A Blessing from Buddha: Banteay Kdei at Angkor


 Whether one believes in a religion or not,
and whether one believes in rebirth or not,
there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.
~ Dalai Lama

The Temple's Inner Sanctum

The Temple’s Inner Sanctum

“Come here Lady,” the Buddhist nun said to Jody with an almost toothless smile. Like all nuns of that faith in Cambodia, her head was shaved, just as the male monks do. She was well into her 60s, thin and somewhat feeble, but seemed perfectly and happily suited to be the keeper of her faith at the central Buddhist altar in the Banteay Kdei temple.

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

Our Buddhist Nun Friend with our Guide

She reached out her hand to Jody without getting up from the rug-covered stone floor at the base of the statue, and held out two loops of thread, one red and one gold. “Blessing from Buddha,” said more as a statement than a question. How can anyone turn such an offer away?

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Blessing Bracelet from Buddha and His Nun

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, carved Khmer face WMIt was our third and final day in the Angkor Archeological Park, and the morning had been consumed with exploring the famous, massive and crowded Angkor Wat, a truly moving and spiritual experience for even hardcore atheists. Our Khmer guide had done well in the previous two days, moving from one temple complex to the next in a loose chronological order, approaching each site to both minimize crowds and position light to the best advantage of our cameras. And it appeared that she had saved the iconic tourist site of Cambodia as the climax of our visit to Angkor.

Idyllic Ruins

Idyllic Ruins

But she held back one final surprise. After cooling off and refreshing ourselves at lunch back in the nearby city of Siem Reap, we headed yet again back into the park, to a much lesser known and visited temple called Banteay Kdei.

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Like the More Famous Ta Prohm, only BETTER!

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, doorways WMBanteay Kdei (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី; “Prasat Banteay Kdei”), means “Citadel of Chambers” (or “Cells”), but is more commonly known as the “Citadel of the Monks.” Built in 12th-13th centuries CE during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the temples’ mixed architectural features are contained within two successive enclosure walls. Within each, visitors will find concentric galleries from which emerge towers. It is believed that the site had been occupied by monks almost constantly since construction through the 1960s.

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Still an Active Buddhist Temple

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, banded temple tower WMOur guide, like at most of our other visits to the various temples of Angkor, had us enter this center from its rear, where the angled afternoon light danced on the best features of the sanctuary. Compared to some of the other temple complexes nearby, Banteay Kdei is not large, but instead is tightly packed in a series of tight rectangular enclosures. Functioning originally as a Buddhist monastery during, it remains largely unrestored, resulting in an atmosphere similar to the stylistically famous Ta Prohm.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree root HDR WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, face-topped gate tower WMBanteay Kdei has suffered more deterioration than most other more famous temples found at Angkor, since soft but easy-to-work sandstone was used in much of its construction rather than the harder stone used extensively elsewhere. 13th century vandalism of Buddhist images is apparent and common here, as the temple and region waffled between Buddhism and Hinduism with the changing decrees of differing Khmer rulers through the centuries. Many of the originally vaulted galleries have collapsed at several locations, putting a good portion of the enclosures off-limits.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tranquil wooded ruins WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, tree rooted in the ruins WMThe monastery is small and dense, packed in an area of only about 160×200 feet and consists of only a single level, making it easy to explore in its totality. Getting to the central area of the ruins, however, will take a bit time since the outer wall of the complex measures roughly 1000×2300 feet. The temple houses a treasure trove of sculptures in the architectural styles of the Ta Prohm, which it eerily resembles. Except without the paparazzi-like draw of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider fame of that other hectically crowded place (see Tomb Raiding Angkor for more on Hollywood’s impact on the other side of the globe).

Buddha or the King?

Buddha or the King?

