Travel: Angkor: a magic kingdom to die for

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The Independent Travel
FEW JOURNEYS begin so inauspiciously as the trip to Angkor. The Antonov 24 is a propellor aircraft built about the same time as the Berlin Wall. Well after the end of its natural life, this aviation-disaster- waiting-to-happen is still shuttling tourists between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the airport in northwest Cambodia that serves the ancient city of Angkor. The fare for this dismal and distressing 45-minute flight is pounds 65. The cockpit is crammed with about a dozen functionaries, and the route appears to be selected by this steering committee rather than by the pilot alone. The erratic journey is enlivened by a thick fog emitting from the entrails of the air-conditioning, but the end justifies the means of transport.

To witness Angkor rising from the somnolent jungle is to forget instantly any fear of flying. Prose cannot do justice to this glorious city, centred on the world's greatest religious building.

The city was hewn out of the jungle a thousand years ago, using the enormous wealth and sheer genius of the Khmer kingdom. Khmer culture and civilisation was ascendant in Asia, probably in the world, and its structures were commensurately grandiose.

In the end its ambition was self- defeating; the building programme depleted the kingdom's resources and weakened its defences. Thai invaders captured Angkor in 1431 and the magnificent capital was abandoned. The complex was rediscovered earlier this century by French archaeologists. Most of the sites have been freed from the encroaching jungle, but one has been left as they found it.

Angkor Thom was the heart of the Khmer kingdom. In the 12th century it was probably the world's most populous city, with perhaps a million inhabitants. In 1993 it is almost deserted. A few tourists are pursued half-heartedly by some charmingly unambitious soft-drink salespeople, while a thousand cicadas disrupt the relative solitude.

At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon: a sandstone pyramid built in single-minded celebration of the Buddhist god Avalokitesvara, whose countless smiling visages grin from every surface of the tower.

Angkor Wat is the product of an altogether more magnificent obsession. This religious edifice has maintained its massive supremacy for a millennium. It has no equal. Imagine St Paul's or St Peter's being merely the inner core of a much grander temple, and you begin to understand the scale of Angkor Wat.

The approach is a broad causeway that serves to prepare you for the magnificence within. The heart of Angkor Wat is wrapped in a half-mile long bas-relief, depicting the great moments of Khmer history. Within the walls, a hierarchy of towers climaxes in an Oriental explosion of subtlety and extravagance.

But six centuries after reaching the apex of achievement, Khmer society had deteriorated to Year Zero - the total demolition of civilisation. The Khmer Rouge have defiled the site. The heads of countless statues have been severed and sold abroad to finance Pol Pot's guerrilla war. Lethal land mines have been laid around the complex. Mines are maiming some 30 people a day in Cambodia.

A visit to Angkor is an extremely dangerous proposition, given the proximity of the Khmer Rouge insurgents. One can only hope that the day will soon come when the only challenge will be to summon the words to write home about it.

(Photograph omitted)

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