The trail of the temples

I first saw Angkor Wat in virtual darkness. It was a few minutes before sunset and, together with a few hundred other tourists, my family and I were waiting for the awesome sight of the setting sun to appear behind the famous acorn towers of this most revered ancient collection of temples.

The minutes ticked by and, at last, the sun emerged in a blaze of glory, illuminating the exotic ruins. I was left breathless at the architectural splendour of it all.

Angkor Wat, the biggest religious structure on Earth, is only one of 200 temples in the vast complex that decorates the South-East Asian nation of Cambodia’s western countryside. The temples are more than 1 000 years old and are relics of the Angkor dynasty, which reigned in the region a millennium ago. The Khmers who inhabit Cambodia today are the ancestors of that great empire.

Angkor was virtually lost to the world for 800 years, concealed in the dense jungles of Cambodia, until French explorers stumbled upon the ruins. Although some temples are magnificently preserved, others are no longer identifiable.

But the international community is committed to preserving this milestone of human worship. Governments and organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation are sponsoring expensive renovations to restore this World Heritage Site to its former glory.

Each temple at Angkor Wat is special in its own way. The Bayon temple is a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu relics. The Banteay Srei, the so-called “pink temple”, houses delicate carvings that surely could only have been engraved by the hands of women. My personal favourite was the so-called “jungle temple”, Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie as the intrepid Lara Croft in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The temple was every bit as impressive as it was on screen.

If Angkor Wat is a triumph of what human engineering can achieve, the Ta Prohm is a monument to the ruthlessness of nature. Without much effort, the jungle has simply reclaimed what man once took away from it.

Giant trees strangle Buddhist images expertly carved on old sandstone bricks. The effect is magnificent. Doorways are now decorated by the trees, and tourists flock to it for photo opportunities, clamouring to become part of the scenic beauty of the temple. Between snapshots, monkeys scamper over the ruined pillars, looking for any scraps the increasing number of tourists may have left behind. It may be in ruins, but the Ta Prohm stands proud amid its restored neighbours.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for the dirt-poor country of Cambodia) more and more tourists are waking up to the architectural treasures in Angkor, hidden from view by politics for 30 years thanks to the warlords and mortars of the country’s civil war.

After the war ended in 1998, tourists began to trickle in to Cambodia. But the word soon spread and these days Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor, is one of the compulsory stops for any self-respecting tourist to South-East Asia.

Visitors to the temples are not even perplexed by the stiff, $40 three-day pass needed to tour the ruins. Although you can buy a one-day pass for $20, you will be selling yourself short.

Already the impact of increasing numbers of tourists is showing. At Phnom Bakheng, the “sunset temple”, tourists were literally trampling over each other for the best spot from where they could view the sunset over Tonle Sap Lake. The more famous temples — such as the Bayon, with its eerie faces and, of course, Angkor Wat itself — are filled in the early mornings and afternoons with visitors gawking at the structures.

If you are looking for tranquillity, lesser-known temples such as Neak Pean and Prah Khan are worth a visit. We visited Angkor Wat during the heat of the day and also enjoyed solitude. For most Europeans, Cambodian midday — even in winter — is simply intolerable.

Monks in saffron robes decorate Angkor wherever you go. When I asked a group if we could photograph them, they were amazed that South Africans were so interested in them. They could not conceive a world such as ours, where you seldom spot monks doing their morning rounds.

Our guide, named Visa, took us through the temples and Cambodian history faster than a Khmer moto-driver through peak-hour traffic. Although his accent was sometimes hard to follow, he knew his stuff. Without a guide, the temples would simply have been beautiful ruins instead of the intriguing remains of a forgotten civilisation, with hundreds of stories hidden among its walls.

Cambodia is not a forgotten country anymore. Siem Reap is fast becoming more of a Siem Reap-olis. Where accommodation in the past has been confined to the delightfully inexpensive local guest houses or the colonial monument, Grand Angkor, other hotels are being built at a rapid pace.

