The sun had just set on the western horizon as my wife, Lisa, and I walked across a causeway to the ancient Khmer temple. In the clearing near the temple entrance, it looked like musicians were getting ready for a performance on the green. But where was the audience? As we got closer we saw just two chairs set up. We’d be the entire audience.
We had signed up for the dinner concert as part of our rural homestay in Cambodia. Getting past the initial discomfort at finding ourselves patrons instead of anonymous audience members, we settled into our seats. I even sipped an Angkor beer in the front yard of the gods.
The five-piece traditional ensemble included two versions of the stringed tror, a big sitar-like krapeu (meaning “crocodile” in Khmer, for its shape — hard to transport!), a hammered dulcimer and drum. Our host, a man named Sokoun, lit several torches and placed a candle on the tip of the dulcimer. As dishes were placed on the table before us, the musicians began, their minor-key tunes reminding us of sad Appalachian ballads. A young man rode up on a moped, stopped, and took a seat nearby to listen. We feasted on chicken coconut curry soup and a spicy pork and green pepper stir-fry.
At one point Sokoun leaned over and said, “That’s my father,” nodding toward the man playing the krapeu. The young guy with the moped was Sokoun’s brother. The scene suddenly felt much more like a family jam than a tourist performance.
Angkor Wat is by far Cambodia’s most popular attraction, but our homestay with a family in Banteay Chhmar, a few hours’ drive to the northwest, showed us stunning temple ruins from the same period. Its magnificent late-12th-century carvings rivaled those of Angkor, telling the stories of a king’s triumphs and defeats alongside scenes of everyday life. What’s more, our homestay gave us a rare glimpse into life for many Cambodians, through a program that’s locally managed and provides hosts with income.
Cambodia continues to recover from devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and a civil war that started in the 1970s, when an estimated one in four Cambodians died. In the past decade, the country’s tourist economy has grown, especially around Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is a major-league UNESCO World Heritage site. Still, the wider economy and services such as education have lagged. Only 20 percent of Cambodians finish secondary school, and teachers are woefully underpaid. Human Rights Watch has called the country “a human rights basket case,” citing a failure of democratic governance. How long does it take to heal from genocide?
Difficult question. Having lived next door in Thailand for four years when it was still dangerous to visit Cambodia, we wanted to go. Back then we became fascinated by relics of the ancient Khmer empire we saw in northeastern Thailand: From Phimai, we had followed a path of increasingly dramatic ruins to the eastern border, and saw the magnificent ruins of Meuang Tam, where we had the place to ourselves. I’m no archaeologist, but these vestiges of an empire nine centuries gone were beautiful and intriguing. At intersections on that trip, a sign would point away and say simply, “Cambodia.” My eye followed the arrow to where pavement faded to red clay. What lay beyond? At Ta Meuan, an ancient clinic with a sunken pond nestled in tall grasses, we marveled at a 12th-century culture that provided health care. We plotted our return to the source.
Now, years later, we would resume the path to Angkor Wat on the Cambodian side, beginning with Banteay Chhmar in the northwest corner, home of one of the most important yet least understood temple sites of the Khmer empire — a huge complex with eight outlying temples and a reservoir. Had it been a place of pilgrimage or a frontier fortress?
On the way to Banteay Chhmar, we realized we hadn’t picked the easiest homestay to get to. But cellphones have made it more possible to get off the beaten track, and this trip drove that point home. Though I had no Khmer language skills, I could call a lifeline and hand my phone to a driver and someone in Banteay Chhmar could explain where I wanted to go or negotiate how many people I’d be sharing a vehicle with.
At Sisophon, a crossroads town, we pulled our suitcases off a bus and hailed a three-wheeled tuk-tuk across the street. The driver nodded when I said “Phsa Thmei” and drove us to that market, north of town. There, we’d been told, we could find a share taxi to Banteay Chhmar, which I still wasn’t sure how to pronounce. But I learned when several guys at the market grabbed our bags before our vehicle had fully stopped, repeating, “Banteay Chhmar!” (It’s BAN-ti ch-MAA.)
This seemed like a good sign. I called the number for the manager of the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) office in Banteay Chhmar and fortunately, he answered; until then, all our exchanges had been via e-mail. After passing my phone back and forth with a taxi driver, I negotiated a price for the back seat. Then — along with one fellow passenger in the front swathed in a dust mask, cap and black jacket that said “Police” in big letters — off we went.
The road deteriorated from pavement to gravel to red dirt. After an hour and a half in the countryside we suddenly came to a cluster of larger-than-life stone figures at the edge of a squared-off moat. The water’s surface rippled with pink lotus blossoms.
It’s stunning to arrive this way at Banteay Chhmar, a site that the Global Heritage Fund has been reclaiming from the forest and looters. John Sanday, the archaeologist who leads the project, says it was built as a garrison temple of the Khmer empire — “the religious center for Buddhism.”
Sanday calls the restoration work “a very complicated jigsaw puzzle.” That’s an understatement. The bas relief on the eastern wall alone — a stone mural stretching about 76 yards — involved over 1,500 sandstone blocks, each contributing its own piece of an epic story.
At the small, open-air CBT office we met Sokoun: librarian, assistant operations manager and guide. He led us on a short walk to our host family’s traditional wooden house on the dusty road east of the moat. In an open compound we met Niang and Som, a friendly couple in their late 30s. Som was on the cellphone with their older daughter, who was away at school; Niang, a teacher, was dandling their 7-month-old baby, their third child. They welcomed us and showed us our room upstairs, and the shared bathroom below.
