After an enjoyable day off from temple visits, we’re up early again – 4:30am – to visit Banteay Srei Temple, also known as the Lady Temple. After devouring the breakfast boxes that the hotel was kind enough to prepare for us, we are greeted by Mr. Sim’s big, bright smile in the early morning darkness. He’s been our tuk-tuk driver throughout our visit. It’s going to be a good day. We pull out of our quiet Siem Reap neighborhood and wind our way out of town, the dusty streets rolling out before us. Bleary-eyed as we bump along the potholed streets, we smile at each other. The morning coolness, the faintest hint of gray light on the Cambodian horizon, the smell of woodsmoke as breakfast kitchens awaken – it feels like a dream.
Rolling past Angkor Wat, we watch the sunrise procession that we were a part of only two days before. Continuing through the forest, we are alone with a dim headlight hinting at where a road might be. We’ve left the crowd behind. Past Sras Srang, another “sunrise” locale, and the hint of an orange dawn is reflected in the placid morning water. A lone boy wades in the dark water, fishing nets stretched between his reaching hands.
We roll on, leaving the east entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park and enter the Cambodian countryside. The road is lined by deep green rice paddies, dappled with palm trees, mixed with rural Cambodian homes. Homes, always on stilts – some low, some tall, some wood, some metal, some concrete. And everywhere, the hint of water. This drive, through the tranquil countryside, the children starting their walk or bicycle ride to school, woodsmoke drifting, water buffalos and cattle grazing with that lazy look of suspicion, is magical.
We drive for over an hour and when Mr. Sim finally pulls over, we feel hypnotized by this moment. What a perfect feeling for visiting this most precious of temples. For this temple made of stone could be made of something so much more delicate. The red sandstone has been shaped by the tools and work of countless artisans a thousand years ago into intricate, elaborate, deep patterns and figures recounting the stories of Shiva and Vishnu, their consorts and their tribulations, and their connection to this almost otherworldly place tucked into rural Cambodia.
The only major temple in Angkor not built by a monarch, it is a delicate temple, almost miniature in scale compared to the others we’ve visited so far. It is built on a very human scale. Its delicate, precious nature has lead to its contemporary name of Banteay Srei, which means citadel of women or citadel of beauty. We completely agree with the pioneering Angkor scholar, Maurice Glaize, that “Given the very particular charm of Banteay Srei – its remarkable state of preservation and the excellence of a near perfect ornamental technique – one should not hesitate, of all the monuments of the Angkor group, to give it the highest priority.”