The hotels are ridiculously expensive compared to the guest houses. If you are splashing out on a one, be prepared to pay more than R670 a night. A room at Grand Angkor costs a small king’s ransom.

Instead, a luxurious, air-conditioned room at a classy guest house such as La Noria or Borei Angkor will cost you between R134 and R270. Your hosts will also be able to arrange cheap transport and a knowledgeable guide, and breakfast is usually part of the deal.

Cambodia has a tragic history. The country survived one of the cruellest genocides, where more than half the population was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. Who can forget the shocking images of the classic war movie The Killing Fields?

Although the Khmer Rouge only ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, it was responsible for the murder of more than three million people in its ideological drive to establish an agrarian society. The tortured and hungry Cambodians had to look to the Vietnamese to overthrow Pol Pot in 1979. But that was not the end of Cambodia’s misery.

The Khmer Rouge took to the jungles and started a bloody civil war that made the nation one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world. Thousands of villagers lost limbs while simply working in the rice fields.

Cambodia’s horrors are never far from the surface. While exploring temples, you will see many beggars without limbs trying to make a living. It’s shocking to learn, also, that the temples themselves were laced with mines and were only made safe two years ago.

Angkor Wat was also the sight of an infamous battle during the civil war of the 1980s, and the bullet holes can still be seen in the structures. Our guide told us the Cambodians simply refused to surrender this part of their heritage to the Khmer Rouge.

If you are not familiar with Cambodia’s history, children at the temple will happily sell you every book that has been written about the country and its history at ridiculously low prices.

After a few days you can become quite “templed out”, so trips to the nearby Tonle Sap Lake make for a great change of scenery. The floating villages and the way of life of people living on water were fascinating to us landlubbers. The floating markets have become a cliché of the East but, all the same, I was delighted when a Vietnamese lady stopped at our boat and tried to sell us some fish.

Red-meat lovers beware. If you can find a steak, the Cambodians are clueless how to prepare it. Chicken rules, seafood is cheap and pork is also a firm favourite. Vegetarians will love the country’s abundance of fresh and exotic fruit.

Cambodian food is similar to that of its neighbour, Thailand, but less spicy. Rice is served with every meal. Because of the influx of tourists, Western food is also becoming more readily accessible.

Because Siem Reap is still very much a backpacker’s paradise, you will find a lively nightlife with plenty of young people having a good time. The beer is good and cheap. We enjoyed the Red Piano, a delightful bar-restaurant in the middle of the town with a lot of soul.

When I left Cambodia, the smiles of the Khmer people remained with me. Despite their hardships, you will seldom find a Cambodian without a joke or a helping hand.

My advice is to go now, before the hordes ruin Angkor forever — and while the people’s smiles are still real.

The lowdown

First get to Bangkok, which is not that easy now that South African Airways has stopped flying there. You can go via Hong Kong, but it adds to the slog. Singapore Airlines fly there via Singapore, which is a better option, especially if you enjoy shopping and want to break the journey there. Once in the Thai capital, Bangkok Airways runs two hourly flights out of the city, but due to its monopoly it will cost you R1 000.

Although Siem Reap is only 600km away, making the trip overland is a hassle, with bad roads and touts abundant. It is very cheap, however.

Backpackers do the trip for less than R70, but the operators make up their money by pulling over at every pit stop and getting their commission. They also arrive late at night and drop you off at a guest house of their choice, which you are forced to take because of the time of night.

You can get a basic, clean room for about R70 with a fan and bathroom. An air-conditioned room (highly recommended with Cambodia’s climate) will cost you about R134. A meal for two at a quaint local restaurant will set you back about R70. If you are penny-pinching, avoid the hotels.

A three-day pass to the temples costs R270 and a five-day pass R335. You will need a guide, who charges R134 a day whatever the size of your group. We were five people, so for for us it was a bargain.

We hired a small, air-conditioned mini-van with a driver for R134 a day. If you are a party of one or two people, it is preferable to hire a small motorbike with a driver or a tuk-tuk to drive you around.

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