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Destination: Cambodia

RETURN of the LOST CITY

Exploring wondrous carved jungle palaces of Khmer kings

April 19, 1998|CARL DUNCAN | Duncan is a freelance writer based in British Columbia, Canada

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The jungle air was hot and humid and the sweat streamed down our arms. Our fingers left wet marks on the sandstone as we admired an exquisitely carved apsara. Eight hundred years of monsoon rains had somehow not aged this celestial dancer. Her seductive charms had been perfectly preserved in the embrace of the jungle.

We explored tall temple-palaces, elaborately carved galleries, elevated courtyards and mysterious passageways. Gigantic guardian figures lined bridges crossing ancient moats. Immense stone faces, with their enigmatic smiles, gazed down on us from dozens of gateways and towers. Giant kapok and strangler figs still straddled some of the temples, but dozens more temples had been cleared and reconstructed and were easily accessible.

Over five centuries, powerful god-kings built their successive capitals here employing the finest artisans. What they left behind in northern Cambodia has a romantic mystique unrivaled by any place in Southeast Asia. This lost city in the jungle is a fantasy land straight out of "Indiana Jones."

Last spring, before July's bloody civil unrest, Cambodia seemed relatively stable and Angkor was back on the tourist circuit again. So my traveling companion, Maria, and I decided to visit the ruins for the second time. We were pleasantly surprised at the dramatic improvements since our first visit in 1994. Tourist amenities such as hotels and restaurants had doubled, roads had improved, and both monuments and visitors were being better managed.

On our most recent visit, we were amazed at the number of tourists. Parked on the dirt parking lot in front of the causeway at Angkor Wat, the best-known monument in a 77-square-mile area, were 20 tour buses, 50 cars and 100 motorbikes.

Three years before, this on-again, off-again wonder of the world--which tourism officials of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) see as potentially the largest single draw in Southeast Asia for overseas visitors--was not quite on-again. Hardly a dozen tourists then could be found among all the ruins. We regularly had the temples completely to ourselves. But there were drawbacks too.

On that first visit, we set off alone on our rented motorbike for Banteay Srei, a set of diminutive but exquisite Khmer temples isolated in the jungle about 15 miles northeast of Angkor Wat. Everyone cautioned us about driving the dirt road.

The road deteriorated soon after we left the main temple area. The jungle thinned, turned into rice paddies and, as luck had it, just as we passed a small "WARNING! MINES!" sign (displaying a red and black skull and crossbones), deep muddy water forced us on a quarter-mile detour along what we sincerely hoped was a footpath.

It took us an hour and a half to reach the Banteay Srei temples. Half a dozen ragged young soldiers, one with a missing leg, checked our tickets, then offered to sell us postcards.

But for our trouble we had this "gem of Angkor" entirely to ourselves. Exquisite carvings covered every inch of sandstone, as pink and perfect as the day they were chiseled in 967.

During our nearly two-hour visit, no one bothered to check on us. Unchaperoned, and wanting close-up photos, I (very carefully) lifted spider webs with my pencil from the brittle flutings of tiny 1,000-year-old carvings. I recalled thinking, "They shouldn't allow tourists to do this."

Only once did we bump into the old temple cleaner. He pointed with his bamboo broom to a freshly broken head. "Khmer Rouge" he said, clicking his tongue in reference to the feared Cambodian rebels that once terrorized the country.

When we returned for our most recent visit, teams had cleared the mines to far out into the countryside, the Khmer Rouge were a thing of the past. Air-conditioned vans now made the trip to Banteay Srei on a smoothly surfaced road in 20 minutes.

Located about 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh in the jungle flatland between the Kulen Hills (where Angkor's stones were quarried) and Tonle Sap Lake, these artful ruins have attracted archeologists, travelers and art thieves since news of their discovery by French explorers in the mid-1800s.

Between the 9th and 14th centuries, Angkor was the capital of the Khmers, who created the largest empire in Southeast Asia. King Jayavarman II united this civilization in 802 and implemented Devaraja, the cult in which the king was worshiped as a god on Earth (first as the Hindu god Siva or Vishnu, or, later, as Buddha).

Each successive ruler built a capital city around his own temple, complete with canals to irrigate the rice fields that fed Angkor's population, nearly a million people at its height in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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