Girl Power; Khmer Style

Given how the future of women’s rights in America probably took an enormous step backwards this month, I thought I’d start this post about our last day trip in the Siem Reap area with an empowering historical fact. Combining three fascinating sights into a complete day, my personal favorite was Banteay Srei, an architectural jewel of Angkorian art and one of the most popular HIndu Temples of the Khmer Empire. Aside from its beautiful layout of three rectangular enclosures separated by a causeway, they built the entire structure from red sandstone which can be carved almost like wood. Earning the nickname The Pink Temple, it’s also one of the only temples commissioned by a brahman and not a king.

imageConstructed in 967 A.D., the foundational stele tells us that its creator was a scholar and philanthropist who helped those suffering from illness, injustice or poverty. Known for its pediments (the triangular space above a rectangular doorway) and lintels (horizontal beams spanning the gap between two posts that can be decorative or structural), you’ll find entire scenes of Hindu mythology depicted. But that’s not the interesting part. Its modern name translates into “Citadel of The Women” and there’s several interpretations. The first refers to the intricate carvings found on the walls. Characters from Indian mythology, Aspiras are divine nymphs or dancing-girls and the widespread use of them as a motif for decorating walls is a unique Khmer feature. Also called Devatas, or minor female deities, they’re usually seen standing around and not dancing. More specifically, the second theory revolves around the intricacy of the carvings themselves. Said to be too fine for the hand of a man, decorative carvings cover every available inch of space which leads me to the third and most interesting theory.

Unfortunately, the most fun and fascinating explanation came from our guide and I can’t seem to find anything to verify his story. Substituting for our commissioned helmsman who unexpectedly backed out of the last day, our replacement was more colorful, spoke louder, knew an awful lot of history and voluntarily shared his knowledge like a professional. According to his story, the temple was already commissioned but the kingdom was under attack by the neighboring Chams (descendants of current day Vietnamese people). Given how all the men were off fighting, that left only the women to build this amazing structure and they supposedly presented the completed structure to the king as a gift upon his return from war. Maybe he was pulling our leg. But I like his story the best so I’ll go with it.

Banteay Srie; The Citadel of the women



As the first major temple restoration project in the area, the site is one of the most complete and informative of all the temples and includes a visitor center, large parking area, shopping area, dining and a very impressive state of the art exhibition that explains the entire history of the Khmer Empire. If you’re like me and love gaining a thorough understanding of what you’ve just seen, I’d allow an extra 30 to 45 minutes at the end to take in detailed facts even the best guide couldn’t possibly cover. As you’d expect, it’s also a crowd favorite and one of the busiest attractions.

Usually visited as part of a day trip to multiple sites, our guide suggested a visit to the small but fascinating Cambodian Landmine Museum in the morning followed by a hike up the mountain to nearby Kbal Spean where you’ll find a series of stone rock relief carvings after battling a moderately grueling hike in the heat and humidity. (I’ll write about them in the next post). Finishing the day at this easy to navigate temple that’s small and flat, we loved our itinerary and highly recommend this monument as a “must-see” attraction.


Nearly everything in the Khmer empire is detailed in written script


The red limestone is a stark contrast to Angkor Wat and Bayan’s charcoal grey facades


The space above the rectangular doorways are “pediments” all decorated with intricate carvings

Also famous for its miniature temples, the entire set of buildings could easily fit into one courtyard of Angkor Wat. Victimized by looters throughout the years, officials removed some of its best pieces and brought them to The National Museum of Cambodia. Comprised of three rectangular enclosures on an east-west axis, a causeway leads from the third and outermost one leads to an inner enclosure containing three towers, two libraries and an inner enclosure (The Sanctuary). Visitors enter and leave through the east entrance and many have to duck to avoid hitting their heads (Canadian me should mind their heads, Asians, not so much).

narrow doorways

narrow doorways

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I’ll go so far as saying I’d return to this temple without a guide and really explore the intimate detail carved into almost everything. In 1923, police arrested a Frenchman named Andre Malraux for trying to steal several of the temple’s major statues. Ironically, he was later appointed the MInistry of Culture under Charles De Gaulle. Maybe it’s not so ironic given how one of America’s most important and newly appointed cabinet members condemns Planned Parenthood, has a wife that accuses him of domestic violence and doesn’t want his daughters attending a school with too many Jewish girls because he says  “they raise their kids like whiny brats”. Either way, visiting this temple and studying the meaning of its elaborate carvings illustrates immense respect for women in ancient Hindu society and for me, I found that refreshingly feminine.

imagePromising I’d plug our replacement guide, I’m happy to recommend Som Anrdrea and he can be contacted by sending an email to Cambodia has lots of great architectural monuments as well as warm, generous people and I’d put this trip up there with one of my favorite excursions since beginning our Experimental Overseas Expat Adventure. In the next post, I’ll discuss the rest of our day trip to the surrounding sites of Siem Reap. Meanwhile, it’s time for some Hokkien Mee at the local food court followed by some shopping.

Comments and Input are always welcome. Cheers from Pennag.


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