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Beyond Angkor, Cambodia, a Khmer kingdom emerges from the jungle

Near Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Khmer Empire's monuments are revealing their secret hideaways in the jungle as land mines are being cleared and roads are being built to get to them.

March 06, 2011|By Susan Spano, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Siem Reap, Cambodia — When French travel writer Pierre Loti took an ox cart to Angkor shortly after Westerners rediscovered it in the 19th century, he found creeper-choked ruins and the profound silence of the Cambodian jungle. Siem Reap, population 100,000, now at its threshold, has scores of fancy resort hotels, a pub street, a new branch of the national museum and an international airport where millions of tourists arrive every year to see the fabled temples of Angkor.

The Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia from 800 to 1400, built monuments all over Cambodia, but the rigors of getting to them, many in rough territory ringed by land mines left after Cambodia's long civil war, kept many travelers away.

The situation has changed. In some areas mine clearing has been completed, and with Cambodia at peace, the government has launched a road-building campaign, bringing long-lost Khmer sites beyond Angkor within reach of travelers who dream of encounters with Cambodia's ancient wonders à la Loti.

In the fall I made a long-anticipated first visit to Angkor. It was the beginning of a three-day itinerary that took me deep into the countryside northeast of Siem Reap to see three untrammeled Khmer monuments still locked in the solitude of the jungle.

Journeys Within, a small tour company with a bed-and-breakfast inn just outside Siem Reap, arranged my trip. I traveled in a van driven by trusty So Sopheap, who gave me a cool cloth from an ice chest at every stop, with Kham Sina as my wise and gentle guide.

The first day we followed a parade of Korean tourists in motorcycle taxis to Angkor. The region where Khmer rulers chiefly settled is now a 150-square-mile archaeological park with scores of temples, royal cities and reservoirs built about the time European stonemasons laid the foundations of Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres.

We visited only the best known, beginning with magisterial Angkor Wat, the apex of classical Khmer art and architecture built in the mid-12th century by the slave armies of Suryavarman II. Surrounded by a rectangle of long corbel-arched galleries, the temple rises in three astounding tiers to a cluster of five beehive-shaped towers, or prasats.

Sina and I inspected the carved stone reliefs in the galleries celebrating Suryavarman's military exploits; stopped at shrines to Buddhist gods that succeeded the Hindu divinities originally housed in the temple compound; and climbed a hair-raisingly steep flight of steps to the great central prasat 200 feet above the surrounding jungle.

Our next stop was Ta Prohm, once a Khmer monastery that has been left unrestored, dilapidated and overgrown, making it a favorite with bus tours, shutterbugs and location scouts for movies such as "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Sina and I then went on to mighty Angkor Thom, a walled and moated royal city built about 1200 by Khmer King Jayavarman VII. It has a bridge guarded by Buddhist devils; a pavilion flanked by a row of amiable stone elephants; and iconic Bayon Temple, where we took shelter from a downpour.

Thus introduced to Khmer history and art, we set out the next day for the countryside where 90% of the Cambodian people lived before communist Khmer Rouge insurgents turned rice paddies into battlefields and villages into work camps.

Since the rebels' eradication in the late 1990s, the teak and tamarind forests that covered the northern plains have been cut down and the wood sold abroad or carved into smiling Buddha souvenirs. With the advent of paved roads, ox carts have yielded to rattletrap trucks, fueled by gasoline sold in Johnnie Walker whiskey bottles. Farmhouses built on stilts look desperately poor, but village markets overflow and the easy old rhythms of rural life seem to have returned.

Once you leave Siem Reap, however, tourist facilities are scant. We stopped the first night in the dusty town of Anlong Veng, which has a bare new hotel with double rooms for $15 a night. In the restaurant I met two intrepid American kings of the road, touring by motorcycle, and sampled such Cambodian dishes as beef in fermented fish paste, or prahok, but mostly filled up on rice. The guesthouse near the ruins of Koh Ker where we stayed the next night had no electricity after 10 p.m. or top sheets on the beds — and I met a frog in the bathroom.

I would have put up with much worse to see celebrated, embattled Preah Vihear, about 100 miles northeast of Angkor and built between 893 and 1200 at the edge of a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains. The temple is a national symbol, pictured on the 2,000-riel Cambodian bill, but the site is as much a bane as a glory, a natural stronghold that changed hands throughout the civil war, ending up in the hands of Khmer Rouge holdouts who finally surrendered in 1998.

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