We took a shared taxi from Battambang to Sisophon, and another shared taxi from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar. Total cost for the two of us was $20, and the entire trip took about 4 hours, including a 1-hour wait in Sisophon while the taxi filled with three more people and various packages. While we were waiting the taxi driver would periodically flag down a passing motorbike, van, or car, he would be handed a small package, and would add that to the pile in the trunk. We were puzzled about this, but on the way to Banteay Chhmar he would make stops along the way and deliver the packages he had picked up. It seems that our taxi driver did double duty as the local FedEx delivery guy.
Banteay Chhmar is a small village in the northwest near the Thai border that includes a large Angkor-era temple (12-13th century) in the village itself (Banteay Chhmar temple), plus lots of smaller temples in the surrounding countryside. It’s well off the tourist track. There are occasional small day tours from Siem Reap that visit the main temple, but only a few tourists spend more than a few hours here. We contacted the Community Based Tourism group (CBT) while we were in Battambang and had arranged a several night homestay in the village. The homestay is a room in the home of a local village resident. We stayed with Khoeun Sreymom, whose family has a lovely house a few hundred meters from the temple. The room included a fan and mosquito net, with a separate (bucket flush) toilet and cold shower, all quite comfortable and adequate. Delicious Khmer meals were provided by Ms. Sreymom. She spoke some English, and her husband Mr. Sopheng spoke very good English, so we had no language problems.
We took a several hour tour of the main temple with one of the knowledgeable CBT guides (Mr. Holl). One of the walls of the temple includes a 50-m long story etched in stone that describes conflicts between the Khmer and Cham (present day Vietnamese). The temple is largely in ruins with only some parts rebuilt or restored, which for us added to the appeal of this temple. We continue to marvel at the thought of the time, effort, and engineering skill that it took the ancient Khmer to build this and all of the other temples we have seen. This is in addition to the exquisite craftsmanship that it took to create all of the beautiful, intricate, and detailed stone bas-reliefs and statues. We feel very fortunate that we have been able to see the portions of this work that have survived after so many centuries of weathering, looting, and war.
We also took a one-day tour to three remote temples on the Cambodia-Thailand border (Prasat Chan, Thamorn (Kneeling Elephant Hill), and Ta Krobai). These were small temples, largely in ruins with very little restoration, and seldom visited. These border temples have been the focus of armed conflict between the two countries as recently as 2011, though now they are peacefully protected by both the Cambodian and Thai military. The purpose of the military presence is both to secure each countries’ border (historically there have been many border skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand), and to prevent further looting and vandalism of the temples. From what we had been hearing looting and vandalism of ancient artifacts has been a major reason for the destruction and loss of temples and their artifacts, particularly during the period of the Khmer Rouge (1976-1979) and Vietnamese invasion and subsequent civil war (1979-late 1990s).
At the homestay we met a young Belgian man (Bart) who was doing volunteer work to help restore the Kom Pong Toek temple, a few hundred meters east of Banteay Chhmar. Restoration work has just begun here, but they have already made an amazing find of a nearly complete lion sculpture. Lion sculptures have been found at many temple entrances throughout Cambodia, but almost all have been vandalized or looted. Many have just had their heads broken off and sold on the black market. According to Mr. Sopheng the find at Kom Pong Toek was made by investigating an illegal dig at the site. According to him the looters had dug down about two meters and started trenching in one direction hoping to find artifacts to sell. Fortunately they dug in the wrong direction, because the nearly-intact lion statue was found just a short distance in the other direction. Had the looters gone in that direction they would found the statue and it would have been lost, possibly forever, to the black market. As it is, the statue sits in a place of honor at the excavation site, and is hopefully being well-protected for archaeologists to study and for future generations to enjoy.
On our last day at the homestay Bart decided to take a 10 mile walk in the countryside (he is young and a very strong hiker). About halfway into his hike he came upon a large male buffalo with a group of females. The male buffalo took exception to Bart’s presence and threatened him for around 45 minutes. Lucky for him there was a tree that he was able to hide behind to keep from being charged by the buffalo. After he left Bart made his way back to the homestay and arrived about 30 minutes before nightfall. He was pretty shaken up by the whole ordeal of being trapped by the buffalo and trying to make it back to the homestay before dark.