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

Column Carvings in the Hall of Dancers

The smiling faces found here are thought to be of King Jayavarman II, although most visitors seem to be perfectly happy to assume they represent a very happy Buddha. Wall niches are found throughout the facility and many contain figurines of apsara (celestial nymph) and/or devatas (lesser deities) in single poses or in pairs as dancers. The temple is famous for its “Hall of Dancers,” where open courtyards display pillars covered in multitudes of sophisticated carvings of these supernatural females. The temple’s tiny inner sanctum (~9×9 foot square) is flanked by similar carvings and contains traces of long-lost statues. The temple is complete with tumbling and overgrown courtyards, where lichens and defacing oxidation add interesting splashes of color to the already spectacular Khmer architecture.

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Apsara and Devatas Everywhere

Within the temple one can find several small shrines safeguarded by female Buddhist nuns, all who offer you blessings and Buddhist-colored red and yellow threaded yarn bracelets, of course all in return for a small donation. We both offered a donation of a dollar or two, received our bracelets, and in return placed a freshly lit stick of incense for Buddha to enjoy.

Incense for Buddha

Incense for Buddha

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dry fit falling down WMIn close proximity to Ta Prohm and every bit as beautiful (or even more), this temple does not get nearly as many visitors as the former more famous location. Banteay Kdei offers a uniquely quieter appeal than most other Angkorian ruins, a place where a visitor can sense the isolation and oppression of the jungle while they contemplate the many carvings and still-active shrines and altars protected by nuns and often visited by local worshipers. Like Ta Prohm, this temple offers a prime setting for photography, where the scenes are compact and close, and the tourists thin and subdued. In these ways, this set of ruins is the perfect antidote to the crowds suffered at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. It is, however, located conveniently close to those “big three,” so it’s an easy addition to most any itinerary, and a site visit that should not be missed.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, ruins by the jungle 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, looker WMThe peace, quiet and solitude found here is alone worth the visit. “Tranquility” is not a word that is often used to describe a visit to Angkor, but it should be and can be found at this out-of-the-way place. It may be best to start your day early at this temple, then visit the other more popular sites in the afternoon when the Cambodian heat and humidity has driven those crowds down to more manageable numbers. The ancient breezeways running through the temple’s enclosures allow visitors to lose themselves, literally, in time.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, temple passage WM

Similar in layout to Ta Prohm, but less overtaken by the surrounding jungle, the approach to the ruins is shaded and cool, lined with more Cambodian concessionaires than fellow tourists. Some quality merchandise can be found here, from stone rubbings, to wood carvings, oil paintings, and rice paper reliefs. But of course all the other cheap trinkets and unwanted souvenirs you might expect at such a site can be had as well. After the initial asking price tumbled as we politely haggled (the lack of visitors I think helps drive prices down), Jody and I purchased a rice paper relief, something that had caught my eye the day before.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, wooded ruins WM

I continued to wear my Buddha-Blessing-Bracelet 24/7 after our visit (yarn is very hardy). And only recently lost it when changing out of a wetsuit after a scuba dive. Jody still has hers, but unfortunately can’t wear it to work; worries about possibly leaving it in a patient during surgery or something….

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, one of our favorite temple visits and our last

Even though the physical manifestation of my blessing is gone, the blessing of our visit to the delicate loveliness of Banteay Kdei lives on, in mind and spirit. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could be disappointed by its understated and underrated charms. Make this your final visit, make it in the afternoon, and enter the site from the rear. You will be blessed in more ways than one.

Cambodia 2015, Banteay Kdei, dwarfed by tree roots WM

For More Photos of Our Visit, See:  Banteay Kdei on Flickr

For More Information, Please See:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Kdei

http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-bankdei.htm

http://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/cambodia/western_cambodia/siem_reap/angkor/356

Tomb-Raiding Angkor


“Soaring skywards and surrounded by a moat that would make its European Castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind.” ~Lonely Planet

You can look at all the pictures of what is often called the 8th Wonder of the World you want. But NOTHING compares to visiting Cambodia and seeing the expansively moving temples in person. Even Lara Croft can’t resist their charms.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, rear entry of Angkor Wat WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the gallery of carvings WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Buddha in the central tower WMAngkor (អង្គរ or នគរ, “Capital City”), as a preserve and park, is more than one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia; it’s one of the most important in the world. Stretching over a massive region just outside of the city of Siem Reap, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent ruins of many different ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th through the 15th centuries. As such, Angkor has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, and many programs have been emplaced to help safeguard this symbolic place along with much of its surroundings. While, yes, of course Angkor Wat is the most famous and perhaps best known, there are many, many more temple ruins that, in many ways, are even more fascinating than the prime tourist draw.

