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Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

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Angkor Wat's iconic towers rise in the dawn light. JEFF KINGSTON PHOTOS

ANGKOR WAT

Cambodia's jungle treasure still stuns the senses


Special to The Japan Times

These days any number of people will delight in ruefully declaring how such and such a place has been ruined — overrun by tourists and commercialism — and, as if to rub salt into the wound, they'll tell you that if you'd only visited it when they first did, you too could have savored Paradise.

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A monk outside an ancient temple is framed by enormous kapok trees.

These killjoys may be right in some instances, but they're dead wrong when it comes to Angkor, the stunning and magical "city" of over 200 temples built between the ninth and 13th centuries around what is now the modern Cambodian town of Siem Reap.

I first visited in 1996, and then again in 2000, and indeed the inroads of mass tourism were already evident, but muted. In 1996 there were about 55,000 arrivals, and in 2000 some 194,000. It was a tranquil place still emerging from the ravages of civil war.

So, having heard dire reports from recent visitors, and seeing that 2006 arrivals topped 850,000, I returned with some trepidation to probably the world's most stunning sacred site.

I am happy to report that the massive and widely dispersed Angkor temple complex retains its mystique — and that it's absorbing larger numbers of tourists without losing what makes it so appealing.

Angkor retains its allure because the temples, carvings and bas-reliefs chiseled out over the centuries are awe-inspiring and unrivaled.

Crowds? Yes, they are present, but it's still possible to find times and places to be alone and gaze upon wondrous sculptures amid jungle surroundings — with your only distraction being the cacophony of tropical birds. I viewed sunrise at Angkor Wat from the eastern steps in a "crowd" of five! And as my guide informed me about the rich iconography, showing me some of his favorite carvings of apsara (dancers) with bare breasts shiny from frequent caressing, I encountered very few people. I was told that Cambodians have traditionally brushed the breasts of the apsara for good luck, and this has caught on with foreigners. Yes, well.

As we made our way down to the stunning bas-reliefs that adorn the terraces of Angkor Wat, depicting battle scenes and tableaux featuring various kings and gods, I was virtually alone, my steps echoing in the corridors as I lingered over these marvels of artisanship.

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Exquisite detail from a 10th-century lintel (above), and a gateway under the benevolent gaze of the Bodhisattva Lokesvara (below).
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But back to the start: The best way to get around the temples is by remork, a comfy, canopied carriage hauled by a motorcycle that quickly cools you off even as you regard with some sympathy all those cyclists peddling furiously toward heatstroke and sunburn. But if by chance a tour group should suddenly descend on your Arcadian idyll, just relax awhile and they'll soon trundle off to another temple on their checklist.

This way, the lingering tourist is rewarded in ways entirely unknown to all those furiously paced sightseers eager to pack in everything during a two-day whirlwind tour. There are, too, temples far off the beaten path and only recently opened to tourists, such as Beng Melea, where contemplative silence and solitude can be yours.

For those with an adventurous spirit, the Angkor region has much to discover. But when you need a break you can wander over to the local food stalls, pull up a bench, crack a cold beer and ruminate over some freshly chopped boiled pig tongue for a princely sum equivalent to about $1.

These days Siem Reap boasts many accommodation options, ranging from backpacker guesthouses to five-star resorts. Queen among the latter is the Amansara, a boutique hotel situated on the grounds of what used to be Prince Sihanouk's state guesthouse. The renovation was extensive and the facility now boasts two large pools, attractive grounds and beautifully appointed, spacious rooms — some with their own plunge pools. The lap of luxury doesn't get much more sybaritic than this, and it's not hard to appreciate just how superb Khmer cuisine can be. This is gourmet grazing served in an elegant setting by friendly, professional staff.

But if you are feeling templed-out (the guides arrange well-paced tours designed to avoid overdoing it), there are other temptations and opportunities for guilt-alleviation should the need arise.

Toby Anderson, the general manager at Amansara, is proud that his resort beat out competitors from around the world to win the travel industry's coveted Virtuoso Award for Best Community Service Program — a testimony to his efforts to support local nongovernmental organizations.

The hotel's Green Trotter program is designed to link wealthy guests with needy NGOs via onsite visits. Guests receive a brochure that provides contact info and descriptions of eight NGOs that Toby knows and supports, and the hotel arranges appointments. He explains that there are many other worthy organizations in Cambodia's growing civil society, but he has selected those operations that also have the capacity to handle visitors; most of them run on shoestring budgets so they can't afford to pull staff away from saving lives to explain their programs to curious tourists.

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