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.