Angkor Wat - shadows of a lost empire

Two things you need when exploring the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia: first - hire a quick-witted guide who can snake you in and out of temples without getting tangled with tour-bus crowds.

The other must-have is a swimming pool. Cambodia is one hot little country and even the most intrepid temple prowler will want to slide into cool water after poking around the tumbled ruins of these looming structures of the ancient Khmer empire.

The Angkor temple complex, once a fabulous city that thrived from 802 to 1295AD is, well, complex. The history, the moats, the passageways, the bas reliefs, the confusion of Buddhism that changed to Hinduism - it's all wondrous to see, and it's a headful of information.

And though Angkor was what I had come to see, I found myself every bit as intrigued by the Cambodian people.

One superheated afternoon as my travelling friend David and I lounged poolside at Le Meridien, a Cambodian lad approached.

Nattily dressed in white jacket, he had just delivered sandwiches we ordered and now was returning to show us something: a lotus flower balanced on his palm.

He pointed inside where lush pink waxy petals cupped a shimmering water droplet - moisture its cool petals had coaxed from the steamy air. The bead of water shimmered like a jewel - magnificent flower bling!

It was the boy's gesture of showing us the flower - his sweet way of wanting to share its beauty - that enchanted me and typified my experience with many Cambodians.

I felt welcome from my first morning in town. Walking along the riverfront, I was surprised as people greeted me with a smile and "hello," even though I was an oddity - the only Westerner walking past their modest homes.

I had the same experience in the hotel, where shy chambermaids smiled sweetly - making me quickly feel at ease.

We hired a guide and driver for two days; much of our time was spent touring the temples with our expert guide Phalla Chan.

Our first sight of Angkor Wat was at sunrise - an experience not to be missed. Many people were gathered quietly on the grounds, the silence broken only by bird noises.

Clouds resembling 1,000 magic carpets trailed above the wash of pink behind the dark pine cone-like towers of the temple. The sun had to climb a long way to rise above those towers.

Sunrise or sunset are as close as visitors will get to a personal moment with Angkor Wat.

Angkor Archaeological Park's temples have been designated a World Heritage Site, and increasing numbers of tourists have found their way there since the opening in 1993.

Anyone thinking the antiquities will afford a chance to commune with ancient spirits is likely to be disappointed. Tourism is on the fast track in Siem Reap (population 800,000).

Hotel construction is gboming, from small Cambodian-owned inns to big chains; Sofitel, Raffles, Le Meridien and others are already here.

But we never felt the crush of tourists over the two days; the trick is to explore the most popular temples at sunrise and at noon after tour buses had departed.

David and I were drawn to seek the drumming that had started at dawn near Angkor Wat.

We followed the rhythm to a Buddhist temple where birthday party preparations were under way for the temple's director.

Monks and others were sitting on the floor, carefully cutting bananas and delicately arranging small plates of rice and chicken and a plate of cigarettes - all offerings to Buddha.

We were welcome to walk, sit and take pictures of their preparations.

Next we were off to Angkor Thom, or "Great City," thought to have housed a million people at one point after its construction during the years 1181-1220 by Buddhist king Jayavarman VII.

Our two days with Chan and our driver took in the odd sights at four temples - such as the seven-headed serpentlike Naga guarding the south gate of temple Pra Thom - which would not seem to need much guarding with four carved giant Buddha faces making for a formidable gate.

At Angkor Wat, Chan showed us a small field that had been used as a killing field by the despot Pol Pot. Chan told us he had lost 29 relatives to the man who wreaked havoc on the kingdom of Cambodia in the 1970s and later.

We went on to see the Scenes of Heaven and Hell, a terrifying perspective of Judgment Day including hideous devils hauling sinners to hell.

Ta Prohm is a temple on everyone's list. Here you can encounter uncanny feelings as you climb over rubble of crushed and tumbling walls, where banyan tree trunks wind viperlike through the once-grand structure.

The jungle-strangled temple, discovered in the 1860s, was intentionally left this way, conveying the eerieness of the lost civilization. Ta Prohm was used in a scene for the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

It's a safe bet that Cambodia's Angkor temples will continue to climb on the travellers' list of favourites; David and I both felt we needed to get there before there was a Starbucks outside the temple.

Right now Siem Reap is still a relatively small city, with Cambodians eagerly learning to speak English and employing but a minimum of ways to snare your money.

We did encounter children selling postcards and trinkets. Although persistent, they were more fun than obnoxious.


(accommodation information removed, as out of date)

Hiring a guide:

Our guide was Phalla Chan, Sage Insights, Siem Reap. Chan's intelligence, knowledge and superb English made our two days of touring easy and we felt we got as complete a tour as we could in two days. Cost for car and driver was $175 for two days.

Be sure to see:

Angkor Archaeological Park: The park is a World Heritage Site.

(Originally published in the Contra Costa Times and online ( and, 2006, subsequently republished in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, WA Today, and the Brisbane Times, 2008.)

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Cambodia travel information and Angkor Wat tour specialists ABOUTAsia are based in Siem Reap just 4km from Angkor Wat. At the heart of the organisation is a guiding research centre providing Cambodia vacation advice and industry leading tours planning.

Cambodia travel information and Angkor Wat tour specialists ABOUTAsia are based in Siem Reap just 4km from Angkor Wat. At the heart of the organisation is a guiding research centre providing Cambodia vacation advice and industry leading tours planning.


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