The centre of the universe

According to Hindu mythology, the uppermost temple of three at Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the hub of everything that exists. Perhaps that explains why this magnificent complex has survived the depredations of war, the Khmer Rouge and creeping jungle

At dusk, when the noise of the cicadas on the temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng fuses into a single screeching whistle, you can see, a mile away, the five towers of Angkor Wat vanishing into the shadows. It's as if the surrounding jungle which had swallowed the stupendous building for hundreds of years is once again invading the ruins.

It's a good way to end a day at Angkor, especially if earlier you have climbed one of the vertiginous 70-degree staircases which lead to the topmost of the three levels of the wat (or temple); by so doing, you have scaled a copy of the Mount Meru of Hindu mythology and reached the centre of the universe. As night falls you can contemplate the scale of your achievement.

That accomplishment becomes easier from this month, with a new flight linking the site with both Bangkok and the Thai resort of Phuket. A two- centre holiday embracing Angkor and Phuket would indeed be a blend of the sacred and fairly profane.

However you approach the place, it is important to know that there is far more to Angkor than the famous wat and its lotus-bud towers which ornament Cambodia's national flag. The main site, spread over some 80 square miles, includes about 40 temples, monasteries and terraces in varying states of preservation, forming an ensemble with few, if any, parallels on the planet. It also includes monumental walls, moats, reservoirs, gates and towers.

The long and difficult journey to the middle of Cambodia would be worthwhile just to marvel at the sculptures and reliefs that decorate the towers, exteriors and galleries of the temples. These were built between the ninth and 12th centuries, at a time when Europe was creating little to compare with the ubiquitous graceful apsaras or dancing girls, the friezes commemorating scenes from the Hindu epics, the gigantic heads at Bayon. But there is much more besides: an architecture, sometimes of labyrinthine complexity, more often of a grace and rectangular geometrical precision to take the breath away; and a romantic history of empire, decline, rediscovery, and restoration interrupted in the 1970s by the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge interlude.

The city of Angkor was for centuries the centre of a great Khmer empire, eventually defeated by the Thais in 1431. The court withdrew further south. Although experts believe Angkor was probably never entirely abandoned, the jungle claimed its temples of stone and brick (reserved for the gods) and its palaces of wood (for human use). All but fragments of the wood have vanished. But since the end of the last century, archaeologists, mostly French, have been slowly pushing back the jungle and restoring the temples.

The most astonishing of these is the wonderfully preserved 12th-century Angkor Wat, reputedly the biggest religious building in the world. Its dimensions are heroic, yet not intimidating. The lowest of the three ascending terraces measures roughly 210m by 190m, and its corridors are lined for hundreds of metres with exquisite bas-reliefs depicting, among other things, episodes from the Hindu ramayana, battle scenes and depictions of the last judgement. In places the carvings have taken on a coppery sheen where thousands of hands have caressed the stone. It's a temple of sudden unexpected courtyards, colonnades and porches. The building is so vast it can swallow without difficulty the visiting groups of Japanese, French and Germans the Angkor complex attracts.

The Ta Prohm temple is a favourite, left as it was found to show the effect of the jungle invasion on the temples. Huge white-barked kapok trees have straddled and throttled the walls and courtyards. Their tentacular roots, thick as a man's body, writhe and snake through the ruins of the temple in a curious symbiosis, choking the ruins yet keeping them upright.

Bayon is quite different again: a cluster of 54 towers on the four sides of each of which are carved enormous faces, each wearing a faint smile. No one knows who is being portrayed; some think a bodhisattva or enlightenment being; others that the face is that of one of the great kings of Angkor, Jayavarman VII.

To cover the 35-mile round trip to the temple of Bantheay Srei can take four hours in a car, or two and a half hours on the pillion of a motorcycle, along an atrocious road . But it should, if possible, be undertaken as early as possible in the morning to avoid the tour groups. The feathery carvings in pink sandstone which cover the temple buildings are of exquisite precision and wonderfully preserved.

