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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

Odds are, that Khmer statue was not from Angkor, but from an outlying site. Such pieces disappeared from Angkor long ago, though not all were stolen. Some are in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Others are stored at Angkor Conservation's sculpture depot just off the road to the ruins. APSARA officials told us that looting at Angkor was no longer the problem it once was. The real danger to the monuments now were the tourists.

"Cambodia welcomes [tourists] because it wants their money," one APSARA official told us, "but tourists are wearing away the sandstone monuments. Soon we will ask them to wear soft shoes."

APSARA officials rely on a 500-member "heritage police" force and in the future plan to build welcome centers, offer orientation videos and implement strict tourist controls.

Returning through the park after a long hot day, we noticed the afternoon sunlight catching the enigmatic smile of one of Angkor's famous giant stone faces in a magical way.

It was a photo opportunity, and we told our drivers to pull off into the shade.

A minivan soon parked alongside and several European tourists climbed out with their cameras. Apparently (as we couldn't help but overhear), their first day had been memorable. "When I was growing up," one of the women said, gazing at the monumental face of Jayavarman VII in the likeness of the smiling Buddha, "everyone wanted to see these ruins. Back then, you never heard of Thailand. It was all Angkor. . . ."

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GUIDEBOOK: Angkor Away

Getting there: There are daily flights to Siem Reap from Bangkok, Thailand, on Bangkok Airways; round-trip fare is $362. To Bangkok from LAX, Thai Airways flies direct (no change of planes) and JAL, United, Northwest and Cathay Pacific have connecting service; round-trip fares begin at $1,187.

Where to stay: Two choices on the airport road are Hotel Nokor Kok Thlok (tel. 011-855-63-963-505, fax 011-855-63-380-022; doubles about $95) and Nokor Phnom Hotel (tel. 011-855-63-380-106, fax 011-855-63-380-033; standard rooms $100 to $130.) In Siem Reap, the Angkor Village Hotel (tel. 011-855-15-916-048, e-mail angkor.village@worldmail.com.kh), built in the traditional Khmer style, has a good restaurant; room with fan, $45; with air-conditioning, $60. For luxury, the Grand Hotel d'Angkor (reservations, tel. [800] 525-4800 or 011-855-63-963-888, fax 963-168. Our favorite among Siem Reap's inexpensive guest houses is Mom's (no tel.); $6-$10 per room, some with baths.

Tours: Among Asia specialists who put together all-inclusive tours of Angkor from Bangkok are Geographic Expeditions (tel. [800] 777-8183, fax [415] 346-5535; five-day tours start at $1,250 per person); Distant Horizons (tel. [800] 333-1240 or (562) 983-8828, fax (562) 982-8833; five-day tours from $1,140) and Asia Transpacific Journeys (tel. [800] 642-2742, fax [303] 443-7078; four days from $1,000). One of Bangkok's many travel agencies can also arrange tours.

The Angkor tourist office can arrange temple tours and guides. Tickets to the Angkor temple complex are $20 per day.

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