Date Traveled, August 2012
The temple of Banteay Srei is widely touted by travel guides and tour organizations as the "jewel of Khmer art". It isn't an exaggeration and the temple does indeed have extremely detailed and intricate carvings on its walls and lintels that display the great workmanship and skill of the artisans of the Angkor civilization. A visit to to Banteay Srei is also a great opportunity to enjoy a ride through the villages of Cambodia and catch a glimpse of life in them.
Banteay Srei is a 90 minutes to 2 hour ride away from Siem Reap. If you aren't on a tour bus, the options are to rent a private vehicle, or take a tuk tuk. I had the former for my trip to Cambodia and on my way to the temple I saw a large Japanese tour group going to Banteay Srei on a tuk tuk train, there must have been at least 40 tuk tuks seating one of two people each going along. Personally, I think the tuk tuks are fine for the closer sites but shell out the extra dollars for a half day car rental when you visit Banteay Srei...you are traveling a couple of hours each way on a Cambodian Highway and the roads aren't exactly the greatest or the safest and you would rather not have to be in a flimsy tuk tuk while riding.
Lush rice fields in the wet season
Fields near the Banteay Srei temple
The ride itself is very picturesque. I hadn't traveled anywhere else in Cambodia outside of Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor temples, so it was very interesting for me personally to ride through the villages and watch the lush green rice fields along the way. Also you truly understand how poor and little developed Cambodia is just an hour away from Siem Reap and the well funded roads and amenities for the millions of visitors to Angkor. Many of the village homes are extremely basic and on stilts as they must have been for centuries and sit on the edge of the rice fields. I could see the need for the stilt homes as some of them had flooded land beneath, no doubt a common occurrence in the rains. The rains though are apparently not the biggest problem for the villagers but the hot and dry summer is when water becomes scarce. Many of the homes do not have electricity and wells drying up is a problem. Should you choose, there are opportunities for you to contribute to funding a well for a group of families and along the way you will see many signboards beside the stilt homes thanking contributors from various countries for the wells. Full disclosure, I did not fund any wells.
Stilt homes in Cambodia
Many homes get flooded in the rainy season, hence the stilts
Banteay Srei is extremely popular and if you arrive late in the morning leaving after breakfast like we did you are going to jostle for space with large crowds. There is a building just outside the temple accessible by a short boardwalk over some interesting fields and this is a good clean place for a restroom break if you need one after the long ride. A short walk away is the temple itself.
Banteay Srei means the "Citadel of Women". A modern name rather than what it was originally called in times of the Angkor civilization, it is so called because of a few factors, the intricate carvings with many Apsaras in the reddish hue of the sandstone that is is constructed of and the fact that it is of a much smaller scale than the other awe inspiring temples of Angkor. I am guessing the small scale is due to the fact that the temple was built not by a King of Angkor but a minister to King Rajendravarman II who built the grand Pre Rup temple. No doubt a rich and powerful individual, but he certainly could not have commanded the same resources available to the Kings.
The walkway to the temple was flooded when we went
Yama, the God of Death
Within the main enclosure
The main attraction of the temple as I mentioned are the carvings, detailed, intricate and pleasant to watch with the hue of the sandstone. The carvings have representations of Hindu Gods and the celestial nymphs or Apsaras. There are also scenes from the Hindu mythology epics like the Ramayana. Some of the best ones are on the lintels over the many doorways. One of the popular ones was the fight between the Monkey generals Sugriva and Hanuman. There are also many surviving guardian statues of mythological beasts and beings.
An ancient road to Banteay Samre
On our return trip, we also stopped at Banteay Samre which is somewhere between Banteay Srei and Siem Reap. It is another Angkorian temple built around the same time as Banteay Srei and beautiful in its own way but not as remarkable as Banteay Srei. That and the fact that it is so far away from Siem Reap and the main Angkor temple cluster near there, it does not get much visitors. In fact that is the best reason to stop by. It is on the way and you get to enjoy a temple in quiet without the jostling crowds. I really enjoyed visiting less popular temples and sites for this reason. It is nice to walk around the temples and contemplate things in relative solitude.
Banteay Samre entrance
Relative solitude does not mean all alone. Even in the rains there are always a few people or other intrepid fellow travelers around and of course hawkers at the entrance. Most of the time they were pretty annoying, but at Banteay Samre we were charmed by a group of young girls some very small and a few teens. Maybe it was their charming requests or the fact that it was only a small group and there were hardly anyone else around, this time we bought scarves and trinkets from them. Even my sometimes grumpy dad bought some scarves from them, which was quite a different experience from another site where he lectured another hawker who tried to push books into his hands.