Built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, Banteay Chhmar was likely far more than just another temple. Scholars now believe, in fact, that it functioned as the Khmer Empire’s ‘second city’ after Angkor. Even in its ruined state, visitors to the temple today can see the clear resemblance between Banteay Chhmar and the walled capital of Angkor Thom. Yet if Banteay Chhmar really was as important as experts say, this only raises more questions than answers.
Getting to Banteay Chhmar today, you need to find your way to the western Cambodian city of Sisophon, and from there hire a shared taxi. Its location is remote, to say the least. And the area would’ve even been considered remote back when the temple city was first built around 800 years ago.
Why, then, did Jayavarman VII build Banteay Chhmar where he did, and what true function did it serve? While the former temple is largely in a state of ruin, the intricate bas-reliefs have largely survived. And they may provide us with some important clues to help solve Banteay Chhmar’s many mysteries.
Approaching From the East
Entering the temple complex, you’ll come face to face with a familiar site (provided of course, you’ve already visited Angkor). A team of devas and asuras are pulling the great naga king Vasuki in an effort to release the amrita, the elixir of immortality. Jayavarman recreated the scene at one of his first major temples, Preah Khan. And he later placed sets of 54 devas and asuras outside his massive walled capital of Angkor Thom. The scene’s recreation here, then, shows us that Banteay Chhmar was no ordinary outpost temple.
One of the first structures you’ll encounter is the ‘dharmasala.’ These ‘Houses of Fire’ were a staple of Jayavarman VII’s temples. But were they rest houses, or were they designated for some type of special fire ritual? Nobody really knows. On the opposite side you’ll find a modern active shrine where visitors and local residents can leave offerings.
The naga statues on either side of the ancient balustrade remain in surprisingly good condition. Rather than just a naga serpent by itself, the serpents are being ridden by Garuda, Vishnu’s vehicle mount. The two are mortal enemies in Hindu mythology, and the interplay between them symbolizes the duality of air and water, or the heavens and the underworld.
Some of the pediments in this area can still clearly be made out. One features a four-armed Avalokiteshvara, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, while another shows the Buddha cutting his long hair. He did so upon giving up his opulent palace life before embarking on his quest for truth, ultimately succeeding and becoming the Buddha in the process. What’s interesting is that unlike at most temples at Angkor, the Buddhist imagery was not vandalized here following Jayavarman VII’s reign.
The Eastern Bas-Reliefs
The real highlight of the temple’s eastern entrance is the well-preserved bas-reliefs. If you’ve already been to the Bayon, you’ll notice some major similarities between the reliefs of the two temples. The main scenes depicted outside the eastern enclosure are those of a war between the Khmers and the Champa Kingdom.
The Chams, who flourished for around a thousand years in what’s now Vietnam, can easily be distinguished as the ones wearing flower-shaped helmets. Just as at the Bayon, both a land battle and naval battle are depicted here.
King Jayavarman VII can easily be found within the busy scenes, as he was carved much larger than everybody else. You’ll also notice a certain character being emphasized here who’s not especially prevalent in the Bayon reliefs. In one of the scenes, a prince and Jayavarman VII are shown standing side-by-side. But who exactly as he?
Many scholars now believe that this prince was the local ruler of Banteay Chhmar and that his name was Indra. He was possibly the son, but more likely a brother-in-law, of Jayavarman VII. Interestingly, he’s mentioned in inscriptions both at Banteay Chhmar itself, as well as at the Champa capital of My Son.
Indra was sent by the Khmer to overtake the Champa town of Vijaya. According to the Cham inscription, he even became king there, but was later ousted. The Khmer inscription does not mention his coronation, but it does talk about a perilous journey back to Cambodia in which Indra and his men had to fight off dozens of ambushes.
Banteay Chhmar even once featured a dedication statue to Prince Indra. A number of experts wonder, then, if one of Banteay Chhmar’s main functions was to serve as the headquarters for Jayavarman VII’s military expeditions into Champa. The problem with this theory, though, is that the temple city lies northwest of Angkor, in the opposite direction from Vietnam. It’s yet another mystery that has yet to be solved.
The eastern enclosure also contains one notable religious-themed relief. In it, Jayavarman VII presides over some kind of ritual involving fire. A multi-armed, multi-headed being also makes an appearance, which is likely Shiva, considering the presence of Brahmin priests.
As it appears now, the original structure of the main temple is a confusing and chaotic mess of toppled over stone blocks. You may be wondering where all the pathways are. In many cases, there are none. That means that to fully explore Banteay Chhmar, you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time walking on top of the piles of bricks.
As you could probably guess, this isn’t exactly the safest tourist destination in Cambodia, and isn’t recommended for those who aren’t reasonably fit. But if you think you can handle it and want to get in touch with your inner adventurer, Banteay Chhmar is worth the trip. No matter how fit you are, though, refrain from walking on top of the blocks if it’s just been raining.
