Fah Thai May: features – Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar is one of the Angkorian Empire’s greatest achievements but, as Denis Gray discovers, is one of Cambodia’s least visited treasures

Drive a rough, dirt road to a far-flung village, cross a moat choked with vegetation, tread through a forest of dense undergrowth and soaring trees and suddenly you – and probably you alone – are whisked into a haunting world.

Towers that have withstood the siege of nature and time rise from fields of scattered grey stones dappled by sunlight shimmering through the green canopy. Jungle vines climb up weathered walls. Massive tree roots strangle teetering shrines. There are dark vaulted chambers still intact and arched doorways that lead to nowhere. Then, around some corner, from a shadowy niche, a curvaceous celestial dancer, the apsara, stops you with a sensual smile cast across 800 years.

It doesn’t take long to fall under the spell of Banteay Chhmar, one of the greatest monuments of the Angkorian Empire but still little known to the outside world following centuries of abandonment and, more recently, revolution and war. While Angkor Wat, Bayon and other temples near Siem Reap now receive an average of 7,000 visitors each day, this Buddhist monastery complex a three-hour drive from that tourist boom town daily welcomes just two.

Given its remote location, the French colonials only came across Banteay Chhmar near the end of the 19th century – and they were more than impressed. When the great French archaeologist George Groslier visited in 1914, he enthused that “nowhere else have I felt such deep emotion studying the stones on site and re-creating them one by one on paper.” Following the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and an ensuing civil war, the area’s last landmines were only cleared in 2007. With safe access possible, preliminary restoration began a year later with protection finally offered to a defenseless treasure that had been badly looted in the 1990s.