Banteay Srei and the river of a thousand lingas

Banteay Srei | Cambodia-2710

Banteay Srei is exquisite, a 10th century temple that is 35 kilometres out from Siem Reap and the main Angkor temples. Its Khmer name, Banteay Srei, translates as the Citadel of Women, the intricate carvings and detail is thought so fine that only women, with their dainty hands, could have created it.

This compact Hindu temple was dedicated to Shiva and it pre-dates Angkor Wat, the two temples could not be more different. Even if you’ve been exploring the main temples for a few days and are feeling a little templed-out, Banteay Srei will certainly lift your spirits, such is its beauty and individuality.

The temple is built from red sandstone which is carved with such finesse that it seems to defy its ancient construction. Just admiring the reliefs leaves you wondering how long it took to build, and also marvelling that it remains in such good condition.

Banteay Srei | Cambodia-2672Most of the temple is in tact however a few pieces are missing or lying to one side. This wonderful door pediment {above} is typical of the temple and has been reconstructed on the ground. It allows you to get close to the detail, to really admire the handiwork. The pediment shows a scene from the Ramayana, the beautiful Sita being abducted by Ravana, King of the Demons.

Banteay Srei | Cambodia-2668

All this beauty has a downside, it is on every tour group itinerary and its small size means its can get rather choked. A little patience and allowing yourself plenty of time though, it is possible to get people-free photos, as you can see from mine. Luckily the tour groups tend to move as a single beast making it easier to predict a quiet moment for a picture.

Banteay Srei | Cambodia-2716

Banteay Srei is surrounded, like many of the Angkors’ temples, by a moat. If the crowds become a bit too much the grassy bank on the other side of the water makes a peaceful spot to relax and appreciate the temple from a distance. We took a little picnic and sat in the shade of a tree watching the tourists marching into the temple.

Kbal Spean

A little further along from Banteay Srei are the curious river carvings of Kbal Spean. This site makes a refreshing change from wandering around the temples of Angkor.

A winding path meanders through tangled forest to a small waterfall which has been carved with Hindu deities. The rock riverbed above and below the waterfall is carved with hundreds of lingas, phallic symbols of fertility.

The tea-coloured river flows briskly over the neat rows of linga as it has done for a thousand years, gently and slowly wearing them away, softening their forms. 

I have visited a lot of ancient sites yet I had never seen anything like this before, it is quite extraordinary. It clearly shows how the ancient Khmer revered the water here, the river passing over the fertility symbols of the lingam and the yoni, blessing it perhaps, before it flows down toward Angkor.

Visiting Kbal Spean gives an interesting insight into the ancient world of the Khmer and their beliefs. This site is more earthly and temporal than the heavenly temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon, this is physical ritual, protecting a life-source.

Both Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei require an Angkor Pass to visit them. A day pass can be purchased at Banteay Srei for $20 if you don’t have a multi day one. 

It is worth noting that entry to Kbal Spean closes at 3pm and the walk up to the waterfall takes about half an hour or so. There is nowhere to buy water once you have left the parking area so it’s best to take a bottle with you as the walk can be hot and a little steep in places.

Cambodia Landmine Museum

Landmine Museum | Cambodia-2731

While you are in the area, and have transport, it is worth visiting the Cambodia Landmine Museum. The museum was established in 1997 by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who has spent years ridding Cambodia of this evil legacy of war. An orphan, he was made to fight by the Khmer Rouge, laying thousands of land mines, a job given to children for their nimbleness and dispensability.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra went back to the villages and forests where he laid the mines and set to disarming them by hand with rudimentary tools. He has removed thousands of mines, saving many lives and limbs by doing so.

The Cambodian Landmine Museum is a collection of the ordnance Aki Ra has disarmed and removed from Cambodia over the years. The sheer number of mines and other assorted ammunition is both alarming and sobering. After seeing the beauty that humanity can achieve in Banteay Srei, this hellish collection of the tools of death takes you to the other end of the scale, to the depths of human cruelty and malevolence. 

The museum tells Aki Ra’s story along with information on land mines and where they have been used in the world.

There is also a Child Relief Centre on the grounds {private}, founded to help the victims of Cambodia’s mines, which still claim lives or destroy limbs even now. The proceeds from the $3 entry fee go into funding this centre, as well as keeping the museum open and creating awareness for the horrors of land mines.

Landmine Museum | Cambodia-2728

a mock mine field

For more information and tips on visiting these sites:

How to do the Temples of Angkor

Keep exploring:

How To Do The Temples Of Angkor a perfect 3 day itinerary to see the temples with tips!

Sublime Smiles and Long Corridors: Angkor Thom and Preah Khan. Those enigmatic faces of Bayon!

Beng Mealea: Jungle Temple This Angkor temple still feels lost in the jungle.

Angkor Wat The most famous temple of all! Probably!

Tombraiding The Rest Of Angkor in Photos The last of this Angkor temples series.

How To Travel By Train From Siem Reap to Bangkok. The slow, cheap and wonderful train to Thailand.

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By Rachel Davis

3 Responses

  1. Ah, fab; I went to all three places in Spring 2012 – definitely worth visiting! My only disappointment was, due to the time of year I went, the views out from Kbal Spean weren’t particularly clear – it was far too hazy. But the waterfall at the top was incredibly refreshing after the hot hike up there – if I remember correctly, the path to the top wasn’t the easiest in the world. (And nor should it be!) – and the water in the river was particularly clear. It is a pilgrimage site, isn’t it?
    The Barefoot Backpacker recently posted…Why I kicked off my sandals in West Africa!My Profile

    • Rachel Davis says:

      We found the path quite easy, I’m sure the flooding of tourists now have made it more obvious! When we visited Angkor in 08 I didn’t even know this place existed, it was some German tourists told us about it and I’m so glad they did. I found this more interesting than the temples if I’m honest, this goes back to a much earlier time, earlier ideas. It’s such a curious place too.

      I’m pretty sure it’s a pilgrimage site, the origins of the whole of the Angkor complex really. I don’t think anyone is allowed to bathe in the waterfall any longer. The clear water does come as a bit of a surprise doesn’t it? I loved how it was the colour of tea.

      • I think I did too – I wasn’t even originally going to go to any of the temples of Angkor at all but ended up there largely by circumstance, and I’m pretty glad I did. One of the issues with the Angkor complex is it’s just so easy to get ‘all templed out’ quite quickly; Kbal Spean provides a nice ‘escape’ from that (although Banteay Srei was possibly the loveliest temple in the whole Angkor complex – controversial view I know!). I’m slightly disappointed I didn’t get to go up Phnom Kulen as well, but it was a pretty busy day as it was.

        Haha yes, I never thought of it as ‘tea-coloured’ but looking back, because of the brown stone it flows over, I guess it looks it!
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