Angkor shades Pompeii

Ex­plor­ing the Cam­bo­dian ru­ins left Euro­pean equiv­a­lents in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dust.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

I’m walk­ing through the dense Cam­bo­dian jun­gle in search of an­cient ru­ins. The no­tion sounds ro­man­tic, un­til you re­alise that once upon a time the an­i­mal king­dom had a board meet­ing and de­cided to base al­most every­thing that could kill you in Cam­bo­dia. Think pan­thers, bears, tigers, taran­tu­las, scor­pi­ons, snakes – plus add a bit of malaria and dengue fever mos­qui­toes for good mea­sure.

Not to men­tion the odd land­mine left from the bru­tal Pol Pot regime.

At this point, I’m try­ing to chan­nel my in­ner In­di­ana Jones (and quite ap­pro­pri­ately, be­cause parts of The Tem­ple of Doom was ac­tu­ally filmed here). But in re­al­ity, if I had a bee­keeper’s suit handy, I’d prob­a­bly be wear­ing it.

Our tuk tuk driver, who wanted to show us a tem­ple deep in the jun­gle, is try­ing to re­as­sure us that most of the things that will kill us don’t ac­tu­ally live in the Angkor Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park, a sprawl­ing Unesco World Her­itage pro­tected site with more than 1000 tem­ples.

But just in case, our guide is wear­ing his Cam­bo­dian safety boots – also known as Jan­dals. A great com­fort.

Af­ter a 15-minute walk, an in­cred­i­ble sight emerges – an an­cient tem­ple de­cay­ing in the for­est. Over the cen­turies it has slowly suc­cumbed to the jun­gle and now lies half cov­ered in trees, roots and moss.

There’s not a tourist in sight and not one sign of moder­nity. It’s as if we dis­cov­ered it.

What’s most re­mark­able about the Tem­ples of Angkor is the sheer size and num­ber of them. An Aus­tralian study mapped the jun­gle floor of the Angkor re­gion us­ing lasers from a he­li­copter. The ground­break­ing re­search picked up an­cient pat­terns in the earth’s sur­face that would have been ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems, roads, dams and even gar­dens.

The study con­cluded the city – once the cap­i­tal of the Kh­mer Em­pire which ruled huge swathes of South East Asia – was much big­ger than first thought.

It could have been home to a mil­lion peo­ple and was likely the largest prein­dus­trial city in the world.

To­day, the main sign of that is hun­dreds of scat­tered tem­ples, most of which haunt­ingly sit in a state of ruin.

The star at­trac­tion is the famed Angkor Wat tem­ple, re­puted to be built by 300,000 labour­ers us­ing 6000 ele­phants. It’s the largest re­li­gious mon­u­ment in the world; the com­plex has a land size five times big­ger than the Vat­i­can, an area equal to roughly 160 rugby fields.

The down­side to its fame is that thou­sands of peo­ple swarm the Hin­du­turned-Bud­dhist tem­ple from sun­rise to sun­set.

Com­bine loud crowds with jun­gle heat, and it’s not al­ways a pleas­ant at­mos­phere.

But with hun­dreds of tem­ples to choose from, it’s easy to find other spec­tac­u­lar scenes with­out any tourists; es­pe­cially dur­ing the mon­soon sea­son when visi­tor num­bers are at their low­est.

The Angkor tem­ples sit just a short dis­tance from the re­gion’s cap­i­tal, Siem Reap, an ever-bustling hub that ac­com­mo­dated most of the two mil­lion peo­ple who vis­ited the Angkor ru­ins last year.

An in­cred­i­ble fig­ure when you con­sider that in the mid-1990s just 7500 peo­ple vis­ited.

The streets of Siem Reap are lined with chic restau­rants and carts sell­ing lo­cal del­i­ca­cies.

You’ll find every­thing from sticky rice to fried river snakes or even taran­tu­las.

While it’s a vi­brant at­mos­phere, the in­creased tourism is putting huge stress on in­fras­truc­ture.

The tem­ples are sus­tain­ing wear and tear with mil­lions of foot­steps, and Siem Reap is strug­gling with wa­ter, sewage and elec­tric­ity to cope with the in­flux of peo­ple.

So if you think Angkor is an undis­cov­ered gem of South East Asia – there are two mil­lion rea­sons you’re a bit late to the party. But, that’s not to say you shouldn’t visit.

For me, ex­plor­ing the Angkor ru­ins left Rome and Pompeii in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dust. It re­ally should be on your bucket list – just get there soon be­fore we’re talk­ing five or 10 mil­lion visi­tors pil­ing into the ru­ins each year. Last year Brook Sabin and his part­ner Radha Engling quit their jobs and sold every­thing to travel. Each week Ki­wis in Flight takes you on their ad­ven­tures. See

Cam­bo­dia has some of the world’s best an­cient sights­but as Ki­wis Brook Sabin and Radha Engling found, you’d bet­ter get in quick.

PHO­TOS: BROOK SABIN

Mil­lions of peo­ple visit Angkor Wat each year, with a huge in­crease of visi­tors re­ported from China.

Siem Reap’s Pub Street has dozens of cheap eater­ies.

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