The famed temples that make up the Angkor Wat complex surrounding the bucolic town of Siem Reap in Cambodia are a major draw for touri from all over the world. Once in town, in visiting the ancient wat your options are limited. You can join in on an organized tour, sharing your experience with a bus load of your fellow touri, or you can strike out on your own. But even bypassing the organized bus tours still requires the assistance of a local, as either a driver or tour guide. Or both. A few brave souls rent a bicycle and find their own way to the closer and better known temples like Angkor wat and Angkor Thom. None choose that option to get to the smaller and more far flung temples. Even those who hire their own transportation may not make it quite that far. The larger and more spectacular temples are enough to fill most visitor’s stay.
Arriving by plane, whether you make the mistake of hiring a tuk tuk to get into town or spurge for the extra buck or two to travel in an air conditioned taxi your driver will do his damnedest to become your official source of transportation during your entire stay. Regular travellers to Se Asia may be wary, and with good cause. The region abounds in rip off scams, taking anyone on their word is an iffy proposition. So it is surprising that the drivers who solicit your business for touring the area’s temples are not scam artists. Fees, while negotiable, are usually within the norm. If you like the driver, and like the form of transpo you chose at the airport, go ahead and strike a deal.
I’ve been amazed at how helpful these guys really are. Most speak excellent English and all have a working knowledge of the temples. After agreeing to their services the first thing each driver does is to sit down with you and suggest a plan of attack. They know when the best time is to visit each temple, when the bus tours arrive, and when the temples are the most photogenic. They also have a good idea of how many temples to comfortably squeeze into your stay. The major wats always get first priority. If you are in town long enough, your driver will suggest a few of the smaller wats, those which are a further distance outside of town.
Of course it is easy to get watted out in Siem Reap. Even when that is why you are there. On my first trip, Juan, my driver whose name was unpronounceable and who agreed Juan worked just as well, sensed my objection to another consecutive day of temple trips having all ready agreed to three days worth that covered all of the major wats. Undaunted by my mild hint of, “No more wats!” he insisted I had to see just one additional temple, a small wat some xx miles outside of town that would be the sole temple visit for the day. Possibly sensing that I was gay, he kept assuring me I’d want to see this one because it was pink. Possibly sensing I was gay, he never mentioned that Banteay Srei is known as the women’s temple. Sensing that there was no chance of him accepting no for an answer I agreed to make the trek the following morning.
The roads within Siem Reap frequented by touri are all paved. Those on the outskirts of the town are finished with red dirt. The further out you go, the more in need of repairs the roads become and by the time you get halfway to Banteay Srei the man-sized potholes that have pummeled your kidneys into submission make you thank the gods you were smart enough to hire a taxi instead of a tuk tuk as those you pass who were not as wise elicit equal parts of disdain and empathy. They say it is the journey not the destination that matters, but if your destination is Banteay Srei, your journey can either be uncomfortable or as painful as going three rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. Chose a tuk tuk to make the trip and you’ll begin to take on a remarkable resemblance to Muhammad Ali’s current visage.
I doubt any modern day visitor has ever toured Banteay Srei before visiting Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Comparing the massive complexes and soaring towers of the larger and older temples with the small, almost dainty look of Banteay Srei is hard to avoid. From outside as you approach the temple you can’t help but notice how small it is, the temple’s moat and outer walls can be taken in with a single glance. As you approach its entrance at the eastern gate however you immediately see what makes this temple so special. Its size works to its favor, it’s color adds to its allure, the beautifully carved bas relief devatas adorning every square inch and covering the red sandstone walls like tapestries turn the wat into an enchanting example of the ancient Khmer people’s affinity with their gods.
Banteay Srei is constructed of both sandstone and laterite, the former lending itself to carving by hand which allowed its builders to work scenes of Hindu myth into its walls and arches. The temple is in a remarkable state of preservation, making it difficult to believe it was consecrated in 967 A.D. The only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch, the wat is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and is known for the beauty of its sandstone lintels and pediments, which for the first time in the history of Khmer architecture, included entire scenes of mythological tales depicted on them.
Banteay Srei was not rediscovered until 1914. Nine years later it was the site of a celebrated case of art theft which stimulated interest in the temple and encouraged its restoration which began in the early 1930s. In the early 2000s measures were taken to protect the temple from damage by flooding and from the surrounding forest, the beneficial results of which the temple’s current pristine condition is owed largely to. It’s location and size work to its advantage too; it does not see the large mass of tourists that many of the larger wat receive and so does not suffer from their intrusion either.
Touring the diminutive wat does not take long even if you linger to enjoy the finely detailed carvings. I’m not a fan of tour guides for Cambodia’s wats, at least not on the first visit, preferring to discover their secrets on my own. But for Banteay Srei I would suggest a knowledgable guide – as opposed to one of the gaggle of local kids hanging at the entrance who offer to take on those duties as well as sell you some postcards – can be a bonus. The walls are literally covered with Hindu mythological stories, having someone along to explain them to you will add to your appreciation of this temple. The wat is small enough that a guide would not keep you from seeing what he may otherwise consider unimportant as is often the case at the larger wats of Angkor.
Time was short on my second visit to Cambodia and I did not make the trek out to Banteay Srei again. But next time around I will; the wat is a great alternative to Angkor Wat for the sunrise experience and there’s a good chance at the early hour of having the entire temple to yourself.
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