Tucked away in the northwest of Cambodia, far from the tourist highways and easy-to-access clichéd attractions, Banteay Chhmar is a magical and mysterious place with a vegetation-shrouded temple that is both a green breathing space and a spiritual heart.
In the early morning, the sun barely rises above the green moat surrounding the small temple. Slowly, the water lilies open their petals and the children, their bellies filled with a handful of rice, nonchalantly make their way in single file towards the Children of the Mekong education centre, or more precisely towards infant school. In the blush of early morning, the banded colours of Cambodia slowly appear in the sky: the blue and the red with the white of the temple towers of Angkor Vat starkly set against them. Together the children, aged between three and five, go more or less confidently into singing the Cambodian national anthem at the top of their shrill voices. The classes can then get underway, the children can begin to enjoy their day and life can get on with its normal routine.
In this small village, hidden just a stone’s throw away from the Thai border, it is curious that while these little children extol their ancestors in song with the words: Heaven protect our King /And give him happiness and glory/May he reign in our hearts and over our destiny,/He who, as heir to the architects of our Sovereignty,/Rules the proud and old kingdom./The temples are asleep in the forest/Reminders of the majesty of Moha Nokor/Like a rock, the Khmer race is eternal/Let us put our faith in the fate of Kampuchea (…), others are off seeking their fortune in neighbouring Thailand, despite it being the object of all curses and cause of all ills. The organisations Children of the Mekong and Espoir en Soie have helped counter this exodus by creating Soieries du Mékong in 2001 to revive work with silk in the village.
What is there to say about Banteay Chhmar, a place often passed through by those intent on not stopping? “The citadel of the cat”, which gives its name to the village, is a small Angkor gem which lies too far from the official tourist circuits, at the end of a road that remains a secret too well-kept. This is both a good and a bad thing. But, either way it is a big mistake, as once seen it quickly becomes clear that everything about Banteay Chhmar encourages the visitor to stay; perhaps best summed up by the eight-hundred-year-old temple and the picturesque market where sipping from an Angkor Beer goes hand-in-hand with nibbling grilled, crispy frogs and crickets. Or, looked at from another perspective, Banteay Chhmar and its temple, being too remote from Angkor and too close to the Thai border, have seen more than their fair share of looting. At the end of the 1990s, Banteay Chhmar hit the headlines and its temple, universally ignored until then, gained a degree of unwelcome notoriety as it was victim of looting on numerous occasions.
Such a monument in a remote and little-known place was bound to become the focus of greedy attention and envy. It is a story of stones stolen without much relief. Not one of those romantic stories by Malraux, the whimsical, eccentric idiot over-burdened with misplaced panache. The reality is much gloomier and more conventional, as the raiders of the temple of Banteay Chhmar were also its guardians, appointed by the merchants of Bangkok, who were themselves in the pay of mafia elements. Banteay Chhmar is a forgotten temple at the heart of a little-known village in a region deliberately ignored by the authorities, where any notion of development seems to belong to pre-Angkor legend. Again this is a good and a bad thing. For here is what can really be called the authentic Cambodia, a country of resourcefulness and pulling strings left, right and centre: the real deal in fact. It is the country that tourists sometimes go in search of without ever really finding. Given such circumstances, how scrupulous should the temple guardians have been when their wages were paid just once a year and then only in part?
Last autumn, the road which leads from the nearest city of Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar was widened and its surface rolled – an improvement in every respect. In a symbolic development, a journey which previously took at least an hour and a half (and three in the rainy season when vehicles skidded about in the mud) can now be accomplished in half an hour on a good day. And what about electricity? All in good time. In Banteay Chhmar, several inhabitants sell batteries which they charge using generators. Customers come to them in the market, leave their batteries overnight and pick them up fully charged the next day. This way, they have lighting and can watch boxing matches on their televisions or corny soap operas, produced in the air-conditioned studios of Phnom Penh.
But where does the temple fit in with all this? The citadel of the cat mocks a modernity that cannot reach it. Essentially it is in better shape than all the other temples in Cambodia and it is an understatement to say that getting lost in crazy conversations with the stones here is a much more positive and pleasurable experience than at Angkor: attempting to imitate the ancient apsaras hidden beneath kilometres of centuries-old frangipani roots which tirelessly consume the former glory of the Khmer kingdom; attempting (and not really succeeding) to make out in the vast heap of laterite stones the legendary figure of King Jayavarman VII, founder of Angkor Vat. The temple sleeps deep in the forest, in a silence which is undisturbed apart from the sound of a hesitant step on dried leaves and the fruitless chanting of the monks in the neighbouring pagoda. There is no doubt: Banteay Chhmar is the place to come to fully understand how “the Khmer race is eternal”.
The other Bayon
Possibly the last monument erected by Jayavarman VII, the temple of Banteay Chhmar was built from sandstone, limonite and laterite at the end of the twelfth century and was dedicated to Lokesvara, the Bodhisattva of mercy (“a being promised enlightenment” in the Buddhist world). The temple covers slightly less than ten square kilometres and is surrounded by wide moats measuring sixty metres in length, which are dry for six months of the year. Its uniqueness lies in the four-faced towers which are reminiscent of those of Bayon – one of the most prestigious and fascinating at the site of Angkor –, as well as in the magnificent bas-reliefs depicting battle scenes, demons and various animals. It was here that director Jean-Jacques Annaud shot some scenes for his film Deux frères [Two Brothers], released in 2004.
Article and photos by Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Previously published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.