Climb Your Way to the Past in Angkor Wat

Physician's Money Digest, December31 2004, Volume 11, Issue 24

It's a miracle that Angkor stillstands—a haunting miracle. That'sthe feeling I get as I clamber up theBayon, one of 50 major templesand palaces scattered across more than200 square miles of plains and rollinghills in northwestern Cambodia.

Brimming with Rich History

The exterior wall is filled with basreliefscenes of everyday life from athousand years ago. Gods and heroesclash in epic and historic battles whileordinary folks flirt, cook, and playgames on the sidelines. Inside, the agelessface of King Jayavarman VII, whobuilt the Bayon in the late 12th century,stares out from every side. His blackand green lichen-stained stone portraitsbecome more imposing as I climb themaze of crumbling stairways leading tothe top. Towers topped by the king'senigmatic half smile glow at sunset.

His faces survey a sea of steamy junglegrowth broken by ruins. The Bayon is thecenter of Angkor Thom, the capital of theKhmer Empire, which once controlledSoutheast Asia. The city and its palaces,neighborhoods, and farms were home tomore than 1 million people in AD 1200—perhaps the largest city on earth at thattime. Helicopter flights offer a bird's eyeview of what the world now calls AngkorWat (www.angkorscenicflights.com).

Splendor Amidst Ruin

It's a confusing name. Angkor Watis a vast complex with dozens of Khmertemples, palaces, and cities, includingAngkor Thom, which was builtbetween the 9th and 13th centuries.Angkor Wat is also a temple that coversnearly a full square mile.

Visitors stream into Angkor Wat towatch the sun rise behind the temple'stowers. At sunset, huge crowds watchAngkor Wat's main gate go golden.Viewing is most popular during the dryseason (ie, between November andFebruary), when midday temperaturesand humidity drop to the mid-80s. Duskis a magical time at the end of the rainyseason in September, when a reservoirsurrounding Angkor Wat fills and rainbowreflections shimmer in the stillwaters like dreams of a faded empire.

Angkor Wat was abandoned in1431 after decades of war and civilstrife. Over time, jungle, rain, and rotcollapsed ceilings and tumbled walls.Despite deterioration, travelers describethe ruins as grand. French naturalistHenri Mouhot claimed that he discoveredAngkor in 1860. Mouhot put it onEuropean maps; his drawings look likefeverish fantasy.

Centuries-old stone faces smile,sneer, and command from crumblingheights. Mythical nagas (ie, snakes)slither along cracked bridges, spanningrivers and reservoirs. Twisting treeroots lock room-sized sandstone blocksin skewed symmetry as they toppletowers into jungle-choked rubbledecade by slow decade.

Generations of restorers have cutback trees and rebuilt fallen walls, but Icaught a glimpse of what early visitorssaw. A minor temple, Ta Prohm,remains cloaked in jungle, massive treeroots encircling walls and gates as theygradually topple buildings to rubble.

Siem Reap's Treasures

The bustling town of Siem Reap isless than 30 minutes from the ruins.The once isolated farming town nowoffers an international airport, air conditioning,sparkling swimming pools,and frosty drinks. But not everything inSiem Reap is as it seems.

The Foreign Correspondents Club(www.fcccambodia.com/angkor) is thetown's most elegant restaurant, but theonly foreign correspondents in sight arereporters on expense account. An early20th-century palace is now Cambodia'smost luxurious hotel, the Raffles GrandHotel d'Angkor (www.raffles.com). TheBopha Angkor Hotel & Restaurant(www.bopha-angkor.com) is a down-to-earthalternative. Visitors can supportlocal entrepreneurs by booking family-runhotels at www.angkorhotels.com.

Shoppers have a similar choice.Artisans d'Angkor (artisans@camintel.com), a French-run art school, makesand sells classically inspired wood andstone carvings, lacquerware, and silkspriced for the international market.Selection and prices are better in SiemReap's central market or outside mostmonuments at Angkor Wat, wherefriendly bargaining is part of every purchase.Cambodia Tourism has morehelpful details (www.mot.gov.kh).