In contrast to the mostly ruined structures, the temple’s pediment carvings have held up quite well.
Banteay Chhmar, like nearly all of Jayavarman VII’s important temples, featured a very complex and cluttered design (more here). Interestingly, the main portion at the very center was a rare throwback to the trimurti layout of three sanctuaries in a row that was popular way back in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Approaching the center, you’ll find an architectural feature that’s become so synonymous with Jayavarman VII’s reign. Architect Oliver Cunin, who’s studied Banteay Chhmar in depth, estimates that the temple complex once contained over 40 face towers! That’s nearly as many as the Bayon once had, and around the amount that are still standing there currently.
Today at Banteay Chhmar, only a few of these towers remain. While not exactly safe, it’s possible to find a pile of stones to climb on top of which will take you right to the rooftop of one of the hallways! You’ll then be face to face with the face tower.
The Southern Gallery
More reliefs can be found near the temple’s southern end. Here you’ll also find a covered walkway specifically built for appreciating the relief carvings. Originally, these would’ve been found on all sides of the temple.
The reliefs here feature even more scenes of war, along with some unique carvings of emblems of unknown meaning.
The battle scenes in this area depict Khmer soldiers fighting other Khmers, suggesting some sort of internal rebellion or failed coup. Rebellions were by no means uncommon in the Khmer Empire’s history. But Jayavarman VII may have been especially unpopular amongst conservative Hindus who preferred that he leave Khmer society as it were.
One detailed scene shows some soldiers presenting the heads of their decapitated victims!
The Western Reliefs
Given the current state of the main temple structure, the number one highlight of Banteay Chhmar is arguably its western relief carvings. Specifically, the magnificent depictions of multi-armed, multi-headed Avalokiteshvara. In Mahayana Buddhism, this divinity has sworn to aid all other living creatures in their quest to attain enlightenment.
While there were originally eight similar carvings around the temple, only two remain in complete form today. The one on the left shows Avalokiteshvara with 22 arms, visiting the realm of the dead in order to liberate the lost souls. And on the right, he’s shown with 33 arms, surrounded by a number of devotees.
The prevalence of Avalokiteshvara imagery at Banteay Chhmar remains obvious. Some scholars, such as Peter D. Sharrock, however, point out that another prominent divinity worshiped here was Bhaisajyaguru, the Buddha of Medicine. While no longer around, the largest statue of this divinity was found at Banteay Chhmar.
Jayavarman VII built hundreds of hospitals in his empire, and Bhaisajyaguru played an important role in his mission, especially in the Isaan region of present-day Thailand. Banteay Chhmar, then, could’ve served as a headquarters for the Empire’s healthcare initiative in that region, where similar statues have also been found. As contradictory as it sounds, the ‘second city’ may have served as both a military headquarters for Champa campaigns as well as a healthcare center!
There are also a few other carvings worth checking out in the northern part of the western wall. Look closely and you’ll see a soldier battling some kind of monster. What’s interesting here is that the scene was likely meant to be a depiction of a historical event and not a mythological one.
The monster is supposedly named Rahu, and according to some interpretations of Khmer inscriptions, it was Rahu that killed Yashovarman II, Jayavarman VII’s predecessor and possibly older brother.
In The Churning of the Ocean of Milk story (represented by the statues outside the entrance), Rahu appears as a demon who swallows the sun, and is thus associated with eclipses in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology. While hardly visible nowadays, that same story is also depicted further down the Western wall. Could there be some kind of connection, then, between the two Rahus?
The North Wall
The carvings outside the northern enclosure wall also feature historical battle scenes. Re-entering the temple from the northern end, you’ll come across a number of sandstone blocks lined in a row and shielded from the elements. As researchers continue to solve this massive 3D puzzle bit by bit, who knows what secrets may soon uncovered?
The Satellite Temples
Aside from the main temples, there are a number of satellite temples worth exploring if you have the time (especially if you’re a fan of face towers!) Ta Em temple is easily walkable, but for most others, you’ll need transportation of some kind. For an extra fee, you can pay someone from the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism group (more below) to take you around on a motorbike.
The number of satellite temples you’re able to see at any given time will vary slightly depending on recent weather and possible ongoing reconstruction projects. The attractions below are listed in no particular order.
Not to be confused with the wildly popular Ta Prohm of Angkor, this Ta Prohm is a rather simple structure that comprises of a single face tower. What makes it special, though, is that it’s situated on its own little island. From a distance, you can see the tower reflect off the water.
The tall and narrow Banteay Torp bears a striking resemblance to Angkor Thom’s Preah Palilay. The temple originally featured five sanctuaries which were built at cardinal points, rather than the traditional quincunx pattern.
You have the opportunity to walk inside the ruins and through the ancient towers. Just next to the original site, you’ll notice a modern wooden Buddhist temple.
