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 …