Beauty preserved and atrocities remembered in Cambodia

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With a population of 2 million, lively Phnom Penh, capital of once war-torn Cambodia, is a relatively small city by Asian standards. Still, there's hustle and bustle there, especially in its covered markets, warrens of stalls peddling produce, and its plethora of enchanting and historical attractions, including incomparable Angkor Wat.

The city's Royal Palace, a major complex that includes the famed Silver Pagoda, is well worth a visit. The main temple of Wat Phnom, meanwhile, is a colorful, midcity oasis. Each evening, families gather along the city's riverbanks, along with a parade of courting couples, groups of children and street vendors peddling local delicacies such as barbecued beetles and spiders.  

For less exotic fare, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia is a good bet. The club served international journalists during the reign of the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, but most patrons today appear to be tourists.

Some of the worst atrocities of Cambodia's wars took place near the capital, at Choeung Ek. A large stupa, or monument, crammed with victims' skulls is a sobering memorial to one of the darkest periods of recent world history. A visit to the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng Prison confirms the staggering human toll the Khmer Rouge exacted. 

The nearby town of Siem Reap makes its living from tourists visiting Angkor Wat. It boasts a lively market, plenty of good restaurants and luxury hotels such as the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor and the Sofitel Phokeethra Royal Angkor.

But it's Angkor, overwhelming in scale, that's the real draw. This complex of temples, lakes and canals was built by the Khmer civilization in the 12th century and was hidden by jungle growth until 1860.

It's worth arriving at Angkor Wat, the "capital temple," in time to watch the sun rise, when lotus-shaped towers are reflected in the pond near the entrance. Inside the walled compound lie myriad temples, frescoes, incredibly steep steps and a Buddhist monk or two in saffron robes.

Other beautiful temples can be found nearby. Bayon, noted for carvings of Buddha's face, is especially attractive. Ta Prohm, used in the film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," is still covered by trees; it lends an idea of what Angkor Wat must have looked like before the growth was cleared away. Other temple musts include Preah Khan, Pre Rup and the Women's Temple at Banteay Srei. 

For more information, visit the Royal Cambodian Embassy's U.S. site at www.embassyofcambodia.org/tourism.htm.

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

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