Travel April 2002

The Splendor of Angkor

Now is the best time in many decades to visit Cambodia and its ancient Khmer capital
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Travelers have been compiling lists ever since Antipater of Sidon came up with his Seven Wonders of the World, in the second century B.C. On my own list of wonders no place would have a more secure claim than Angkor, the capital of the ancient Khmer kingdom. Occupying 120 square miles of tropical forest near the present-day town of Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia, the archaeological district of Angkor consists of hundreds of sculptured stone Buddhist and Hindu temples built by the Khmer from the ninth century through the thirteenth. Many of the temples are in a state of tumbledown disarray, snarled in jungle vegetation; others are inaccessible because of uncleared land mines from the wars that devastated the region during the second half of the twentieth century. But dozens of temples, palaces, and other state buildings, including all the most important ones, are in good condition and can now be safely and conveniently visited. The artistic accomplishment and philosophical profundity of these monuments place the Khmer on a par with the most advanced civilizations of their time, anywhere in the world.

I'll never forget my first night at Angkor. In 1989 I traveled there with an archaeologist buddy of mine, Russell Ciochon, of the University of Iowa, to report on the restoration work that was then under way. One night we hired some policemen to accompany us to the Bayon, a massive, rambling Buddhist temple whose looming silhouette resembles a mountain crowned with fifty-four towers; each has four faces peering into the dense forest in the cardinal directions, and every face wears a placid, enigmatic expression—the famous "Angkor smile." In harsh daylight it's difficult to make out some of the faces, which are covered with lichen and lined with cracks, but that night was a clear one, and a full moon shone directly overhead, illuminating the faces plainly, as though it were an ethereal spotlight. When the roar of the insects, lizards, and frogs mysteriously subsided for a moment, and the cool night breeze quickened, I shivered, feeling farther from home than I had ever been before, in a place that I would never really know.

An experience like that may not be possible today, because with a measure of peace and prosperity in Cambodia, tourism at Angkor is growing at a galloping pace. However, I won't even start with "You should've seen it before it was overrun with tourists": people who take that line about formerly remote places always fail to mention that in the good old days the food was inedible, the accommodations squalid, the electricity sporadic, and the roads wretched, and that police guards brazenly shook one down for "cigarette money."

On that visit Russell and I put ourselves up at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, the only game in town. At the time, the hotel's name was ludicrous: the establishment was certainly grand, in the literal meaning of the French word (our rooms were enormous), but sparely furnished and lavishly mildewed. The Khmer Rouge were still active around Siem Reap, so except for a team of dour Russian engineers, we had the place to ourselves, attended by a staff of twenty gawping adolescent boys who were much more interested in practicing their English than in providing basic services.

The hotel was a sad relic of the golden age of the world traveler, which began early in the twentieth century, when the first great ocean liners made comfortable global travel possible. Romantic destinations such as Bombay and Rangoon became accessible to tourists—and no place in Asia was more exotic than the ruins of Angkor, which nineteenth-century French explorers such as Henri Mouhot and Louis Delaport had described in thrilling journals and depicted in engravings. The existence of venturesome travelers caused luxury hotels to be built throughout Southeast Asia; the Grand Hotel d'Angkor opened in 1932.

When I went back to Angkor recently, I was surprised to see so many tourists, but it didn't seem overcrowded in comparison with other destinations of its magnitude in the region. Anyway, there are certain advantages to a rise in tourism. The Grand had been restored to its original glory by new and highly competent owners, Raffles International, with an excellent kitchen and a beautiful pool and spa. My old room was now luxurious and tastefully decorated in tropical style. The Grand is unquestionably still the premier address here, but it has some competition: the French group Accor has opened a swish modern resort-style hotel, the Sofitel Royal Angkor, just down the road, with slightly lower rates. There are many decent budget accommodations; my favorite mid-range hotel is the Ta Prohm, with a pleasant riverside location in "downtown" Siem Reap. For convenience and the best rates, first-time visitors to Cambodia should consider making reservations through a specialized, experienced travel agent such as EastQuest (800-638-3449) or Diethelm, based in Bangkok (e-mail dto@dto.co.th).

Even the most remote monuments of Angkor proper can be reached in less than an hour by car from Siem Reap, but it takes several days to soak up a general impression of the glorious accomplishment of the Khmer. If you want to examine the major monuments carefully, climb a pyramid or two, and see some of the more interesting minor temples, allot five or six days. A visit to Angkor might aptly be compared to a tour of the relics of ancient Egypt, in that the long history of the Khmer produced a wide variety of artistic styles; visitors can go for days without finding a monument that looks just like what they saw yesterday or the day before. (Note that there's almost nothing to do in the evening, apart from visiting outdoor discos: bring books.)

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