DISCOVERING BANTEAY CHHMAR MAGIC
By Female Savvy Traveller
If you are interested in the Angkorian Cambodian history, Banteay Chhmar temples are a must-see for you! You will not see a single Chinese tourist here, or crowded sidewalks or tourists spoiling your amazing shots. Banteay Chhmar temples are a unique historic site, that offers tranquilly, peace and immersion in the local rural life.
The temples are in Banteay Meanchey province close to the border with Thailand. The site is easily accessible from Siem Reap, and if you are on a short visit you could organise a day trip here (leaving very very early in the morning from Siem Reap and returning late in the afternoon/evening). However, we would recommend that you plan to stay here for a night as the local homestays are some of the best we have seen in Cambodia.
My friend and I travelled on a small budget so we chose the Cambodian shared taxi option to reach the project. This takes more time but is very affordable for even backpackers. If you have less time and more money you can travel by a VIP bus to Sisophon and then private or shared taxi to Banteay Chhmar, or book a private taxi the whole way of you have less time or travel in a group.
Emily and I arrived late in the afternoon at the village of Banteay Chhmar, so we decided to spend a night at the local homestay and “do” the temple visit the next morning.
Prior to our arrival, we booked one of the family homestays. Our hosts, Lo and Po were an older couple who did not speak very much English but their grown-up children who lived next door did, so it was easy to organise our homestay with them. The family had a beautiful wooden house with plenty of space, and luckily for us a downstairs toilet as part of the house – so, you did not need to go outside to use the bathroom as you normally have to do at most Cambodian homestays. This was actually amazing, as soon as we arrived a large storm started, no surprises here as we were visiting at the start of the rainy season. I love torrential rains and storms with loud lightning sounds. At one point we lost electricity due to the storm, and our hosts were amazing, bringing us a candle so we could see in our rooms.
Eager to visit the temples in the morning before it gets hot, we got up early. The host family prepared breakfast for us, with plenty of options for both Khmer or European visitors. With the help of the younger family members, we chatted about the family history, lives and experience of running the homestay.
The family recommended we visit the local tourism office that is being run by the members of the local community – a Community based tourism initiative, that promotes employment for local people through tourism and trains local people in running homestays, becoming certified local tour guides etc.
The office is located opposite the entrance to the temple complex, and at most times has a local representative to provide information about the temple visits, options for hiring bicycles, local sites to visit and other activities available in the village and local area. This is also where we met with our pre-booked fully qualified tour guide. Initially, we were surprised by how well Mr. Vibol spoke English.
By the time we finished looking around it was almost 11am. Here goes our plan to visit the temples early morning before it gets too hot. Luckily for us, after the heavy rain the night before it was not actually that hot. The temple complex is vast and if possible it is good to pre-book a local tour guide as he can show you the best part of the temple complex and explain the history of the site, as well show you some of the restoration work that was completed during the last few years. We spend almost 2.5 hours at the temple, taking photos, listening to our guide explaining to us the history of the temple and local community and just getting lots at this magnificent place. During our visit, we only met other 3-4 international visitors and one local family taking photos at the temple.
I felt very lucky to have this Angkorian period temple to myself, without the crowd of tourists, the noise of large groups and busses of Chinese visitors. You could almost imagine this place 100, 200, 500 years ago…. And nothing much has probably changed here.
After our visit to the temple, Emily and I decided to stay another night as we were intrigued by this slow-paced village with its unforgettable charm and incredibly welcoming community. As the main temple has several small temple sites in close proximity and we were eager to explore the local countryside, we each hired a bicycle.
Peddle power proved to be one of the best ways to explore Cambodia for us. Choosing to go slow, meeting local people along the way and having chat with random strangers provides you with an insight into the local lives of people and their struggle to survive to live in a country affected by impacts of global warming. This cycle trip was no different! We found so many other temples in the middle of agricultural land, surrounded by local cassava or rice plantations, almost forgotten in time. Meeting local farmers, having a long lunch break during the hottest part of the day, to cool down and rest before continuing their work in the field. Yes, we have seen the strange looks: “ Are they crazy? Cycling in the middle of the day?” but most local people were just totally stunned to find us in the middle of nowhere.
After, the “sauna” cycling trip we rewarded ourselves with tons of ice-cream from one of the local shops. Gosh, it tasted good, we totally deserved it! It was time for shopping. The village has a social enterprise – The Soieries du Mekong Silk Center, that sells locally made scarves and other products. Today, the project provides employment opportunities for a hundred people: weavers, seamstresses, embroiderers, and dyers. All silk products are entirely handcrafted and use the talents of the local Khmer women. This is a great place to buy truly locally made gifts for your friends and family, as the organisation can guarantee that all people working at the project are paid fair wages and more importantly you can have peace of mind that your much-loved items have not been produced with the use of child labour. You can receive a tour of the silk centre, observe the silk-making process and maybe even get invited to lend a hand and try to weave yourself. Please visit the French-based organization’s website: Soieries du Mekong to book your visit.
Our family hosts were very welcoming and totally delighted that we decided to spend another night at their homestay. With another dinner feast at their house, we were overwhelmed by their comfortable homestay experience. It felt at most times like visiting your much-loved grandparents rather than being in a foreign country at a local homestay.
The next morning, it was our time to leave. We were heading back to Siem Reap to continue our travels.
Banteay Chmar Homestays are a hidden gem missed by most on their first trip to Cambodia. The temples are not on the main tourist track, so we would recommend that you visit now before the temples get discovered by the large tour companies and become crowded by thousands of local and international visitors.