DENIS D GRAY
January 8, 2012
The haunting monastic complex is so entwined in jungle vines and mystery that it could be the set of an Indiana Jones film. But it is not. It is one of the great historic treasures of south-east Asia, and is slowly awakening after eight centuries of isolated slumber.
The dramatic towers, bas-reliefs and dark chambers of Cambodia’s Banteay Chhmar make it a far more atmospheric place than its famous twin at Angkor Wat. What drove Jayavarman VII, regarded as the greatest king of the Angkorian Empire, to erect this vast Buddhist temple about 105 miles (170km) from his capital in Angkor, and in one of the most desolate and driest places in Cambodia, remains one of its many unsolved riddles.
Called the “second Angkor Wat”, Banteay Chhmar approaches it in size, is more frozen in time than the manicured and made-over superstar, and has so far been spared the blights of mass tourism of recent years at Angkor. In 2011, an average of 7,000 visitors a day went to Angkor, making it one of Asia’s top tourist draws. Banteay Chhmar, meanwhile, saw an average of two a day, with no tour buses and bullhorn-wielding guides to disturb the temple’s tranquillity or traditional life in the surrounding village.
Abandoned for centuries, then cut off from the world by civil war and the murderous Khmer Rouge, Banteay Chhmar didn’t welcome visitors until 2007, when the last landmines were cleared and the looting that plagued the defenceless temple in the 1990s was largely halted. A year later, the California-based Global Heritage Fund began work at the site under the overall control of the country’s Ministry of Culture, and now spends about $200,000 a year on the project.
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