Lara Croft's door at the Tomb Raider Temple.  Ugh.

Lara Croft’s door at the Tomb Raider Temple. Ugh.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm, ruined tree 2 WMBut please, for the love of god, don’t bring up Tomb Raider or what has become to be known as the “Angelina Jolie Temple.” Oh, right: too late. Our guide was only too happy to refer to the 12th century temple of Ta Prohm in just that way. I’ll admit, not being either a Tomb Raider or Angelina Jolie fan, I was almost completely unaware that filming had occurred there in 2000. But locals don’t suffer from such a lapse; they’ve renamed the temple from the scene above after her.

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

The Majesty of Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, along with the more familiar Angkor Wat both served as the setting for a long sequence of scenes in Tomb Raider. Okay, okay, I admit that we did rent and watch Tomb Raider when we got home from our trip, and although I kept falling asleep during most of the flick (not a fan, ‘member?), the scenes involving Angkor were curious and noteworthy.

lara-croft-ta-prohm1

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

For the movie, sets were built around Angkor Wat, providing more of a nondescript Oriental feel than that of Khmer. An exotically bucolic village was built around the and on stilts in the waters of the reflecting pond in front of the iconic temple. The scenes of Lara Croft paddling a canoe through the village are idyllic, but it’s the scenes of Lara following a sassy child and magical butterflies through Ta Prohm that have stolen the imagination for modern-day visitors to that site.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, tower through the trees WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, admiring the galleries WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved corridors WMThe ruins of Angkor are located amid dense rain forests and fertile farmland to the north of Tonlé Sap lake near modern-day Siem Reap city. The temples found there number over a thousand, although many are barely recognizable piles of rubble or as yet unearthed mounds still relatively lost in the jungle. Angkor Wat, the centerpiece and pride of the capacious complex, is described as the world’s largest religious monument. The place can be so spiritually moving to experience that almost two million visit annually, a unstainable number given the soft sandstone that those four million feet are trampling upon.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, arriving at Angkor Wat! 2 WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, restful doorjam WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, shooting in a corridor WMOur guide was crafty about visiting the various temple sites. Saving Angkor Wat for almost last (that last visit will be featured in its own blog!), we entered from the rear of the temple, almost entirely alone, with blue skies beaming over the steep ruins with the sun in our faces. Having been there previously in 2007 (see Power in Poverty for more on that particular Far East Fling), I had expected the “usual” entrance, walking the long King’s causeway to the main temple entrance. However, that route is what everyone else takes, and can be quite chaotic. We literally had the temple much to ourselves for the first half of our tour there.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, candlesticks 2 WM

Ruins at Angkor

Ruins at Angkor

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved ceremonial headdress WMIn the last decade international team of scientists and archeologists concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world approaching an area of 390 square miles of ancient urban sprawl, a figure of which any modern metropolis would be infamously proud. Angkor is perhaps best characterized as a “hydraulic city” due to its extensive water management construction and engineering which systematically stabilized, stored, and dispersed water throughout the area, key to sustaining such a large population by using irrigated agriculture. It is believed by some that the complex supported up to one million people, although the actual number is hotly debated and most likely will never be known with any degree of certainty.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WM

Visiting Restrictions

Visiting Restrictions

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved hands WMThe temple was much as I remembered, except there were many more visitors to Angkor than I experience eight years previous. The biggest change was the control exercised by park officials in controlling not only the number of guests allowed at any time in the highest central tower, but the enforcement of a respectable dress code, which required women to have skirts/dresses below their knees and their shoulders covered.

