Banteay Chhmar – Sister of Angkor Wat
Far away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap and Angkor, lies the small village of Muong Cau. Everyone calls it Banteay Chhmar but it is really the name of the temple lying nearby. There are no buses going to this village, the only way to get here is to catch a taxi from Sisaphon town lying 65 km away or… to hitchhike. In Muong Cau there are no hotels, nor restaurants. It’s quiet, peaceful place, time passes slowly and has time to smile. Small market provides all the kinds of delicacies, starting from sweet rolls and mango, ending with silkworm larvae with chili. Behind the glass of small cart there are dangling colorful frankfurters: green, purple, red… every kind under the sun. Cooba is tempted but finally, after long deliberation, finally resigns. Why to risk it, he never has eaten such colors, what if they are awful 😉
Extremely sympathetic locals are happy to show the way to CBT office, a local organization taking care of sensible, controlled tourism development in Banteay Chhmar. It is the easiest, if not the only way of finding here accommodation – CBT is helping to organize homestays in the village and thus ensuring inflow of cash directly to its citizens. Night in a house on stilts in a small room with bed covered with mosquito net, small shared bathroom with cold water, hammock, tractor and super nice hosts – nothing more is needed. The village could only spare us the loud, propaganda wake up from speakers before 5am in the morning. At least it sounded as propaganda and reminded me of the 80s in Poland, when it was still ruled by communism and brain-wash-like words were flooding streets and its sleepy people… At 5 am, whole Muong Cau is definitely awake.
Banteay Chhmar means in free translation Citadel of a Cat. There are some theories that proper name is rather “Narrow Citadel” or “Small Fort” but as any of those has nothing to do with reality and the cat name is currently most popular (and I like it most), I’ll stick to this one. Build in similar time as Angkor, it is also the second most important building in Cambodia. It’s one of the 3 temples that can be proud of its towers with faces. Great! What’s more, the location away from the trail, in a region with poor infrastructure, spared Banteay Chhmar from the influx of tourists and you can experience it virtually alone. Wonderful! At six in the morning, together with sunrise, my memories of Indiana Jones and Lost Ark are coming back to me…
Banteay Chhmar is surrounded with crumbling wall. The wall is being slowly consumed by huge roots of tetrameles trees and trees grow tall, reaching out to the sky.
In the wall from time to time appears a narrow opening, it’s purring, tempting, calling: mrr, come to me… Rubble is surrounding that wall, protects it as if it was a well-armed army. You need to weigh every step, check every rock if it’s friendly to you or rather will be happy to dump you into the hole, onto the stones, between the biting plants, as a pray for snakes and spiders. One must walk therefore slowly, head cannot turn around. From time to time have to only stop for a moment, to catch ones breath, to catch wow… let go wow.
The sun slowly rises above the wall; among the roots of trees and trees roots there are first glimmers of sunlight appearing. Whispering wall remains unconquered.
Finally turn. I thought I will never find one… Maybe the other side will be more gracious to me. Hope is the mother of fools… unless those are patient. Patient ones are sages and live to see. I lived to see too. On the other side of the wall I have finally found my own hole to paradise, to my own Indiana Jones (although some say it is rather Tomb Raider)
There is such a dream…
For so many years I’ve dreamed about it that I can’t remember when it started, nor why. It was so long ago, that I almost forgot I dream about it; in my soul there is echo of the fantasy rather than the fantasy itself. Like a dream, which I can barely remember but I perfectly remember that feeling it has left me with. And one day, the dream comes true. Unannounced, unexpected… just like that! The head suddenly becomes light although it’s filled to the brim with racing ideas. My body trembles, hair stand up as when I hear beautiful music. My breath speeds up, sucks greedily every particle of the air, as if I’ve just got released from too tight box. The air is fresh and cool, despite the twenty eight degrees Celsius on thermometer… I can’t focus on anything. As if suddenly my brain experienced the “big bang”, new worlds were created inside it and it began to see what it has not seen before. I swallow every sound, every image and every touch of the wind on my skin, with all my senses. Colors suddenly have taste and sounds have texture. Images become melody and I am empty of words. And this joy, euphoria beyond description that makes me fly, I am so light! An euphoric high. High to the sky!
