Delicate carvings and animal-headed guardians make this intimate citadel one of the must-see Siem Reap attractions.
We all called it the Pink Temple because of the rose-hued sandstone used to build it. Somehow it’s fitting that this was the only temple not built for a king — and, in fact, only women could enter its inner sanctum, our guide Kimsan told us.
Its real name is Banteay Srei, the Women’s Citadel, though some translate this as Citadel of Beauty. Located about half an hour from the tourist base of Siem Reap, Cambodia, it’s a definite inclusion on any itinerary of the area. Completed in 967 CE and expanded until the 14th century, it’s one of the best-preserved structures in the Angkor Wat region. It wasn’t rediscovered until 1914.
Banteay Srei is a Hindu temple, primarily to worship Lord Shiva the Destroyer, though the northern buildings are dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver. It’s said to be the most Indian-influenced of all the temples, and the carvings were the most ornate we saw on our trip.
Part of the fun of exploring Banteay Srei is crossing the wide moat on the narrow footpath.
Once you make that crossing, you’re transported to another world. The pinkish structures are now tinged with green lichen, calling to mind a forgotten palace from a Hindu epic.
The most impressive part of Banteay Srei is the exterior decoration. The walls are covered with curlicues and flourishes that evoke climbing vines. Nestled in niches throughout are gods and goddesses known as devatas. Both sexes are topless, the women with breasts as large and perfectly round as melons.
In 1923, an art thief named André Malraux stole four of the figures, but he was caught shortly thereafter, and the devatas were returned to Banteay Srei to pose for tourists and pilgrims once again.
Some of the buildings in this intimate complex once housed libraries. Guess those women were smart.
My personal favorite part of Banteay Srei are its guardians. Humanlike creatures with the heads of animals are found throughout the inner part of the complex. They’re resting in a pose that's somehow between sitting and kneeling. Some have what I thought to be the head of an eagle, like the Hindu deity Garuda — though they also could have been monkeys. Others sport what might be the head of a lion, though it’s hard to say. And some just look like dudes with cheesy mustaches.
These are the citadel’s protectors, and you can imagine them springing to life should anything threaten this gorgeous fairytale complex. –Wally