Library at Angkor Wat

Library at Angkor Wat

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, khmer female carved in stone WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, temple tower 2 WMAngkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple (Wat is Khmer for “temple grounds” or literally “enclosure”), but gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century, a not uncommon occurrence in ancient Khmer as different rulers declared different national approaches to religion. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the then capital of the Khmer Empire as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is, at once and without doubt, the best-preserved temple of Angkor, and is believed to be the only site to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. It is so an indivisible part of Cambodia’s culture that it is the national symbol appearing on Cambodia’s flag.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, reflecting WM

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, carved woman WMCambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, Kevin resting at the top levelThe temple is at once a study in grandeur of architecture and harmony of purpose, and is known for its extensive bas-reliefs along the ground-floor galleries and for almost innumerable stone devata adorning its upper reaches. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. The center of the wat is meant to represent the quincunx of peaks of Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology (devas are also a feature of Buddhism). Surrounding the temples central towers are three long rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. This layered approach elevates the already tall towers, resulting in a primeval yet enduring skyline well above the surrounding jungle. The sheer size of the structure is stunning; I continue to attempt to fathom how a people living on the edge of existence could build such massive stone structures without tools or machinery. Constructing Angkor Wat today would be tough, even using our modern approaches and equipment.

Cambodia 2015, Angkor Wat, corner tower from the courtyard WM

It seems that Tomb Raider has really not done any favors for Angkor. Tourists come and perhaps role play the part of Lara as an adventurer and explorer, often climbing over and otherwise treating Ta Prohm more as a movie set than a profoundly sacred site that which it is. In fact, you can find the temple actually called “Tomb Raider Temple” in some guide books, and every tuk-tuk driver knows exactly where to take you when the movie or Ms. Croft is referenced. Back in town in and around Siem Reap, tourists can easily find the “Tomb Raider cocktail,” nothing more than a mixture of Cointreau, soda and lime, but which is claimed to be one of the favored adult beverages of Angelina. These modern facets of visiting Angkor Wat blurs the boundaries of what is real and authentic, with that which is purely fiction. The result is that Angkor for some (or even many) is slowly being cheated of its culturally and historically importance known to the few, and becoming more of a disemboweled Hollywood visual spectacle to the masses.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, in love with Angkor Wat WM

 

Getting There: A 5-6 hour bus, taxi or boat ride gets you from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. However, it’s the close and convenient airport in Siem Reap that offers the best option, providing regular service to Phnom Penh and abroad to international destinations such as Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul.

Visiting: The bustling tourist town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. There one can find lodging, dining, and tour-packages to match any budget or taste. Those interested in exploring more remote and off-the-beaten-path areas can hire cars with guides, tuk-tuks for a day for about $20, or, as the cheapest option, motorbikes which provide perhaps the fastest if not most dangerously adventuresome way to tailor an itinerary. The yellow tethered Angkor balloon ride is a great way to get a unique aerial perspective of Angkor Wat, but only go in the afternoon when the sun favors the view from above. See Monkeying Around in Cambodia for a truly terrific zip-line experience that can be had within the archeological park..

When to Go: Peak tourist season runs late November through early February, during Cambodia’s dry season where temperatures and humidity are not so oppressive. “Feels-like” heat starts to soar in spring, peaking in April and holding steady through the monsoon season of May and June. Rains continue, albeit reduced, through the summer until October, becoming more sporadic the longer a traveler waits. In my opinion, avoiding the crushing crowds is worth risking a rain shower (or two). Plus, the surrounding fields turn green and rice paddies flood with the rains, although some of the more remote sites can be washed out due to poor roads and limited access.

Cambodia 2015,  Angkor Wat, Kevin and Jody enjoying the wat 2 WM

For More Information, See:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/angkor/