Drawcard ... Angkor Wat's popularity continues to grow. Photo: Reuters
Intent on defying the odds at overrun Angkor, Sian Powell seeks the perfect moment of solitude.
The legendary temples of Angkor had been tempting me for years. Friends had told me about the glories of the Khmer monuments in northern Cambodia, the alien beauty of the stone carvings of smiling gods, nymphs and rampant lions and the detailed and intricate reliefs. Colleagues had written lyrically about the history of the extraordinary ruins, saved from the jungle.
But I was pretty sure it was too late for me and Angkor.
The vicious Khmer Rouge regime and the battling remnants of its followers had pretty much prevented travel to Angkor through the 1970s and '80s. But by the early '90s, the battles were over (except for one last convulsive coup in 1997) and the popularity of the famed ancient city of Angkor began to grow and grow. And grow.
The airport at the nearby town of Siem Reap now welcomes flights from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, Phnom Penh. More than a million tourists visit the famous temples every year, spawning mini-industries for souvenir-sellers and touts.
I knew that during most of the daylight hours the ancient stones of the dozen or so most important temples would be reverberating with the sound of talking, cameras whirring and guides running through their time-worn spiels.
It's hard to concentrate on the atmosphere of centuries past when a girl standing within a metre of you exclaims, loudly, "oh (expletive), my battery has run out."
Tourists from all over the world have the right to visit some of the most spectacular monuments in Asia and the people of Cambodia have a right to make the most of every tourist dollar. But the simple truth is that the more tourists there are and the more satellite industries there are clustered around them, the more difficult it is to actually enjoy a place of beauty and wonder.
Still, finally I was persuaded Angkor was worth a try. Determined to experience the perfect Angkor moment (which I knew was possibly a moment lost forever), I spent a week on a quest for solitude in one of the world's more popular tourist spots.
The Bayon temple, with its dozens of massive smiling carved stone faces, has a particular charm especially for Westerners who have come to expect religious icons to wear expressions of awe, guilt, desperation and agony. But the mostly Buddhist Bayon is comparatively small and exceedingly popular a lethal combination and it seemed always filled to the brim with exclaiming tourists. On one occasion some young British men were doing some kind of complicated lateral chin-ups on the stone door-frames. It was all too much.
Still, as with most Angkor temples, the tat sellers were not permitted to spruik their wares inside the temple. Armed with postcards, guidebooks, scarves, caps and T-shirts, they loiter outside and all tourists are followed by ever-persistent cries of "one dollar, one dollaaaarrr".
Come to think of it, the tat-sellers' ancestors must have been just as industrious and enterprising. At its height between the ninth and 12th centuries, the Khmer empire stretched across Cambodia, as well as much of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.
The capital at Angkor was huge, home to more than 1 million people, dotted with hundreds of imposing temples built during periods of both Hindu and Buddhist dominance and criss-crossed with vast irrigation systems and reservoirs.Banteay Srey, a slightly out of the way Hindu temple, was tiny but enormously popular with Western tourists as well as a tour group of orange-robed Buddhist monks from Phnom Penh, most carrying tiny digital cameras and mobile phones and just as chatty and over-powering as any determined crocodile of Japanese sightseers.
It's easy to spend days, even a week, pottering around these magnificent temples, picking out the details in the reliefs and getting a grip on the biggest city of the pre-industrial world. It's fun to sit majestically in the back of a tuk-tuk or moto-rickshaw, watch the jungle rushing past and then stop, silent, as a majestic tower, or gate, or terrace appears on the horizon.
At Ta Phrom, which was originally built as a Buddhist monastery, the jungle has been deliberately left intact in many places and the massive roots of strangler fig and silk-cotton trees wind through the ancient stone blocks. But Ta Phrom, too, is smallish and a visitors' favourite thronged by romantically minded tourists at all hours, all hoping for their own Lara Croft: Tomb Raider experience.
There was also a restoration crew at work and the worrying noise of drills echoed through the temple. Restoration of the ruined temples has been under way since 1860, with protracted delays caused by the long civil war in Cambodia and its horrible legacy of minefields and crippled villagers. Some temples have been completely torn down, block by block, and rebuilt with stronger foundations.
There are still crews busy at work at many of the temples, dancing the fine line between saving them from damp, erosion and the encroaching jungle, while ensuring their essential integrity remains uncompromised.
The largest and most popular of the Angkor temples, Angkor Wat, was the least damaged by the depredations of man and nature, perhaps because it was protected by its massive moat. The imposing towers appear almost untouched by time. Hundreds of delicately carved apsaras, or nymphs, are still very clear and the long, pictorial reliefs of soldiers in rows and chieftains on elephants are miraculous in their complexity and detail.
In the search for the perfect moment, Angkor Wat seemed an unlikely candidate. But because of its sheer size, it can absorb a lot of visitors. And by 6.30am or so the early-bird tourists who want the atmosphere of the rising sun are mostly gone, back to their hotels for breakfast, and the temple's corridors and parapets briefly return to the slumber of the ages.
So it was there, in the tourist trough of Cambodia's hot season (which features searing temperatures between March and May), in the midst of an international economic downturn, in the short, cool space between the dawn rush and the post-breakfast surge, I found a perfect Angkor moment.
I sat alone on the edge of the ancient colonnade of grey Cambodian stone. A gentle morning breeze stirred the leaves of the surrounding trees. Outside, cicadas chirrupped and, somewhere far away, bells were ringing.
There are no direct flights from Sydney to Siem Reap, so Australians have to fly via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
Return fares from Sydney can be as low as $782, for a promotional fare, including taxes, but it's advisable to look around for the best combination of price and convenience - for instance, the quickest connection or the best overnight stopover.
Siem Reap now has a huge range of hotels and guest houses, from five-star palaces like Hotel de la Paix, Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor and Le Meridien Angkor, to back-alley cheapies. The interestingly named Golden Banana has a pool (almost essential in the hot season) and a number of price levels down to a low-season $US20 ($26) a night in an air-conditioned room in the "bed and breakfast" option (golden-banana.com). The economic downturn is taking its toll, so some of the newer hotels along the road to the airport appear to be shuttered and most places are willing to bargain.
For basic facts in slightly odd English, try angkorwhat.net. For lots more information, including history, travel and hotel information and many links to other sites, try a site that styles itself as the Angkor portal, angkor.com.
Original website: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/popularity-conquest-20090514-b49p.html