‘Today we go see your temple.’
‘MY temple?’. Wow, I didn’t know I had past-life connections in the Angkor Area.
‘We go see Ladies’ Temple, your temple’, said our tuktuk driver, before we set off on the 30-km long ride to Banteay Srei, on the outskirts of the Angkor archaeological park. The sun was already pouring liquid heat at 9 AM as I cast a longing glance at the hotel pool before we climbed into the vehicle.
Banteay Srei is different from the other Angkor temples – and is also called ‘the Jewel of the Angkor’, which is why people make the 1.5 hour (each way) trip into the Cambodian countryside outside Siem Reap in the sweltering heat to see it. Unlike most other temples in the area, Banteay Srei is made from red sandstone blocks. What’s most special about it isn’t the stone itself, it’s the level of detail in the carvings that are on these blocks of stone. Some of the most intricate work I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen more than a few amazing Mughal era buildings back at home in India. All the work on the Banteay Srei was done by hand – it is the level of fine detail and complexity in the carvings that first made people conclude that it could only be the work of women’s hands, that’s why the ‘Ladies’ Temple (not true, by the way).
The temple itself is set inside a little patch of jungle, with a visitors’ centre at the entrance of the compound. Don’t bank on learning too much at the centre, the staff is more interested in staying under the fan and playing on their mobile phones in peace. The Tourism Board, though, is trying to make the site more organized and tourist-friendly with direction signs in a couple of places, a ‘nature park’ integrated with the temple compound and facilities for eating and shopping – all in the temple’s immediate vicinity. As you walk to the temple, you’ll get the feeling of being in a museum with exhibits of still-unassembled and unidentified parts of the temple lying to your left and right – a stray pillar here, a portico roof panel there. Gives you a feel of how painstakingly long the restoration process must be.
It would be easy to spend a couple of hours in and around the temple ruins, examining the complex carvings and trying to understand the stories behind them, even if you have no idea of archaeology and very little of mythology (like me). We didn’t want to leave too soon, but we would’ve melted if we stayed any longer. Thank God for the shops selling chilled coconut water outside.
To visit Banteay Srei, you will most likely have to set aside a full day as it’s quite far from the main Angkor archaeological park. And if you do happen to visit it, also check out Banteay Samre, which is decorated with less intricate work, but has an interesting background story to it. Plus, it’ll be less overrun with people.
This post is in response to The Daily Post’s very aptly timed weekly photo challenge: “Intricate.”