We loved our room: windows on three sides, teak floors and a mosquito net over the bed that was in excellent shape. It was also searingly hot, and, of course, there was no AC, nor electricity to power the pink fan sitting in the corner. We were lucky the town had electricity for a few hours daily, from 5 to 10 p.m., unlike most villages.
The shared bathroom, while plush by village standards, was very basic. It had tiled walls and floor, a basin full of water and a plastic bucket for flushing the toilet. A corner was dedicated to bathing — kind of a juggling act with a flashlight.
That evening as dusk settled we sat out on a straw mat playing cards. Our hosts offered us slices of watermelon. Eventually Sokoun fetched us for dinner at the CBT, a Khmer soup with a pork-and- vegetable stir-fry prepared by a chef trained to please Western palates. She struck the right balance of simple, local food with just enough spice to be interesting. We found our table set next to a young couple from France, the only other travelers we saw that day. They were on a five-month Asian adventure and had tales of Airbnbs in Java and lost ferries in the Mekong Delta. We eventually said good night.
Our first night felt like endless darkness with surprisingly loud rural neighbors. A baby crying, a gecko’s chirps, someone’s cough, roosters near and far into the distance. Plus an occasional dogfight. How do we ever sleep in the city?
A tasty fried-rice breakfast revived us, and we took a walk through town with Sokoun. He told us how he had had to leave school after ninth grade when his mother died and he took up farming like most everyone else. Eventually the CBT recruited him to manage the library. Sokoun mastered English and graduated to guide. He still farms with his brother and is knowledgeable about local plants. He pulled a small grapelike fruit from a branch and shared it with us.
The CBT maintains a kitty funded by 20 percent of tourist fees, used to upgrade host family homes (toilets, mosquito nets) and install such community-wide improvements as water filters. More than 70 families participate as hosts, guides, cooks and other roles. Begun before the Global Heritage Fund project, the CBT makes Banteay Chhmar “a great destination for the more adventurous traveler,” Sanday says. They expect more visitors now that the improved road to Siem Reap is nearly finished.
Sokoun led us through the temple, from the first spectacular bas-relief story wall at the eastern entrance into the tumble of stones and trees of the interior. Piles of stone stood near well-preserved towers bearing a face on four sideslike those at Angkor Wat. Along the western wall, another remarkable series of bas reliefs backed up against the forest.
Sokoun spent his first years in a refugee camp in Thailand. He came back to Cambodia at age 6, when the Khmer Rouge was still a presence. He heard gunfire at night and threats to his family. In the 1990s relatives lived not far from the temple, where they heard one night what sounded like a horrible explosion. It was the temple giving way as looters chopped out columns to sell on the black market — followed by screams of people trapped in the stone debris. The next morning, he said, they saw looters making off with their heritage, the large statues poking out from plastic tarps on trucks.
“There are many looting stories,” says Sanday. The last “big loot” happened in January 1999, when four of eight large sections of bas relief were stolen. Two were returned; the other two remain unaccounted for in Bangkok, according to Sanday.
The village itself is not simply a group of families that have lived together for generations. Sokoun explained that in the war’s dislocation, many came from elsewhere — including his family, which originally hailed from Battambang, Cambodia.
We saw few other travelers during our visit and had space for wandering on our own (though not off the paths! — land mines remain in the woods). One evening before sunset we took a path beyond the moat, past farms, following a sign to one of the site’s small outlying temples. Passing another motorized plow, we walked on. The path got narrower and the light more golden. We seemed to have missed the little temple, so we turned back. That’s when we nearly tripped on the ancient stone threshold. Through the overgrowth we could just see a doorway — a few stones made magic by discovery.
After our private concert we walked back by flashlight to our room at Niang and Som’s home. The second night was much quieter — not even any roosters for long stretches — until 5 a.m. when a nearby temple began broadcasting monks’ chants and music. Later we learned someone had died and that it was a tradition to play music for the departed spirit.
Then we were on our way to Angkor Wat. The landscape rolled by. In time, Banteay Chhmar may show more travelers what Angkor Wat itself looked like before tourism. It could even become a “second Angkor,” says Sanday. The road ahead stretched a straight, unbroken line to the horizon, slicing the forest on either side.
Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism Homestay Program
National Rd. No. 56A, Banteay Chhmar
Rustic homestay room in a local family home, $7 a night per person.
Channa’s Angkor Homestay
Trapeang Ses, Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap
Stay with a Danish Cambodian family in a traditional, but more modern home near Angkor Wat. Rooms from $15.
Soria Moria Boutique Hote l
Wat Bo Rd., Siem Reap
Near the river with a rooftop bar that’s great at sundown. Plus it’s dedicated to responsible tourism through an employee ownership program and by training youth. Rooms from $35.
In Banteay Chhmar, the Community-Based Tourism office arranges meals at their office: breakfast is $2, and lunch and dinner are $4 per person. The only other option is the market restaurant (no sign or phone), serving coffee and local dishes.
Siem Reap River Rd., Siem Reap
Outdoor seating with river views; Khmer, Japanese and Western dishes. Entrees start at $3.
The Square 24 Restaurant
Street 24, Achasvar, Siem Reap
A nouvelle take on traditional Khmer food near the river. Entrees start at $6.
In Banteay Chhmar, visit ancient temple ruins ($5 fee, $10 a day for local tour guide), hike to satellite temples and the fort Banteay Top ($10 per group) (on paths only — the forest still has land mines), hear traditional music at the Banteay Chhmar temple ($15 per group), travel to a silkmaking center by oxcart ($7 per group), bike through the village ($1.50 per day bike rental) and see local farming demonstrations.
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Taylor is a Washington-based writer. His web site is www.davidataylor.com