The chances are you’ve heard of Angkor Wat, but did you know that the Khmer Empire extended over a million square kilometres, and that their ruins lie hidden in every corner of Cambodia?
Today, Banteay Chhmar is a rural backwater in the northeast of Cambodia, but in its heyday it was a magnificent walled city constructed by King Jayavarman VII, a powerful monarch who reigned from Angkor at the very height of Khmer civilisation. Closely resembling Angkor Thom, Jayavarman VII’s great capital, the ruins of Banteay Chhmar feature intricately carved bas-reliefs of military campaigns and scenes from daily life, as well as massive face towers strikingly similar to those found at the Bayon Temple at Angkor. The biggest difference is that at Angkor Thom you’ll be sharing the ruins with hundreds of other tourists, while at Banteay Chhmar you may well be the only soul in sight.
A far cry from the tourist hub of Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar is a remote district made up of fourteen rural villages, and despite its truly awesome ruins it sees a tiny fraction of the footfall Angkor does. That means that instead of international-style hotels and backpacker bars, you can expect rustic homestays, evenings spent getting to know the local people, and activities such as ox-cart trips and cooking classes. You can even enjoy a candlelit meal within the temple ruins – something that’d cost you an arm and a leg at Angkor!
Visiting Banteay Chhmar today feels like visiting Siem Reap in the 1970s, before mass tourism really had a chance to get going: wonderfully peaceful, thoroughly rural, and palpably atmospheric. We really can’t stress enough how awesome an experience that is.