SISOPHON, called Svay (mango) by the locals in these parts (no one seems to know why), and Banteay Meanchey by the bus companies, is the jumping-off point for a day-trip to the massive Angkorian temple ruins of Banteay Chhmar and Banteay Tuop. Though there’s nothing much to do in the scruffy, dusty town, it’s something of a diamond in the rough, being one of the friendliest places in Cambodia.
Banteay Chhmar apart, you can also use the town as the base to visit a few minor attractions on the border with Siem Reap province: the stone-carving village of Choob; Phnom Sarok, a traditional weaving village where they produce their own silkworms; and Ang Trapaeng Thmor, a reservoir rebuilt by forced labour under the Khmer Rouge and now designated a nature reserve for rare Sarus cranes.Read More
Banteay Chhmar and Banteay Tuop
Banteay Chhmar and Banteay Tuop
Some 60km north of Sisophon, the huge temple of Banteay Chhmar, covering an area of around three square kilometres, was built by Jayavarman VII as a memorial to soldiers killed while defending his son in a battle against the Chams. Approaching the site you’ll catch a glimpse of the temple’s lotus-choked moat and laterite enclosing wall before entering via the causeway to the east, once edged by rows of gods and demons. Generally, everyone reaches the central complex through the multiple collapsed doorways of the eastern entrance. Some of the carvings hereabouts are in great condition, but require a little searching to find; look out for a lintel carved with bearded musicians, one playing a harp, and another carved with dancing cranes.
The inner enclosure is surrounded by a gallery, mostly filled in by accumulated dust, dirt and rubble; you’ll have to scale huge piles of masonry and climb through what’s left of the enclosing wall to approach the centre, so make sure you wear sturdy shoes. Tiny Buddha images remain perched in some of the niches along the gallery roof, but many more have been crudely hacked out, either when the state religion switched from Buddhism back to Hinduism in the thirteenth century or as a result of looting. The faces of the Bodhisattva Srindradeva look down from the remaining towers, while part of an eight-armed relief of Vishnu remains on the west face of the central tower, though sadly, like so many carvings here, it’s missing its head – probably removed and sold for just a few dollars to a middleman, to be sold on for big money internationally.
Some of the magnificently carved bas-reliefs that once rivalled those at the Bayon can still be seen on the western exterior of the enclosing wall; one of the most spectacular features is a 32-armed god with his hands in two different mudras. Close by, you can see a fresh breach in the wall, the stone unweathered; this is where two massive panels were stripped out by the military in 1998 and trucked across the border en route for sale in Bangkok. Confiscated by the Thai police and returned to Cambodia, the panels are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. To the north, another section of wall illustrates tales from the Ramayana and bears a good image of a yeak swallowing a horse.
The paths around the outer walls are kept reasonably clear, and you can return to the entrance either by walking around the outside of the enclosing wall or by scrambling over more rubble, heading back roughly the way you came in. Just across from the southwest corner of the moat is a French-run silk-weaving project, where you can watch local women weaving silk and buy a colourful scarf.
Ang Trapaeng Thmor
Ang Trapaeng Thmor
A few kilometres west of Phnom Sarok, the Sarus Crane Conservation Area at Ang Trapaeng Thmor is a dry-season refuge for the globally endangered Sarus crane (kriel), and other water birds (about 200 species have been
spotted here). In the early morning and late afternoon you may also see great and little egrets, purple and pond herons, and spotted and milky storks when they come out to feed along the banks of the reservoir. You can only visit on an organized trip which can be arranged through the Sam Veasna Centre (wwww.samveasna.org).
The border town of POIPET is a poor advertisement for Cambodia, lacking both charm and friendliness. The pushy transport touts who ply the border do it no favours, while the clouds of dust kicked up by trucks and garbage strewn along the roadside add little to its attractions. Unless you need refreshments, have missed the border opening times (daily 7am–8pm) or have a yen to gamble at the casinos, there’s no reason to pause. Buses and shared taxis for Sisophon, Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh depart until early afternoon, with taxis to Sisophon and Siem Reap being available until around 5pm.
Onward transport from Sisophon is run by the “Poipet transport association” – for “association” read “mafia” – who have organized it so that tourists have to pay as much as possible to move on. It is all a bit iffy, but the best way of travelling on from Poipet is by free-market shared taxi ($5–10 for a place to Siem Reap, or take the whole taxi for $30–35). Some free-market taxis hang around at the traffic circle outside the immigration office or further down the main road towards the market – despite anything you may be told, it is perfectly legal to take a place in one of these, you do not have to go to the transport stop. But do not pay in advance and note that you may have to change taxis at Sisophon – you do not have to pay here, leave it to the taxi drivers to sort out; but to reiterate, do not pay in advance.
If there’s nothing at the traffic circle and you’re not too burdened down by luggage, hop on a moto and get them to take you to a taxi for your chosen destination. If you take the free shuttle bus from the immigration office, it will ferry you to the “association” transport stop near the market where buses and “association” taxis wait. One of these taxis to Siem Reap is a fixed $45, but if you can get a few travellers together it’s not too bad a price to pay to get away promptly for the three-hour journey to Siem Reap – again do not pay in advance. Alternatively, you can take a bus from here ($10 to Siem Reap, $5 to Battambang, $7.50 to Phnom Penh), but be aware that the last departure is at around 12.30pm. If you’re on pre-paid transport from Bangkok your tour guide will shepherd you along, often just to the bus office, where you’ll have to hang around (sometimes for several hours) to wait for transport to fill up. Don’t expect any of this to be a civilized experience. Try to arrive in Poipet early in the morning, or before noon at the latest, which will give you time to sort out the inevitable problems. Crossing after 5pm may find you stuck in town until the first bus of the morning (6.30am).