A fitting farewell

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , (CB20),
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My last full day in Cambodia was set to be a big one, with an early morning bus ride to Sisophon followed by some six or seven hours tomb-raidering in the temples about 55km further north. The day started well enough, with a coffee and some breakfast into me before I boarded a minibus at my guesthouse which was to take me to the bus station. My bus for Poipet (I was to jump off at Sisophon) was scheduled to leave at 7:30am.

Instead, I was left sitting at the side of the NH6 through Siem Reap with a bunch of backpackers and told the bus was coming "soon". In Khmer-English, this means "you'd better have a good book with you cause you might be waiting a while". 7:45am, nothing. 8am, nothing. 8:30am, and I decided to amuse myself by speaking to some little bread sellers in their own language. "Ohh Barang jet Khmei ooooooooo!!!". For a ten year old Khmer girl, there is no funnier site on the planet than a random foreigner who can speak a little Khmer. Finally, at 9am, a ridiculously small rickety bus pulled up. I looked at a few of the other people sitting around me. We all thought the same thing. This is what we've been waiting nearly two hours for?! It looks like it's been in service since the Angkorian times!

Finally we made it onto the road, and after three and a half hours we rolled into a restaurant just outside Sisophon. I was already some three hours behind schedule, and I wasn't sure if I'd get time to see all of the temples, if any. As the bus stopped, one of the Khmers at the front informed us that we would be stopping for 30 minutes for lunch. This was not in my time frame. After getting over the shock of a Khmer speaking foreigner, he soon had a motodop on its way from town to pick me up. Fifteen minutes later, I'd checked in to a hotel, and was zooming north through the countryside with my newfound friend, headed for Banteay Chhmar temple.

I tell you what, Banteay Meanchey province has one very remote feel to it. Similar in ways to Pailin and Preah Vihear, although the landscape was much more sparse and arid. It was obvious this part of the country had been spared some of the downpours received by Phnom Penh during the monsoon. The most interesting thing on the journey was seeing the huge number of oxen herded by lone pre-pubescent boys on the side of the road. They didn't bat an eyelid when they saw me though, because they couldn't. My head was wrapped in a krama to prevent the inhalation of lungfulls of dust as overweight pickups zoomed by in the opposite direction at 150km/hr.

Some time around 3pm, we hit what at first seemed to be a river, but was in actual fact a moat. The dilapidated stone wall on the opposite bank told me this. We drove beside the moat for a few hundred metres before following it's course at a 90 degree angle. In the distance I could see the causeway leading to the eastern entrance of the temple. The moat was huge! Not quite as big as the one encircling Angkor Wat, but not far off. There was a small village near the entrance, and only a small sign confirming that I'd reached "Bantea Chma temple".

Once over the moat, an armed soldier informed me I had to pay $15 to see the temple. I swear, this is the only time in my life I will ever laugh and say "No" to a man holding an AK47. He showed me a sign-in book, the last entry by a foreigner dated five days earlier, on the 14th. An entry on the 13th had a comment that said "I had to pay $5". I told the soldier that the other tourist paid only $5, so I too would pay only $5. Ot panhaha! I probably could have talked him down to 5000 riel if I could have been bothered.

Finally inside the complex, the huge interior wall of Banteay Chhmar told me that I would need more than the two hours I had to fully explore it. Over the next hour I clambered over the stones, amazed at the destruction wrought by both nature and man at this incredible site. The jungle had taken it's toll, in a similar vain to Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, and many towers and galleries had collapsed under the unrelenting pressure of huge banyan trees. Amongst the thousands of stones on the ground, one with the chest of an apsara would catch the eye, yet the head or dress was not to be found.

This must have been a magnificent temple in its day. My guidebook told me that it was one of the only temples in the country that featured the smiling face of Avalokitshvara looking down from the towers with the same enigmatic smile as the 54 of the Bayon. Unfortunately, many of these had collapsed. A wall with huge Garuda's looked quite something under the shade of the setting sun, but for the wrong reasons. One was missing. Either the Khmer Rouge, or other plunderers of the nineties had carted off one of the 1.5m high carvings to some rich general in Thailand for his private collection. This was nothing compared to what I would see at the western entrance of the temple though. My guidebook informed me of a multi-armed Avalokitshvara carving in one of the outer galleries, unique to Banteay Chhmar. Unfortunately, I had some trouble finding it. Once I reached the rear of the temple, I met four Khmers who seemed very surprised to see me. I think they would have been surprised to have seen anyone, let alone a foreigner! Apart from the four of them, I'd seen only two other people inside the massive complex, at least as big as Ta Prohm near Siem Reap. Fortunately, they could speak a little English, and they showed me what I was looking for. Stupidly, I'd walked through an opening earlier without turning around to see what I was looking for!

On the wall of one of the galleries were two immaculate carvings of the multi-armed Hindu god (or is he/she an incarnation of the buddha?). Surrounding them were numerous other bas-reliefs, including some of everyday Khmer life, similar to those at the Bayon. The sad thing was, there were only two major carvings. There had been eight. In 1998, looters had ripped down a 30m section of the wall, and tried to smuggle it into Thailand. At least once section was recovered, and this is now on display in the national museum in Phnom Penh. However, nothing could be done for Banteay Chhmar, and I found myself staring at the amazing carvings wondering how such incredible work could survive almost a thousand monsoons, but not a days vandalism from looters.

I wanted to see the nearby temple of Banteay Taep, however it had gone 4pm, and bearing in mind it took two hours to reach Banteay Chhmar from Sisophon, I knew we had to head back lest we be riding in the dark. Before we left though, I had to give myself five minutes to take in the scene around the village. It was a spectacular place. So peaceful and serene, and rarely visited by foreigners. What was the point after visiting Siem Reap? This place, according to the guidebook, was less interesting and more difficult to get to, hence better left off the itinerary. As I watched a small girl fishing in the moat with the suns ray reflecting off the water, I couldn't help but think that this place was really special, and I was glad I'd gone out of my way to find it. What a fitting end to my time in Cambodia!
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