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Destination: Cambodia

RETURN of the LOST CITY

Cambodia's ancient Angkor is back on the tourist circuit

April 19, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Once off-limits to all but the most daring, foolhardy travelers, this ancient capital of Angkor and its wondrous temples are attracting tourists anew--and they need not fear for their lives.

Though the number of foreign visitors to this war-ravaged, former Khmer empire remains only a trickle, their return is an encouraging omen for Cambodia as a whole after its newly reviving tourism industry was brought to a standstill by a bloody coup that came last July on the heels of a generation of warfare.

Since the first of the year, Siem Reap has gotten its first international air service--a daily flight from Bangkok. It also has seen the reopening of the elegant 69-year-old Grand Hotel d'Angkor, after a $30-million renovation, across the road from King Sihanouk's palace. Last month, 1,000 tourists visited Siem Reap, compared with 150 in all of 1986. (Before last year's coup, tourism was beginning to do well again; in the first six months of 1997, Siem Reap had about 5,000 visitors.)

"If you use common sense, Angkor Wat and the other temples here are virtually 100% safe," said William Longe of Halo Trust, one of three groups clearing the region of mines and unexploded ordnance. "You walk on worn paths. You don't wander into the bush. People who follow the basic rules shouldn't be scared about coming."

Archeologists consider the ruins of the Khmer empire the rival of Peru's "lost" Inca city of Machu Picchu. At its height in the 12th century, the Khmer influence reached over half of Southeast Asia and Angkor (now Siem Reap, population 150,000) was a royal city of major regional importance. A staff of 78,000 looked after the temples and palaces and shrines scattered throughout the jungly kingdom.

After an attack by Chams from South Vietnam in 1177 and an invasion of Thais in 1431, Angkor Wat was abandoned and over the years was reclaimed by the jungle. Not until 1898 did the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient start clearing the jungle, restoring the temples and opening up Angkor as Indochina's most famous tourist site.

"Phnom Penh and other places in Cambodia, I'm afraid, can still be dangerous, but not Siem Reap," said Sousoum Saroeuth, the local director of tourism. "You can walk anywhere at any hour in town and not have to worry.

"The people know tourists bring money and jobs, and we are determined to explain to travel agents that the dark years are over here," she said.

Koy Savauu remembers the precise moment the "dark years" began--in 1975. He was 29 years old and a pastry baker at the Grand Hotel, which by then had fallen into a state of decided disrepair. The hotel had not a single guest the day Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas marched into town and told the staff--and the rest of the city--that they had five days to leave Siem Reap.

The rebel army was largely made up of primitive teenagers from the countryside who had never seen a dining room, much less an elevator such as the Grand had. They gawked. They used the bedroom furniture for firewood and drank a can of varnish they found in the basement, believing it to be wine. They staggered out the front door, and within an hour, a dozen of the boy soldiers lay dead on the lawn.

Like the rest of Siem Reap, Savauu and his wife were marched into the countryside, carrying only a bag of rice, in the Khmer Rouge campaign to "purify" Cambodia and rid it of anyone tainted by foreign influence or education.

Had Savauu let on that he spoke French, worked at the Grand or baked pastry, he would have been executed on the spot, as thousands were, he said.

Savauu and his wife returned to Siem Reap in 1979, after Vietnam had driven Pol Pot's army into the north and Vietnamese officers had begun a six-year occupancy of the Grand. "Nothing remained of my neighborhood except land," he said.

But today Savauu is back at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, baking pastry again. The hotel, owned by Singapore-based Raffles International, the operator of some of the world's top hotels, is more regal than anything he could have imagined, with its $2-million gardens and luxurious facilities. "You have no idea the pride we felt when the Grand reopened," said Savauu, the hotel's longest-serving employee. "It was like Angkor had a future again."

For Cambodians, Angkor remains the soul of a troubled, violent land. However distressed they may be over what Cambodia has become, they can take heart in remembering what it was once. Even the ultranationalistic Khmer Rouge considered Angkor Wat so sacred to the nation that they could kill 2 million Cambodians without remorse but not deface a single statue or limestone etching at the temple.

Beggars line the concourse to Angkor Wat today, many with missing limbs that attest to the land mines and warfare that were part of life here for so long. Inside the temple, old people get by, by selling sticks of incense for a few riels (the Cambodian currency).

But with the return of tourists, the old royal city of Angkor has turned the corner and has survived, and that alone is more than most people here dared hoped for only a few years ago.

*

Lamb is a foreign correspondent for The Times based in Hanoi.

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