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Glamping Off the Beaten Track in Cambodia


A tented camp and freshly paved roads offer travelers better access to the Banteay Chhmar temple complex in Northwestern Cambodia. JOE CUMMINGS talks to the people behind the joint venture that supports the community while preserving the ancient site.

Published on May 29, 2017


FIREFLIES FLOAT SO HIGH above the tall, dark trees that they become almost indistinguishable from the stars overhead. Below, in a forest clearing, a ragtag ensemble of village musicians issues slippery melodies and exotic beats from rustic, handmade instruments. The composition, I'm told, invokes the blessing of the gods who inhabit Banteay Chhmar, one of Cambodia's most important, most remote, and least understood Angkor-era temples.

 

Surrounded by thick forest, 170 kilometers away from Angkor Wat, Banteay Chhmar is Cambodia's fourth largest temple dating to the Angkor. Yet the millennium-old complex sees a fraction of visitors the more popular temples receive each year.

Baray Pol Pot
Sunset over Baray Pol Pot, a reservoir commissioned by the Khmer Rouge leader near Banteay Chhmar. Joe Cummings.

While Angkor Wat is flooded by an average of 10,000 tourists a day, Banteay Chhmar attracts fewer than six. Six. And that's average, remember; in the three days I'm a guest at Banteay Chhmar Tented Camp, a venture that Khiri Travel and the local community launched in 2015, I see only one other foreigner—an elderly, Hasselblad-toting European man—roaming the vast site.

For the first time in recent memory in Cambodia, visitors can enjoy an intimate, low-impact encounter with an Angkor-era temple from the inside out, while at the same time giving back to any neighbors in need. From beneath the awning of my well-appointed tent, pitched within the outer walls of the temple complex, I toast the gods for my good fortune with a raised bottle of Angkor beer.

 

At first glance, Banteay Chhmar resembles Ta Prohm, the jungle-strangled Angkor-area temple complex made famous by the Tomb Raider movies. The temple requires a similar physical agility for clambering over toppled sandstone blocks and threading narrow dirt trails to view the ruined galleries, walls and towers. But without the distraction of hundreds of other tourists vying for photos and chattering loudly, here at Banteay Chhmar I savor the majestic stillness, interrupted only by the occasional birdcall.

Banteay Chhmar
The east wall of Banteay Chhmar. Joe Cummings.

Stone inscriptions left behind by temple builders indicate the complex was commissioned in the late 12th to early 13th centuries by the last Khmer king before the Angkor Empire's decline, Jayavarman VII. One of Angkor's most prolific temple sponsors, Jayavarman VII was also responsible for The Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and the Terrace of the Elephants, among many others.

The full-lipped, sloe-eyed faces carved into the towers of The Bayon are also found here at Banteay Chhmar. King Jayavarman VII converted Cambodia to Buddhism, and Banteay Chhmar is one of only two sites outside The Bayon to bear the enigmatic face towers. Some historians believe the visages represent Jayavarman VII himself, while others suggest it's Avalokitesvara, the future Buddha-to-be of Mahayana Buddhism.

Inside my comfy, illuminated tent, furnished with sturdy beds, a desk, private toilet and hot-water shower, I dig into the works of French linguist and archaeologist Étienne François Aymonier, who in the 1890s became the first foreign explorer to systematically survey the temple. He declared Banteay Chhmar to be the third most important temple in Cambodia after Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the tents.
Inside one of the tents. Courtesy of Yaana Ventures.

Another Frenchman, Cambodia-born George Groslier, further elaborates in his 1937 book Une Merveilleuse Cite Khmere, pointing out that unlike other Jayavarman VII temples, in which secondary buildings are often haphazardly placed, here the series of structures successively built from east to west never break their rigorous symmetry.

