Tomb Raiders Inc.

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January 16th 2007
Published: January 24th 2007
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South GateSouth GateSouth Gate

Angkor Thom's imposing southern entrance is flanked by rows of human and animal guardians. © L. Birch 2007
If the years under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia’s darkest hour, Angkor Wat was undoubtedly its finest. Cambodian’s talk with great pride about their ancient city and with good reason for it is easily one of the world’s great wonders.

Angkor was almost unknown to the western world until it was ‘discovered’ - lost in the Cambodian jungle - by the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot in the 1860s. Over time, Angkor was gradually reclaimed from the clutches of nature and finally awarded World Heritage status in 1992.

Such is the nation’s pride in its ancient monuments that images of Angkor appear everywhere. You will see them on banknotes, adorning the national flag, on souvenirs and even on beer labels. So it was inconceivable that we would come to Cambodia and leave without seeing its greatest achievement. Indeed, we had been looking forward to visiting Cambodia’s ‘lost city’ ruins ever since we first began planning our trip.

A Little Bit of History

Angkor’s period of architectural and cultural dominance lasted for more than 600 years from 802 AD to 1432. At its height, the kingdom’s influence reached far into the present day countries
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Completed in 1150AD, The temple complex of Angkor wat was - and remains - the Kingdom's greatest achievement. © L. Birch 2007
of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam where several Angor-era temples can still be found (we had visited those at Chempasak in Laos only recently. See the entry titled “The Four Thousand Islands”). But like all great empires, the eventual fall of Angkor came about as a result of an increasing number of wars with its neighbours, the Siamese and the Champa. With its resources almost depleted, Angkor finally fell to the Siamese after a fierce battle in 1432. Some time later, the Khmer capital was relocated to a site just north of present day Phnom Penh.

Meanwhile, though still in use, Angkor was largely forgotten; its temples allowed to crumble, the extensively cleared jungle to regrow. The once opulent and splendid kingdom faded into memory and was eventually swallowed up and ‘lost’ beneath a canopy of trees.

Tomb Raiders Inc.

After a relaxed Christmas with friends at Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s south coast, we made our way north to Siem Reap. There were stops at Kampot, a small provincial capital with decaying French architecture and Kep, a former seaside town once favoured by the French elite as an escape from life in the city. Abandoned during the rise of
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An abandoned villa in Kep still displays the scars of Cambodia's long years of civil war. © L. Birch 2007
the Khmer Rouge and the resulting civil war, Kep became a ghost town. Today, its few remaining colonial villas still bear the scars of war - the empty buildings pockmarked by shellfire and riddled with bullet holes.

Siem Reap, 6 hrs to the north of Phnom Penh, was a dusty boomtown that had prospered due to its lucky proximity to Angkor. Like everyone else visiting Angkor, we based ourselves in Siem Reap staying at a cheap hotel in the old French quarter of town. To visit the ruins - which cover a large area to the north of Siem Reap - we hired the services of a tuk-tuk driver, negotiating a fee for the three days we planned to spend touring the remains. Half an hour of patient bargaining reduced the original asking price of $US15 per day to $10, with a free Angkor sunset thrown in on the first day. For $30, we had the exclusive use of the tuk-tuk and driver from 7.00am each morning until we returned exhausted each evening to our hotel for a shower and much needed meal.

Our driver’s name was Satsia. His parents, he told us sadly, had been “killed by
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Touring the ruins by remorque-moto... was an extremely pleasent way of getting around. © L. Birch 2007
Pol Pot”, but despite this, he always had a ready smile and was eager to please. At my frequent requests to “stop here for five minutes please”, Satsia would obligingly pull over and wait, chatting with Viv, while I dashed off in order to take a particular photo. Sometimes, I was gone for considerably longer than five minutes. It happened so often that Satsia, grinning broadly, ended up christening me “Mr Five Minute!”

The tuk-tuk - actually a remorque-moto, a small carriage pulled by a motorcycle - was an extremely pleasant way to get around and considerably less strenuous than the cheaper option of cycling. It also gave us more flexibility. The ‘Big 3’ that everyone wanted to see were the temple complexes of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and - to a lesser degree - Ta Phrom. Arriving early at these sites was the key, moving on as the package tour crowds began to appear in ever increasing numbers form around 9.30am onwards. These days, you couldn’t expect to have the temples to yourself but there were many, away from the busy tourist circuit, where you could still feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft - stumbling across an
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Decorate the soaring towers of the Bayon temple, Angkor Thom. © L. Birch 2007
overgrown temple like some latter-day tomb raider. Satsia rose even higher in my estimation when he told us that he had starred as an extra in the recent Lara Croft film - “Tomb Raider” that was set in and around Angkor.

Although he wasn’t able to take us to see Angkor Thom’s “Death Gate” - still buried in the jungle and largely inaccessible - we were able to see Ta Phrom, which also featured in the film. Unlike many other Angkorian temples, Ta Phrom has been left pretty much as it was when it was first discovered and still retains that quintessential ‘Lost City’ feel. Huge trees grow among the disordered blocks of this sprawling temple complex, their roots looping and coiling over the ruins like groping fingers. Above it all can be heard the ever present sounds of the jungle; the insects, the cicadas with their loud, buzz saw songs and the parakeets that chatter noisily in the trees overhead.

Aside for Ta Phrom, we also enjoyed exploring the Bayon with its 216 gigantic carved stone faces, the lesser temples of Angkor Thom and our top favourite site - Preah Khan. Similar in both the way it
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Encircle ruins at Ta Phrom in a vice-like grip. © L. Birch 2007
looks and feels to Ta Phrom, Preah Khan is bigger and in slightly better condition - a maze of vaulted corridors, secret courtyards and delicately carved stonework. And being off the main tour circuit, it was also a lot less busy.

At Preah Khan and at many of the lesser known temples that lie further out, you really could feel like a Howard Carter, a Henri Mouhot or any of the other members of ‘Tomb Raiders Inc.’ - an intrepid explorer discovering the remains of a lost city, deep in the jungles of Cambodia.

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Additional photos below
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Viv enters the imposing inner courtyard at Ta Phrom where huge trees have taken firm root among the ruins. © L. Birch 2007
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Jungle trees grow upon the temple mound at Preah Palilay. © L. Birch 2007
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Preah Khan

Where it's still possible to stumble across a forgotten corner like some latterday Tomb Raider. © L. Birch 2007

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