Guarding Banteay Srei: A Paradox
I’m not proud of saying this but I got closer to the sculptures at Banteay Srei than I should have. And I had help… from a local guard. This is the first time since it happened that I’m sharing it openly.
About Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei is pretty far from the cluster of shrines and monuments around Angkor Wat. Even then, it is considered part of the Angkor Archaeological Park and you need the same pass to access it.
While ‘Banteay Srei’ means ‘Citadel of Women’, it was commissioned by male courtiers to Rajendravarman II in the 10th Century. They dedicated the northern half of the complex to Vishnu and the southern half to Shiva, who is also the central deity.
What draws visitors to Banteay Srei (after an entire day saturated with temples) is the beauty of its reliefs and sculptures. However, it’s not something that one can spot from afar and anticipate, like the majestic towers of Angkor Wat or the Bayon. The site is partly hidden among the trees, betrayed only by a “visitor centre” that is just a roof over some information panels. The village water buffalo certainly didn’t give a hoot as they went about their business.
Instead, Banteay Srei has to be admired up close. The depth and intricacy of the carvings could only have been achieved with the delicate hands of women carvers, or so the locals believed, hence the modern name it goes by.
Plot twist: What you see now are mostly concrete replicas. Many important images have been taken away by local and colonial authorities, ostensibly for safekeeping. You’ll find them instead in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, while a pediment is in the Musee Guimet in Paris. And that’s not counting what looters and vandals have taken over the years. The occasional blank panel attests to that.
To prevent further damage, many parts of the innermost enclosure of Banteay Srei are roped off. It was a pretty large area too, roughly the size of an 18-yard box, and I could only see so much detail without my feet crossing the barrier.
That was when the guard beckoned me over.
I jogged over to where he was while remaining on the right side of the rope. As he stood silently next to me and pointed out little details in the reliefs, I nodded and snapped away. This went on for a few minutes, until he gestured that I should cross the barrier.
My eyes widened in surprise for a moment. This couldn’t be right: the person trusted with securing the site was inviting me to break the rules. But with the crowds expected to arrive soon, I realised we wouldn’t be alone for long, and I wouldn’t get another opportunity like this.
Trusting myself to not slip and break something precious, I stepped over the rope.
I got to see right into the cavities in the reliefs. Though worn by age, the details were still there. All the while, my fingers quivered with nervousness while I immersed myself in the scenes. Was the guard nervous too? If he was, he didn’t need to be; I wasn’t going to drop my pants.
He didn’t betray any emotion but offered to take a picture of me next to one of the libraries, which I accepted. When he handed back my camera, he pressed his fingers together, brought them to his mouth, and opened his palm. Only then did the reason for this “tour” dawn on me.
I gave him a tip and we parted ways. I cracked a wry smile under my hat as I passed the tour groups that had just arrived. However, I did not say anything about my visit to anyone until I was back home in Singapore.
After the fact
My Cambodia-based friend was the one person I felt I could confide in. I was expecting a lecture from someone who cared deeply about the local heritage; instead, I learnt that I wasn’t the only one who tipped the guards for their offer. For some reason, however, the guard didn’t persuade me to buy his badge or buckle.
Even as I type this years after the incident, I’m still not completely at ease with what happened. For obvious reasons, I did not take a picture of the guard, and I know sharing this leaves me open to accusations of fabricating this account. I can live with breaching Banteay Srei’s barrier so that the guard can paradoxically carry on doing his job.
Banteay Srei directions
Banteay Srei is an hour’s ride via tuk-tuk from Siem Reap. If you plan to go there on your own, head east, then turn left on Highway 67 and keep going north until you reach the village. From the Angkor Grand Circuit, the road that joins the said highway is between East Mebon and Pre Rup.
Other highlights nearby
A popular stop on the way back from Banteay Srei is the Landmine Museum, where you can see the different kinds of ordnance that the founder of the collection dug up and defused himself. The $5 fee goes towards its upkeep and projects to support rural Cambodian children.
Nom Banh Chok
At the crossing where Preah Dak village is, you’ll find several stands that sell nom banh chok, a fermented rice noodle dish served with a light, rich and spicy gravy. Don’t be surprised that it’s not piping hot, or to find chicken and blood cubes in your bowl, and help yourself to the leaves of the herbs on the table. Ask the tuk-tuk driver to stop here for a nice breakfast, just tell them you want nom banh chok and they understand. I remember that the stall with red, green and blue tablecloths comes recommended.