There’s not a whole lot left of Ta Em, and if it were any more out of the way it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort to see. It’s the easiest temple to get to, though, as it’s just across the road from Banteay Chhmar ‘s eastern entrance, where you’ll see a sign for it. It’s worth exploring for a couple of minutes.
Compared to the other structures of Banteay Chhmar, Ta Nem’s face tower remains in good condition after all these years. Experts have also pointed at that structurally, it resembles one of Jayavarman VII’s hospitals. Ta Nem is definitely worth the visit.
Prasat Chegnchem Trei
Here you’ll find an isolated face tower in the middle of the forest. it’s not in the best condition, with the last face seemingly just barely hanging on. The tower, combined with the tree vines taking over much of the remaining rocks, makes for an interesting sight if you can find it.
The South Gate
If you get a chance, also stop by Banteay Chhmar’s south gate for another rendition of the Churning of The Ocean of Milk scene. The statues here are in noticeably better condition than at the eastern entrance.
The 'Killing Baray'
Known officially as Boeung Cheung Kru, this artificial reservoir is nicknamed the ‘Killing Baray’ or the ‘Pol Pot Baray.’ As the names suggests, it’s not an ancient Khmer reservoir, but a recent one built by the dictator Pol Pot in the 1970’s.
Sadly, many workers, who had no choice but to participate in the project, lost their lives during its construction. Nevertheless, it does continue to act as a useful water source for local farmers.
It’s normally a great place for sunsets, though clouds could always get in the way.
From Siem Reap, you first want to find transportation to Sisophon. While public buses go there, it’ll likely be much easier to have your hotel arrange a shared minivan that will come pick you up to your hotel. You’ll then be riding together with locals heading in the same direction.
Bear in mind that safety regulations aren’t really a thing here, so the driver may keep accepting more and more passengers. During one of my rides, the driver even had to sit on a passenger’s lap as he drove!
Once you’re at Sisophon, there will be a number of taxi drivers congregated in a market area. (Be sure to tell your driver from Siem Reap that you’re heading on to Banteay Chhmar, and he’ll know where to drop you off.) From this market area you should be able to find a shared taxi to Banteay Chhmar for only $5.
That also means you’ll have to wait for the taxi drivers to find other passengers going there, however. For your own private taxi, expect to pay over $20. With that in mind, the wait might be worth it.
The main temple of Banteay Chhmar costs $5 to enter, while you shouldn’t expect to pay anything for the other sites around town.
It’s best to have at least one full day in which to explore the main temple in addition to the satellite face towers. That’s why staying at least two nights is ideal. In my case, I explored the temple when I first got there in the late afternoon. Then I went back the next morning and saw the surrounding sites afterwards.
While Banteay Chhmar is a small village, finding accommodation is much easier than you would think. That’s thanks to the Banteay Chhmar Homestay Program, you can easily find reasonable accommodation in a local resident’s spare room. Don’t expect air conditioning, but otherwise, all your basic amenities will be covered.
As the town is small, your homestay should also be within easy walking distance of the main temple. Simply email the organization in advance and tell them when you’re coming. As their office is located just across the street from Banteay Chhmar’s main entrance, your driver from Sisophon should drop you off right there.
The tourism group also organizes meals, so you can walk over there for both dinner and breakfast.
Looking at a map, you’ll notice that Banteay Chhmar is in the western end of the country. If you happen to be traveling on to Thailand from Cambodia, you may want to consider saving Banteay Chhmar for the end of your trip and then travel overland from there. It’s not the most comfortable option ever, but it’s very cheap and relatively easy.
After the ruins, you’ll want to travel back to Sisophon, the closest city to Banteay Chhmar. Then from Sisophon, take a shared taxi to the border town of Poipet. While the border crossing is infamous for its scams and unsavory characters, that mostly applies to those traveling from Thailand to Cambodia. There’s really not much to worry about when traveling in the opposite direction.
Just have your shared taxi driver drop you off near Cambodian immigration, and from here you’ll carry on on foot. Even though you’re still in Cambodia, a number of touts will approach you saying they have great offers for rides all the way to Bangkok. Ignore them.
Wait in the immigration line, and then simply walk over to the Thai side. You’ll pass a number of casinos on the way. (By this point, you should’ve spent all your Cambodian currency, because it’s difficult to find anyone to take it even at the border. And you generally want to be very wary of money exchangers at overland border crossings, so try to find an ATM machine. In my case, I already had some Thai baht on me and can’t recall how many ATM machines there were in the area).
Next, wait in line at Thai immigration, and after entering Thailand, keep walking and you’ll eventually find, or be found, by a driver going to Bangkok. The shared taxi should only be a couple hundred baht and lasts 3 – 4 hours. As a foreigner, you are sure to get ripped off here, but not by a whole lot. In the end, it’s much, much cheaper and not much more difficult than returning back to Siem Reap and flying from there.
If you want the driver to drop you off right at one of the Bangkok airports, make sure in advance that they’ll agree to go there, because not every driver will.