Cambodias Angkor Wat: An amazing maze of ruins

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Contacts: Angkor Wat Wholesalers

" Pacific Delight Tours

Phone: (800) 221-7179

Web:www.pacificdelighttours.com

" Pleasant Holidays

Phone: (619) 282-3131

Web:www.pleasantholidays.com

" Sita World Travel

Phone: (818) 990-9530

Web:www.sitatours.com

ANGKOR WAT, Cambodia -- It is spoken about in hushed tones, the mysteries of this citadel from centuries past. But Angkor Wat is just one of 72 major monuments in the worlds most expansive temple complex, and it isnt the largest.

On arrival at the lake before the entrance, my guide designated this as the only vantage point allowing a view of all five spires of Angkor Wat, Cambodias most impressive attraction.

At last, that dream visit to the golden temples was happening, but missing was the golden glow in my mental images, suggesting another Taj Mahal.

Instead, I was knee-deep in gray ruins. I wasnt exploring just one temple. It was a maze. Stepping through one walled area brought me into another, and more followed in rapid succession.

Sacred niches held candles lighted by the faithful, in spite of the crumbling conditions. Boulders with ornate carvings lay next to a resolute tomb seemingly untouched by the decay of centuries.

In the center was the masterwork, its delicately carved spire rising high above the entire complex and surrounded by smaller spired temples at each corner.

I climbed on a ledge and surveyed this ancient wonder. Even in its dilapidated state, it elicited awe as well as admiration for those early ill-equipped artisans.

Gone was the golden image Id harbored for so long, but the real thing is every bit as impressive. 

Lost City of Angkor

Although the oldest building dates to 967, King Suryavarman II ordered the construction of Angkor Wat in the 12th century. It took 30 years to complete.

Statues of ancient warriors outside the gates at Angkor Thom.The largest edifice is Angkor Thom, where towers with giant faces guard the five entrance gates. My favorite here was the well-preserved wall of elephants, not all marching in the same direction.

At Ta Prohm, tall, healthy trees protruded eerily from the stone ruins, emphasizing centuries of neglect. In 1992, Unesco declared this a World Heritage Site. Now, archaeologists from around the globe have undertaken its restoration, a long and arduous task.

My two-day explorations ended too soon but on a high note, literally. I rode an elephant up the mountain to explore   Phnom Bakheng and view Angkor Wat at sunset.

The ride on that obliging pachyderm was an unforgettable adventure, culminating with one last ancient mystery. In the setting sun, Angkor Wats spires turned golden.

Siem Reap

This pleasant town, an hours flight from Bangkok via Bangkok Airways, serves as hotel headquarters for Angkor Wat visitors.

Numerous hotels line the airport road and cluster in the town center. Most hotel packages include guide services to the temples, but be sure that the elephant ride is added.

Other attractions: silk and basket weavers, a leather puppet workshop, open market and Tonle Sap Lake cruises (not advisable early in the year, when water is low).

The Cambodian Cultural Village offers an excellent, if somewhat Disneyesque, look at local lifestyle and history, all in one location.

The Sofitel Royal Angkor Hotel, closest to Angkor Wat, provides quiet elegance.

Its wide lawns, sensuous spa, affordable dining choices and attentive staff delivered just what I needed after a day spent climbing around the ruins.

Rack rates range from $280 to $340, including breakfast and tax. A private tour with driver, English-speaking guide, bottled water and cold towels costs $25 per full day, commissionable at 10%. Phone (800) 221-4542 or visit www.accorhotels-asia.com.

Intimate luxury in a compact setting is found at nearby Amansara Resort.  Twelve suites surround a central, grassy courtyard, with pool and deck at one end. Guest lecturers and a library provide extensive Angkor history.  Suites are $775, double, to Oct. 31, 2005, and include breakfast and lunch or dinner with wine, driver/guide and temple tours. Visit www.amanresorts.com.

Moderately priced Angkor and Princess Angkor Hotels, at the edge of town, offer comfortable accommodations at $50 to $129 per person nightly. Visit www.tourismcambodia.com.

A Cambodian visa costs $25, available at the airport. One-day Angkor passes are $20 per person, $40 for three days. Both documents require passport photos.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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