Cambodia’s “second Angkor” revived ma non troppo

Children hang out on ruins of Banteay ChhmarThe late 12th century Buddhist temple complex of Banteay Chhmar (also known as the Citadel of the Cats) in Cambodia has been ill-treated by time, climate, war and looters. Banteay Chhmar is the fourth largest temple built during the Angkorian period. It was built 105 miles from the capital of Angkor in a desolate region of northwest Cambodia near the border with Thailand. It’s baking hot in the dry season, the roads are impassable during monsoon season and jungle vegetation thrives.

Banteay Chhmar bas-relief of a battleIt was commissioned by King Jayavarman VII in honor of a Crown Prince, probably his son Indravarman. An inscription found at the site describes how four royal servants saved the prince’s life on two separate occasions. The inscription says they died protecting him and thus their images were placed in the four corners of the shrine. The temple is rich with bas-reliefs depicting deities, history and legend of Khmer culture. Angkor Wat has almost no bas-reliefs.

Bas-relief of a 32-armed Avalokiteshvara on west side of Banteay Chhmar; looters took the wall from the gap on the right onwardDespite its historical, religious and artistic importance, however, Banteay Chhmar’s remote location and climatological challenges resulted in eight centuries of neglect. The Khmer Rouge used it as a stronghold and mined the perimeter heavily. After the Khmer Rouge left, looters braved the minefields. In one such shameless and depraved act, Cambodian soldiers drove pickup trucks to the temple walls and used jackhammers to remove entire sections of the bas-relief. The theft was only discovered because by random coincidence a French expert who had worked on Banteay Chhmar found a section of the stolen wall in an antiques store in Thailand and called the cops.

Rebuilding columns and east gallery wallIn 2007, the KR mines were finally cleared which gave researchers and very adventurous tourists access to the site. The next year California-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF) began working with the local community under the aegis of Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture to conserve the crumbling structures. Their aim is not to put it all back together like new, but rather to address underlying structural issues and damaging plant growth and turn as many piles of stone blocks back into walls, temples and galleries as possible to ensure the long-term survival of this architectural marvel.

Crane lifts block of battle relief to keep it from topplingWhat they don’t want is to make Banteay Chhmar the new Angkor Wat, swarmed by a crushing average of 7,000 visitors a day. Right now Banteay Chhmar averages exactly two visitors a day. The local economy, already bolstered by the construction work on the temple, could benefit enormously from the temple’s becoming more popular, but not too popular.

Sustainable tourism is very much a priority for the Global Heritage Fund and for Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism (CBT), an organization of local villagers dedicated to preservation of local heritage for the benefit of the people who live there. There are no hotels in the area, so if you want to visit the CBT has six homestays in Banteay Chhmar village where you can get a room for $7 a night, and you’ll know all that money stays with the villagers instead of lining Paris Hilton’s trust fund. Five bucks will get you entry to the entire temple complex including all the satellite temples over multiple days.

It’s that kind of local investment in the temple’s well-being that will keep it from becoming the victim of unscrupulous looters, tourist exploitation and its own harsh environment.

You can see footage of the conservation work being done on the temple and the marks looters left behind in this short video from the GHF:


If you have time on your hands, watch this fascinating lecture by Banteay Chhmar expert Dr. Olivier Cunin. He’s got architectural reconstructions of how the temple looked when first built and everything.


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