which currently is inaccessible because of unstable stone structures. Visitors mostly walk on the ground amongst the ruins. About 40 percent of visitors spend a night in one of the villages’ six homestay locations, the only overnight option.

Members of the local community provide ox cart rides, silk weaving, woodcarving, traditional music concerts, rice wine distillation, beekeeping, bike tours and the women’s cooking group. Burgess wrote: "While more tourists are exactly what the community needs, busloads may be unfortunate. The isolation is what gives Banteay Chhmar its charm no matter what time of day you visit, you are likely to be the only visitors. For the time being, there is no waiting for the hordes to move so you can snap a photo without people. There are no tuk tuks, no elephants, no mega-buses. There is just the temple, nature and friendly people there to help.

Visiting Banteay Chhmar

John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post, “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 are going to 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 doorjamb of a holy tower. This kind of company we welcome. [Source: John Burgess, Washington Post June 21, 2009]

“Go beyond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old solitude and sense of discovery. You can explore at your own pace, to the sounds of birds and the breeze that stirs the leaves overhead. In postcards and e-mails home, you will search for words worthy of your sentiments of wonder. Banteay Chhmar is among the most spectacular of these places. I stayed the night, and it turned out to really make the visit... I rose early, as everyone here does, and took a walk in clean country air. I passed mother hens foraging with their chicks, 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.

“Late in the afternoon, we went for a look at what the ancient Khmers could do with water. Just east of the temple, they created a reservoir that measures roughly a mile by a half-mile. Academics disagree over whether this body, and others like it, did only symbolic duty as earthly stand-ins for the mythic Sea of Creation, or were part of a vast irrigation system, or both. Whatever the truth, I was awed by the scale. The tree line way, way off in the distance was the northern bank. The reservoir was now largely dry, but because its floor is low and collects water before the surrounding land does, 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. In the final daylight, we passed a group of young men bringing cattle home.

“ Members of our party slept at a formal homestay, the term given to guesthouses as well as family homes that accept paying guests, a few steps from the temple's gate. It had two rooms with large beds covered by mosquito nets. Downstairs there was a basic bathroom with a squat toilet and scoop bath. Later we went exploring on foot. Mixed in among wooden homes were the stone walls of lesser 12th-century relics that had been monasteries or small temples. The ruins of one temple's gate lay foliage-shrouded just a few steps from a house. Little boys ran about, and a teenage girl ironed clothing. 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 even 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.”

Restoration and Conservation of Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar has been damaged war and targeted by gangs of looters who have stolen statues, bas-relief sections and the temple stones to sell in Thailand. John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post, The bas-reliefs along the surrounding wall of the temple are some of the finest in Cambodia. Yet the stories are incomplete due to sustained looting, which continued as late as 2002. Huge sections of the outer wall have been chiselled away. While the loss is felt as you wander around the massive complex, it also drives home the importance of visitors to this remote site. These tourist dollars lead to the long-run stability of the temple and the surrounding villages. Such is the hope of Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit organisation based in California, that is helping restore using people from the local community and provide security for the site.

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: The Banteay Chhmar site had been lost in the jungle for many years, and very few major restoration procedures have been applied to the site. Most of its ruins are still intact and in situ, revealing its authenticity as a whole. From 2005 until the present day, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has undertaken field archaeological studies, clearance, conservation and restoration of the Banteay Chhmar temple, funded by Royal Government and local donations. In 1998, 2000 and 2002, the World Monuments Fund , under its World Monuments Watch programme, cooperated with the Ministry to remove dangerous vegetation and to implement remedial measures to improve the stability of the remaining structures. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

From 2007 to 2012, the American Global Heritage Fund began collaboration with the Ministry in a Conservation Training Project, preparing a Master Conservation Plan for protection and preservation of the relief galleries and stabilization of the central temple complex.It was found that more than 95 percent of the architectural building materials of the main temple of Banteay Chhmar (including stone sanctuaries, galleries and walls) had collapsed on top of and and underground of parts of the building. Moreover, many of them had been looted and even destroyed . Some of these stone artefacts were able to be returned to their original position during restoration work. Many bas relief carving on the galleries’ walls still lie buried under the collapsed stone materials and very few items of the looted sculpture has been returned.

Banteay Chhmar Cultural Heritage, the Ministry is protected under the Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Arts, as amended in 6th January 1996, and by the Royal Decree dated on11th March 2003. Since the Banteay Chhmar site and the main temple complex and the sattelite temples have not yet been fully investigated or restored, almost all of the ruins’ features are still intact in situ and many of them are unexplored, it can be concluded that most of the original attributes remain within the property. None are lost or have been significantly damaged.

Ba Nan Temple

Ba Nan Temple(15 kilometer from Battambang) adapts the architecture of mid 11th century and the end of 12th century the temple was first built by King, Ut Tak Yea Tit Tya Varman II (1050-1066) and finally by King Jarvarman VII (1181-1219). The temple is located on the top of a 400-meter-high mountain at Koh Tey 2 commune, Ba Nan District. It is reached by the provincial Road No 155 parallel to Sang Ke River. At the mountain’s valley, there are Ku Teuk and two main natural well, namely: Bit Meas and Chhung or Chhung Achey.

This Angkor-era mountaintop temple is definitely worth a look. At the top are beautiful views of the winding Sangker River set amidst sugar palm trees, rice fields and small villages. To the south you will see a mountain range that features a crocodile shaped mountain. The temple itself is beautiful looking from the ground as well as the top. The structures are pretty much intact, but unfortunately like so many Khmer ruins, they have fallen victim to massive looting. Still, there are some interesting works to see. There are five temple structures, like Angkor, with the middle being the largest. (Use caution around the entrance to the center structure-there is a large hanging block-a headache-in-waiting for some poor soul).

As with Preah Vihear Temple (close to the Thai border in the province of the same name), there are a couple of big guns on the mountaintop next to the ruins. The guns are still pointing down at the surrounding area as they were during the more recent years of the government-Khmer Rouge skirmishes.It's part of the sad irony of Cambodia that a place built for worship, harmony and tranquility was utilized as a place for making war. Looking down the hillside to the southwest you can see more of the ruins. As always, if you go looking around, STAY ON THE WORN PATHWAYS AND TRAILS- there may still be undiscovered landmines.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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