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Siem Reap, where heaven did wait

Its decades of war and tyranny over, the town is thriving as a tourist gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.

March 23, 2003|Barry Zwick | Times Staff Writer

Siem Reap, Cambodia — Kicking up dust in the sleepy streets of the old French quarter of this improbable boomtown, I was thinking more about lunch than about the temples that had brought me here.

Inside a bright, cluttered restaurant, the manager clasped his hands to his chin and bowed. Then he asked whether I had a moment to help his niece with her English and whether I would like a glass of good Italian red wine. I said yes and yes.

I checked out the menu, feeling somewhat guilty about taking a pass on the authentic Cambodian dishes and ordering what I really craved: a ratatouille pizza smothered with tomatoes, mozzarella, eggplant, onions, zucchini and bell peppers.

"Would you like some marijuana with that?" the manager asked.

"Marjoram," I thought. "He means marjoram" -- an herb in the oregano family. It would have been rude to correct him and a faux pas to stop him as he sprinkled a tablespoonful of the reddish-brown powder on my pizza.

As I polished off the pizza, one of the best I'd ever had, he said, "Last time I tried that, I slept for three days."

I paid for my lunch ($6), and he thanked me and gave me a complimentary T-shirt with a huge happy face and the restaurant's name and phone number on the front and back. I took a motorbike taxi back to my hotel, the Sofitel Plaza Angkor. Back in my room, my legs began to wobble, and I decided to lie down for a minute or two. When I awoke, it was the next morning, and my guide to Angkor Wat was calling me from the lobby.

A trip to the temples

Angkor Wat is the largest complex of religious buildings in the world and, by most standards, the most beautiful. The temples, Hindu and Buddhist, were built between the 9th and 13th centuries in northwestern Cambodia by early rulers of the Khmer kingdom.

I had dreamed of visiting the temples here since reading about them as a child, but for years, it was a dream that was impossible to fulfill.

The Vietnam War, the bloody years of Khmer Rouge rule, the seizure by Vietnam, a 1993 peace that turned sour, all this turned around in 1998, when Cambodia became a constitutional, democratic monarchy. Today, visiting the Angkor sites is safe, comfortable and easy.

My guide, included as part of my tour package, was a 35-year-old former Buddhist monk named Tarth Nu. He picked me up on a sunny February morning for the 20-minute drive to Angkor Wat.

"Where is everyone?" I wondered as we walked toward the temple. I counted four people on the causeway across the 820-foot-wide moat leading to Angkor Wat's five corncob towers. At the temple's most crowded spot -- the vertical steps to the top of the central pyramid -- there were no more than 30 people. But this was prime tourist season. (Winter is the coolest, driest time to visit Cambodia.) As I later learned, tourists were everywhere, spread thinly over an area as big as Rome.

I visited eight temples in two days with Nu. Each was an experience unlike the others, some marvelous and delicate, some bold and spectacular. Like many visitors, I was strangely silent, moved to tears at times, almost unable to pull myself away.

On my third day, I was on my own. There were many more temples to see, and my $40 three-day pass to enter the temples was still valid.

But I had an opportunity I hadn't had at the pyramids of Egypt or the ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru. I could meet the people who built them. Today's Cambodians speak the language of the Khmers of yesteryear. They worship the same gods. Their king, Norodom Sihanouk, is a descendant of the ancient kings. Angkor Wat is on their flag. They see themselves as part of a continuing civilization.

So I rented a mountain bike for $3 at my hotel and set off to explore Siem Reap, with 94,000 residents, a city about the size of Burbank.

Thanks partly to fears of terrorism elsewhere and to five years of peace and stability in Cambodia, this Southeast Asian kingdom is enjoying its first tourist invasion in two generations. It expects a record 900,000 visitors this year.

Today the city, always an important market town and, since the 1920s, the bedroom community for tourists, has 40 hotels and nearly 100 guesthouses, with a total of 4,213 rooms. In December, the Singapore-based Amanresorts luxury chain opened the $675-a-night Amansara resort, an airy and ultramodern 12-suite boutique hotel.

Nine more hotels -- all high end -- are being built, mostly by venture capitalists from neighboring countries. Already, 10 foreign flights arrive every day at Siem Reap/Angkor International Airport.

Despite the growth, the first traffic signal went up only last year. As I rode my bike, I saw few cars on the road, and the bicycle and motorbike traffic was light and orderly.

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