Beyond Angkor, Cambodia, a Khmer kingdom emerges from the jungle
04 Mar 2011 2076 | Cambodia Travel News
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.
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 torpid 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.
Source = latimes