 

DURING MY VISIT, I'm guided through the ruins complex by Mao Sy, a sprightly, mustached Banteay Chhmar native who also serves as president of Community-Based Tourism and local representative of Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Mao Sy makes sure I don't miss the remains of Banteay Chhmar's three face towers; only one tower is still standing. We climb a precarious pile of rocks nearby to catch an astonishingly close glimpse of the faces, a feat nigh impossible at The Bayon. Elsewhere in the temple, Mao Sy points out fallen stone blocks carved with lips, eyes and eyebrows—puzzle pieces separated from their tumbled towers.

His lively interpretations of gallery friezes bring to life scenes of battle, royal ceremony, music, dancing, farming and wildlife.

Aymonier considered these carvings to be better than those at Angkor Wat, with "the women in its low reliefs less insipid and better drawn than the nymphs of Angkor Wat." My favorite of all the carvings is an elegant basrelief of the 32-armed Avalokitesvara on the outer wall of the west gallery, conveniently close to the camp. There were once eight representations of the deity who represents Buddha's compassion and protection for all beings here, but looters made off with all but two of them in the 1990s.

Buddha statue
A well-preserved Buddha statue. Courtesy of Yaana Ventures.

Mao Sy and his staff of 15 form a presence that has halted looting since Community-Based Tourism started up in 2008 with the support of the Global Heritage Fund and Heritage Watch. His stewardship extends to Khiri Travel's camp, where he makes sure I'm comfortably lodged. Simple but hearty Khmer meals are served at a private wooden table placed on the forest floor with a view of the forest and inner temple walls.

While budget homestays with local families have been available outside the temple grounds since 2008, the Khiri camp expands the possibilities to include a luxury bivouac pitched right inside the temple complex. With just two tents that accommodate a maximum of six people, I've really got the run of the place, and when I feel like an early-morning temple walk, I'm inside the innermost sanctuary within five minutes.

"When I came to Banteay Chhmar with the Global Heritage Fund in 2011, I immediately recognized the site's tremendous potential for diverting visitors from overcrowded Angkor Wat," says sustainable tourism consultant Randy Durband, who introduced Khiri to the village tourism project. Yet at the time, the site saw only 400 visitors a year, limited mainly by the fact there were only 30 total rooms available in local homestays.

Private dining at the camp
Private dining at the camp. Courtesy of Yaana Ventures.

At a UNESCO conference in Siem Reap in 2015, Durband ran into Willem Niemeijer, owner of Khiri Travel, a tour operator known for its sustainable tourism and social responsibility. "I was pitching the idea of a luxury camp at Banteay Chhmar to practically everyone I met," Durband says, "and when I mentioned it to Willem, he immediately went for it."

Khiri Travel scheduled a meeting with the shareholders of Banteay Chhmar's Community-Based tourism, and offered to provide tents and associated gear in return for local support in running the camp. "It was an offer they couldn't refuse," Durband says. "Banteay Chhmar got the camp, plus all the jobs associated with setups, strike-downs, storage, housekeeping, food service and tour guiding." In return, Khiri takes a percentage of booking, while setting aside a generous contribution for staff development.

The establishment of the Khiri camp coincided with the paving of the road from Sisophon last year. What was once a bonejarring, all-day drive from Siem Reap is now a pleasant two-and-a-half-hour cruise. Mao Sy says that since the road and the camp opened, Banteay Chhmar visitation has doubled and local income tripled. He and his staff have set up camp around 30 times so far.

Soireries du Mekong
A silk weaver at Soireries du Mekong. Joe Cummings.

"It's popular with families and with visitors who value privacy," Mao Sy says. “Here at the camp you almost feel like you're staying at the original temple palace. It's so quiet, and you can see so many stars at night." Exactly, I think as I drift off, as the gods intended it.

 


banteaychhmartents.com; two-person tent experience US$549.

 

 

 

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The tented camp. Courtesy of Yaana Ventures.
  • An oil lamp illuminates the camp site. Courtesy of Yaana Ventures.
  • Sunset over Baray Pol Pot, a reservoir commissioned by the Khmer Rouge leader near Banteay Chhmar. Joe Cummings.
  • The fine details at Banteay Chhmar. Joe Cummings.
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