Some of Khmer culture’s most exquisite sites lie outside the famed Angkor temple complex.
IT'S early on a Sunday morning in Cambodia, and I'm standing at a 12th-century moat. Across a causeway, through a tumbled-down gate, lies Banteay Chhmar, one of the largest temples ever built by the ancient Khmer Empire.
Cambodia's great temples of Angkor, 105 kilometres away, have long since been rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year, not a few of whom regret that so many other people had the same idea.
But go beyond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old solitude and sense of discovery.
Banteay Chhmar is among the most spectacular of these places. Getting to it entails hours on very bumpy and dusty dirt roads. Staying the night means making do with primitive accommodations: candlelit rooms in local homes, bathwater drawn from that same moat.
Off the tourist trail
I stayed the night, and it turned out to really make the visit. The next morning I rose early, as everyone here does, and took a walk in clean country air. I was seeing not only a temple but a way of life.
Today several thousand people - rice farmers, cattle herders, market vendors - make their homes on all four sides of the temple. The ancient and present day coexist.
Spending time here also means doing a good turn, spreading a bit of wealth in a part of a war-recovering country that has largely missed out on the tourist dollars that Angkor is bringing in.
I WAS SEEING NOT ONLY A TEMPLE BUT A WAY OF LIFE.
Banteay Chhmar was created in the Khmer Empire's last great burst of construction, under the 12th-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. His engineers were thinking big even by Khmer standards: To contain a great settlement, they built earthworks and moats that formed a square measuring roughly a kilometre and a half on each side. At its centre, within another square moat system almost a kilometre on each side, they built the temple.
More than a century ago, French archaeologist Etienne Aymonier found the temple to be in a state of "indescribable ruin". It still is. But that's part of what makes the site so enticing. Exploring it means climbing over huge piles of large fallen stones, something to be tackled by only the sure-footed.
The temple is no longer a formal religious site, but Cambodians believe that it, like all those that their forebears left behind, remains a holy site. When rain is needed, locals are reported to walk in a procession around the temple, imploring heaven to help.
One of the best parts of this temple is the many hundreds of feet of bas-reliefs on its outer walls. We had to scramble up more stones to get a good view. Before us was a full sample of life 900 years ago. There were also many scenes of war with Champa, the long-vanished rival state to the east: The temple is in large part a memorial to four generals who lost their lives in that long conflict.
The carving style is similar to that of the Bayon temple reliefs in Angkor. The difference is that there's no need to fight for a view.
Late in the afternoon, we went for a look at what the ancient Khmer could do with water. Just east of the temple, they created a reservoir that measures more than a square kilometre.
The reservoir was now largely dry, but because its floor is low and collects water before the surrounding land does, it has been divided into rice paddies.
I passed the night at the house of a Cambodian family, friends of a friend. They couldn't have been more gracious. They gave me a room of my own, bottled water, mosquito coils and a big luxury: a car battery hooked to a fluorescent light. I could have light all night if I wanted it.
I got up at dawn, scoop-bathed in slightly murky water and walked to the moat from which it had been drawn. I took in the early morning sights: the mist, dogs prowling around in first light. I played amateur archaeologist for a bit, noting that an ancient feeder or outflow channel, now dry, was connected to the moat at this corner.
We had breakfast at a stall in the town's market; there are no proper restaurants. It was noodle soup with chicken, and very good.
I first visited Angkor in 1969. Back then, you could be alone in the big temples even there. I once walked through the largest of them, Angkor Wat, encountering hardly a soul. It's good to know that such an experience can still be had. You just have to work a bit harder for it.
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