ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA
Although the trees that surround Angkor have been tamed, it is still possible to imagine how this ancient city was “lost” to the outside world for centuries until the French explorer Henri Mahout discovered it smothered in the jungle in 1860.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer civilization, which spanned some 500 years, until it was sacked by Thai invaders in 1431. It reached its zenith in the 12th century, first with the building of the temple that came to be known as Angkor Wat and later with the construction of Angkor Thom, a royal city-within-a-city.
The temple was built by King Suryavarman II as a representation of Mount Meru, the mythical holy centre of Hinduism. Sorrounded by a large moat bridged by a stone causeway, it is a west-facing rectangular stone structure comprising three levels. The uppermost level, formerly open only to priests and the king, is topped with four corner towers and a central sanctuary 65 metres from the ground. Originally devoted to the Hindu god Shiva, the temple later became a Wat, or Buddhist monastery, and is now accepted as a spiritual monument by the predominantly Buddhist Cambodians. Images of the Buddha can be found among its vaulted galleries.
Even after more than 800 years of plundering and erosion the carvings of Angkor Wat remain exquisite and the wealth of detail is bewildering. Galleries of bas-reliefs - the longest in the world - depict scenes from the Hindu religious epic, the Mahabharata, battle scenes from Khmer history and warnings about the tortures of hell.
The temple is best seen in the golden light of early morning when the rays of the sun pick out the apsaras (celestial nymphs) carved into its walls, seeming to breathe life into them. Amid the quiet beauty, it is hard to imagine that this place was one of the final refuges of the notorious Khmer Rouge communist movement - until you notice scars from the impact of bullets on the stone of the building.
Direct flights from Bangkok in Thailand have made the temples of Angkor more accessible, and they are now visited by more tourists than ever. Most tend to gather at the north poollo phulograph the reflections of the rising sun, but those seeking peace and tranquillity should head straight to the principal sanctuary ut Angkor Wat. This is reached by one of four flights of steep and worn stairs, signifying just how difficult and arduous is the path to heaven. It was once the exclusive preserve of Hindu priests, but now you too can have it to yourself - providing you get there early enough.
The top level of Angkor Wat seems to have been designed for the sunrise. Golden fingers slide through the unique, stone-pillared windows and illuminate details that quickly recede in the brilliant light of the day, and some of the most beautiful apsaras - which can be found in the central sanctuary - are uncovered by the rising sun, only to be hidden in shadow again just 20 minutes later.
It can sometimes be half an hour before the first few explorers from the sunrise party reach here. Most don't bother; they go back to their hotels for breakfast, and return here later in the day, when the sun is intense and energy-sapping, and the atmosphere far from spiritual.
Other parts of the Angkor complex not to be missed are the Bayon and Ta Prohm. Built later than Angkor Wat, the Bayon is a small temple covered with giant, impassive stone faces reminiscent of Lord Buddha, and perhaps marking the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism in the Khmer civilization. Ta Prohm is a largely ruined temple complex, with roots of banyan and kapok trees growing out of the stonework - and sometimes so much a part of it that neither would survive any attempt at separation.
Siem Reap. the nearest town to Angkor (10 km awayl. can be reached by plane from Bangkok, Thailand (Bangkok Airways has several flights a day in both directions} or from the Cambodian capital. Phnom Penh. Alternatively, you can get there by boat across Tonle Sap. This lake trip takes most of the day but is an interesting journey. A wide range of accommodation is available in Siem Reap, from inexpensive guest houses to the exclusive hotels.
Tickets for the ruins can be bought for one, three or seven days. Three days is a good amount of time.