It would be easy to spend five days at the site but to avoid cultural overload, a side trip is recommended to the fishing village at the Tonle Sap lake (the biggest stretch of fresh water in southeast Asia, which swells and contracts like a lung according to the season). Here the community lives on the water; floating houses, schools and even a police station. It helps to like the smell of drying fish.

A visit to Angkor does require some stamina. The heat and humidity can be oppressive, which is good reason for an early start with a siesta in the middle of

the day, and for planning a trip during the dry season which runs from November to March. A certain amount of clambering and climbing is involved; visitors planning to make it to the top of Angkor Wat would do well to leave their vertigo at home. Going up the steep, shallow steps is one thing; coming down quite another. Be prepared, too, for the hordes of persistent children at each site, pressing on you T-shirts, wooden flutes, film, postcards, cold drinks and other essentials.

A certain amount of homework on Hindu and Buddhist history, mythology, cosmology and cosmogony is helpful - but if when you arrive you do not know the significance of the figure 108, the difference between a garuda and a gopura, and what happened when the Ocean of Milk was churned, you should by the time you leave.

The site is served by the pleasant nearby town of Siem Reap ( "the Siamese have been defeated"), strung out along the river of the same name which flows into the Tonle Sap lake. Even during the 18 months since my previous visit, the town has changed; pavements have been laid along the streets bordering the river and street lighting introduced.

New bars and guesthouses have opened and several hotels are under construction - a welcome development as rooms are expensive by the standards of the region and competition might drive down prices. By contrast, an excellent meal can be had for pounds 3 or pounds 4 a head - Cambodian food is blander than Thai, the emphasis on soups - though a couple of pint bottles of local Angkor beer could double the cost. Nightlife varies from the cultural, with exhibitions of classical dancing, to the fairly seedy.

There is one final trip to be made before leaving Siem Reap. It is hard to find, but signs eventually lead to a shack which proclaims itself to be the landmine museum. Cambodia is seeded with mines, the legacy of the Khmer Rouge period and decades of fighting. Clearing them will take years and their mutilated victims, begging on the streets, are grim evidence of the problem. The museum displays the various types of mine still buried in the country's fertile soil - from Russia, China, the United States, Iran and Iraq among others. If the temples of Angkor represent one of the summits of the creative genius of the human race, the landmine museum is a reminder of what else it can do.

fact file

Getting there

Reaching Siem Reap has become easier in recent years with the opening of a direct (though expensive) air service from Bangkok and, this month, Phuket.

For a return flight from London via the Thai capital to Siem Reap, expect to pay around pounds 650. It may be cheaper to find a flight to Phnom Penh, for example on Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur; Quest Worldwide (0181- 547 3322) has a fare of pounds 554 return for travel in January.

From Phnom Penh you can fly or take the express boat to Siem Reap. The boat takes about five hours. Even a couple of years ago there were doubts about the safety of the boats, with reports that they were periodically attacked by pirates and fishermen, but the fast services at least now seem secure enough. Overland journeys are not recommended.

Visiting the site:

Angkor is best visited either by car or on the back of a motorcycle - costs run at about pounds 12 and pounds 5 a day respectively. Entry costs pounds 12 for a single day, pounds 24 for three days, and pounds 36 for five days. There is a fine of pounds 18 if one of the uniformed guards at the major temples finds you without your ticket, which is punched each day to prevent the widespread fraud alleged to have taken place in the past.

The services of a guide will cost another pounds 12 a day.

Foreign Office advice:

"The security situation has improved over the last year. However, dangers remain. We advise visitors to keep to major urban areas and tourist sites and be aware of the risk of kidnapping.

"Banteay Srei Temple in the Angkor complex, Siem Reap, is now accessible, but we advise against visiting other outlying temples.

For the latest advice, contact the British embassy in Phnom Penh (00 855 23 427124) or e-mail BRITEMB@bigpond.com.kh

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