March 22, 2016 11:00 am JST

Banteay Chhmar, protecting Cambodia's 'second Angkor'

DENIS D. GRAY, Contributing writer

Wielding spears, warriors of the 13th century clash with enemies. The temple’s bas-reliefs celebrate the victories of Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Angkorian kings. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

SIEM REAP PROVINCE, Cambodia -- Sunset approaches at one of the world's greatest, man-made wonders.  Soft light burnishes the weathered stones, the images of gods and kings. It's party time at Cambodia's Angkorian temples.

     Backpackers, beer cans in hand, queue up to wedge into the crowd atop Bakheng, a sacred hill which affords spectacular views of that jewel in the crown, Angkor Wat. And around its vast moat, a seamless motorcade circles, wreathing the edifice with exhaust fumes. In brief, Angkor is being besieged by mass tourism.

     Some 170 kilometers to the northwest lies Banteay Chhmar, another grand edifice from the glory days of the ancient Khmer empire, and while it is often called "the second Angkor" it could not be more removed from the crowds and blighted atmosphere around Cambodia's most exalted temple. So far, that is.

     At this remote 13th century complex, only the rustle of falling leaves, birdsong and distant music are heard, with just an occasional visitor intruding. Jungle vines snake up leaning walls and massive tree roots strangle collapsing shrines. Then suddenly, from a shadowy niche, a curvaceous celestial dancer, an apsara, stops you in your tracks with a sensual smile cast over 800 years.

     A mere 1,392 tourists entered this haunting precinct last year -- about as many as visit the main Angkor temples in less than three hours every day. While there are more than 20,000 hotel and guesthouse rooms available in Siem Reap, the mushrooming city near the Angkor temples, the village of Banteay Chhmar can only host about 50 overnight guests at nine humble homestays and two luxury tents.

     Can Banteay Chhmar avoid invasion by mass tourism, and why has it not already been overwhelmed?

     For  seven centuries, Banteay Chhmar was cocooned in obscurity, and safe access was not possible until 2007, the year the last landmines were cleared following the end of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and civil war. Its location was and remains relatively remote. Scholars are still puzzled why Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Khmer kings, undertook such a vast project in one of Cambodia's driest regions  some distance from his capital at Angkor.

     But build he did, and the results were magnificent. Measuring 770 by 690 meters, Banteay Chhmar is almost as extensive as Angkor Wat, its 538 meters of lifelike reliefs originally protected by colonnaded galleries nearly twice as long as the better known ones at the Bayon temple at Angkor. And like at the Bayon, "face towers," 37 of them, rise in the inner precinct, with their mysterious, smiling faces carved into the upper reaches that have been described by one archaeologist as a wondrous bridge between sculpture and architecture.

     Prey to looters and the continual lashing by monsoon rains and invasive vegetation, Banteay Chhmar finally commanded serious attention in 2007 when the U.S.-based Global Heritage Fund and Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts targeted several areas of the temple for restoration while simultaneously promoting low-impact tourism to avoid the pitfalls of Angkor and improve the marginal livelihoods of villagers.

Restoration efforts

A prominent British conservation architect, John Sanday, headed a 60-member team which took apart, reassembled and shored up a section of the eastern gallery that displays an epic in stone of ancient Khmer life. The bas-relief depicts battles between the Khmer and their eastern Cham neighbors, with charging elephants, soldiers about to be speared, and crocodiles gobbling up the fallen. But there are also rare glimpses into the daily lives of the common folk. With the help of three-dimensional imaging to solve a complex jigsaw puzzle, the team also put into place some 700 sandstone blocks, many of which had tumbled down, to restore one of the tottering face towers.

     Meanwhile the villagers, with the help of non-government organizations such as GHF, founded Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism, an independent group which is funneling 90% of tourism income to locals while trying to ward off the industry's downsides.

     The key guardian at the gate is CBT head Tath Sophal, a son of rice farmers who survived the Khmer Rouge and a village resident since 1993 when civil war still raged in the area. With the Ministry of Culture, the CBT has forged an agreement that bans hotels within the temple zone, an area of 7.8 square kilometers established by royal decree. No outsiders are allowed to build inside the zone, although resident villagers can remain but only sell their property to others in the community.

     Tath Sophal is pleased with the modest but growing income flowing into the area via locally organized cooking classes, dance performances, temple tours and accommodations, ranging from $7 a night at one of the homestays to $800 for a luxury, air-conditioned tent and gourmet meals. The CBT last year received $45,000 in direct income and the community also benefited in indirect ways, but That Sophal is looking toward a cap on tourist numbers.

     "'I would like less than 10,000 tourists to Banteay Chhmar,"' he told Nikkei Asian Review. "'If you get more than that you will lose control. And if many tourists come so will the rich to build big hotels. This is very dangerous."

     GHF executive director Stefaan Poortman says it is unlikely that tourism at Banteay Chhmar will ever reach the scale of Angkor's. Whereas Angkor's main temples have been significantly resurrected, only about a fifth of the original structure at Banteay Chhmar remains intact, with wholesale restoration unlikely. And despite a major road improvement last year, it still takes more than two hours to travel there from the gateway of Siem Reap. But Poortman is still uneasy.

     "When you deal with a site of such significance, in the long-term it is in the hands of the national government. It would be very concerning if large scale development were allowed," he said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "I'm still not yet confident that what the Cambodian government allowed to happen at Angkor will not happen at Banteay Chhmar."

     The rich and powerful, Cambodian and foreign, have through influence and bribery flouted zoning regulations similar to those at Banteay Chhmar, and they continue with unseemly developments in the Angkor area while officials look the other way. Since the late King Norodom Sihanouk launched an appeal to "Save Angkor" in 1989, endless international conferences and management plans by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and others have attempted to regulate tourism, protect the temples and ensure that surrounding communities reaped benefits. But laissez-faire tourism appears to have far outpaced the best laid plans, and that pace is accelerating: By 2020, 6-8 million annual visitors are projected, up from the current number of more than 2 million, driven by such come-ons as the ranking by guidebook publisher Lonely Planet last year of the Angkor temples as the first of 500 "best attractions on the planet."

     Some of this influx at Angkor may spill over and breach the defenses of Banteay Chhmar, which has also been nominated by the Cambodian government as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

     But for the time being, one can clamber alone over a veritable sea of fallen stone, past leaning towers and precariously perched arches, into a maze of sanctuaries where dark corridors may lead to dead ends or a deity illuminated by skylight piercing through ceiling cracks.

     "I wanted to get lost somewhere in Cambodia," said Gaelle Roussel, a young French tourist as she stood admiring the eastern gallery reliefs. True to her mission, she sought out the roads less traveled -- and found Banteay Chhmar.

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