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Sep 18, 2008

Angkor Wat: scale and majesty

Queenstown-based Southland Times reporter Will Hine, working in Cambodia for three months, details what tourism means in a country bereft of bungy jumps, but teeming with temples.

Living in Queenstown, and for that matter New Zealand, it is easy to forget that tourism drawcards extend beyond untouched wilderness and adventure activities.

Indeed, the modus operandi of Southern Lakes operators — take money from person, make them scream, receive their thanks, move on to next person — seems quite bizarre when viewed from afar.

Here in Cambodia, tourism is temples. Specifically, the ancient temples of Angkor, which draw about 1 million people a year.

I became one of the horde (a hordee?) last weekend, when I visited Angkor, and the nearby city of Siam Reap.

A four-hour bus ride north-west of the capital Phnom Penh, the temples formed the heart of a Khmer empire which comprised 1 million people, and are spread over 700 square miles of jungle.

Actually, tropical forest might be a slightly more suitable description than jungle, but there are snakes, and I saw one, and it was thrilling, so it's jungle. Okay? The many hundreds of structures, some built 1200 years ago, range from small ruins to the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat.

Even today, in the age of malls and airports and the base building at Coronet Peak, Angkor Wat is large; back in the 12th century when it was constructed, it must have been gargantuan.

The wat's moat alone, 200m wide, puts those of medieval castles to shame, while its stone walls stretch for 3.6km.

However, the temple is not only notable for its scale; up close, the walls of the inner sanctum are decorated with intricate relief carvings which stretch for hundreds of metres.

Set in the middle of such sweeping grounds, and of a design which fails to age, the central temple has a presence and beauty that postcards cannot easily do justice to.

While a visit to Angkor Wat would be worth the effort alone, other temples at Angkor are just as mesmerising in their own ways.

At Ta Prohm, towering jungle engulfs the ancient ruins in enormous sinewy root systems.

Half of Japan rolled up in buses for a gander while I was visiting, and though the group was annoying with its incessant chatter and pushiness, it was easy to see what they had come for.

L IKE a sea of anacondas strangling their prey to death, a forest of trees ensnared the temple in a deathly vice over centuries of neglect, only to be rediscovered by explorers in the middle of the 19th century.

The effect is gob-smacking.

Indeed, so perfectly arranged are the vines, flying buttresses and temple masonry that a scene from the movie Tomb Raider was filmed there.

At another temple, Bayon, 216 large faces carved into 54 columns eerily peer down on visitors from all angles.

Angkor is not without its flaws.

There are large crowds throughout the year, but they can be avoided if a trip is well-planned and well-timed.

And for those less agile or brave, some of the temples will be inaccessible — near-vertical and uneven steps mean a foot out of place could easily result in a visit to the mortuary.

There are also large numbers of children hawking souvenirs and drinks, who border on being pushy, but a healthy dose of patience should be enough to survive them.

Pushing all that aside however, you would be hard-pushed to find a destination more extraordinary in its ambition, scale and majesty than Angkor.

For me, the visit delivered a realisation of sorts.

Queenstown should enjoy its years revelling in bungy jumping and jetboating and skiing, and appreciate its ephemeral popularity for what it is.

Because in 900 years, it will be but a speck in history, while Angkor and her temples continue to endure.

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