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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Banteay Chmar, a Traveler's Tale

Getting to Bantaey Chmar

Getting to Cambodia was no mien feat. On a bus from Bangkok to the the Aranyapathet-Poipet border was a long and uncomfortable ride, and crossing the border--let's just say it was a hassle. From there, rather than the usual tourist route to Siem Reap, I headed to Sisophon, a nondescript Cambodian city where I stayed in a basic guesthouse for $3 a night. The real reason for heading there was the temple complex of Banteay Chmar, literally in the middle of nowhere 60km north of Sisaphon. Far off the beaten track, I had a feeling that it would be up my alley and would offer a contrast to the tourist herds I knew would be teeming through Angkor and Siem Reap. I was not disappointed.

The day before I wondered around looking for a tour company. I had wanted to arrange an overnight stay with a local family and thought a tour group could set it up. There was no tour company to be found. In fact, there wasn't much to be found at all. So, I had dinner and headed back, but I was pretty sure as long as I left early I'd be able to find my way there the next day.

Cambodian Gas Station
I headed to where we'd been dropped off (and met by fellows on motorcycles to "taxi" us to our hotel) which was also near the only real hotel in town. I figured that I would have better luck arranging or rather stumbling upon transportation there. I was right--as I approached a young guy in his early twenties beckoned me over to him. A ride was quickly negotiated (I wasn't able to bargain him down), and I hopped the back of his motorcycle for the 60km ride that I expected to take at least an hour. Of course, before heading that far we had to stop and fill up on gas. The picture on the right is the gas station: gasoline is kept in those Pepsi-Cola bottles. Most "gas stations" are a woman or young man with a dozen or so of such bottles sitting beside of the road.

The road from the Aranyapathet-Poipet Border was great--wonderful, in fact, and I knew it was deceptive. I've spent too many years in South and Southeast Asia to expect many roads outside to be like that. After a couple of kilometers my intuition was proved correct and the pavement ended. It was still a beautiful if somewhat bumpy ride. I loved it: being in the open air, the wind in your face, the feeling of being unseparated from your world--it was like finding out an old painting in your closet was worth a thousand dollars. I can only imagine it being better if I could have rented a bike and driven myself, but to be honest some of the road was like a dirt bike challenge course, but still, if I could have I think I would have. It would have been worth it. We passed fields and fields dissected by dirt mounds and flooded with water: paddy fields. It really reminded me of the lower Deccan during monsoon season (it was, incidentally, the lighter part of monsoon here in Cambodia).

Banteay Chmar

We finally reached our destination--the 12th-13th century temple of Banteay Chmar, built in the Bayon style. We were the only people there aside from two local tourists and the few people working there in a very slow-moving restoration project. It was beautiful. The temple is in disrepair. Most of the jungle has been cleared from it, but the task of putting it back together is still years and years from being complete. There are ancient halls, partially standing, pillars rising up from tumbled down stones, reliefs carved into standing walls and scattered about where other walls have fallen, pushed out of place by roots and time. As such, it provided a glimpse of what Angkor and surrounding temples might have been like before their 40+ year restoration process. There were tumbled down towers, ancient halls

After a few hours, I headed back into Sisophon and also bought a bus ticket for the the next morning to Siem Reap, which I safely reached.   I must say, though, that even after Angkor Wat, Banteay Chmar might still be the highlight for me: the challenge of getting there, the motorcycle ride through the country road, and wondering around its ruins alone, in solitude with time to ponder, to think, to try to feel the reverberations of the footsteps of Khmer kings and priests who tread there hundred of years before my feet touched those that worn sandstone.


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