So the paradise is conquered. I stand alone at the foot of two towers peering at me from under half-closed eyelids. Slowly the day is growing lighter, birds are beginning their songs and at the village, everyday bustle and hustle is starting – but here I’m surrounded by serenity. Tranquility is around me, peace in me. Is this how Henri Mouhot felt when he saw hiding in the jungle Angkor Wat for the first time? Slowly I move on exploration, carefully step by step, checking the stability and spiritual support of each stone on my way. I would hate to be caught in the landslide of rubble but even more, I would hate to hurt this place. For several hours I do not exist for this world, I am in holy place, far away from earthly matters. In a dream that is sent to me only once but I will remember it for the rest of my life.
When I come back to the living on tired, slightly shaky legs, I discover with surprise that I was gone for really long time – and I thought it was just a quarter of an hour…
Not often I find such places although I search them constantly. Always though, when I find one, the same dilemma is born in my head: whether I’d rather see this place restored, “rescued” or I want it to be as it is. The jungle growing over an old, crumbling temple, Buddha statues hidden in beautiful forest far away from everything, huge “little toe” sticking out of the swamp… all of this has the charm you do not experience in Angkor Wat, which has cemented paths and empty, sun-scorched clearing around. I am pretty sure that when it was discovered in the middle of the jungle, Angkor has shaken up many hearts, as Banteay Chhmar rocked mine. Today it became only the place you “must see”, preferably with a tag “I was here” but it’s not the place to which you would keep coming back. To Banteay Chhmar I want to and will come back, for sure.
Unfortunately, places like this do not remain unchanged, no matter if left alone. When not restored, they become looted, nibbled by rain, sun and wind and ultimately are absorbed by voracious vegetation. So I lean toward fixing things. Just to have it fixed under the aegis of an old romantic traveler soul. Rumors say this is the plan for Banteay Chhmar.
In 2008 Global Heritage Fund organization took a patronage over this amazing place. Little by little renovation is started but what is maybe even more important, the strategy for times of tourism boom is being created. Protected areas are identified – here no one will be able to build any hotels. Passion for monuments protection is being seeded in hearts of local people. There is no better protection than your own neighbor watching your house when you go for vacation, isn’t it? Local authorities are involved in all the planning. It is very important as more often than not, this is “they” who stand in the way of monuments protection, when dilemma appears: to protect or to make money. Finally, what is the most important for my romantic soul: the temple will be restored only to a small extent, part of the “rooted” towers and walls will only be protected against further damage. Debris will not be completely removed but there will be walkways build above it instead. Perhaps finally, a monument showing both great power of human creativity and the survival power of nature will arise.
Okay, but how exactly the physical reconstruction looks like? For the average Joe, that is for me, the ruins look like a big, three-dimensional puzzle, just there is no frame that I could start with (I always start with the frame!). I’ve learned a bit during research on Banteay Chhmar. For example, when the walls are crumbling, they do it in specific, repeatable sequences. Assuming that the stones have not been stolen, it makes matching pieces a little simpler. Each stone is hand-sketched on paper, based on the grid – “pencil one” on the paper and “rope one” in reality – only then are transferred to the 2D program. Each stone is marked – physically and on drawing – for easy identification. Additionally stones are scanned in 3D and the temple is re-created on the computer before they do it physically. What fascinates me most though is a theoretical computer reconstruction. Amazing that you can see such a Banteay Chhmar in its full glory so many years after its era passed and yet so many years before the actual recovery of the former splendor can be seen…
Below I share what stroke me: fragments of the presentation of regional director of GHF – John Sanday, currently conducting renovations in Banteay Chhmar and the reconstruction of the temple by Dr. Olivier Cunin, who’s spent more than 10 years on studying the temple. They are showing the ins and outs and the effects of their work.
And after fulfilling my dream? I feel that Banteay Chhmar is calling me. Maybe it wants me to rescue it, to piece together this great puzzle of stone history? Maybe it just wants to be admired again? Hear “wow” and “ah”, to see a spark in someone’s eyes? Or maybe, maybe it wants me to grow roots on its old back, like one of those big tetrameles trees…