Savage Beauty; the Temples of Angkor Wat Are Not Just a Reminder of Cambodia's Troubled Past, but a Beacon of Hope for Its Future

Article excerpt

Byline: TREMAYNE CAREW POLE

I HAVE been fascinated by Cambodia ever since watching Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields at the age of 12.

The country's past has been turbulent, to say the least: from an empire that spanned most of South-East Asia between the 10th and 12th centuries, to a totalitarian death camp in the 20th century.

In recent years, Cambodia has repeatedly been in the news, whether through the McCartneys' charity fundraisers for landmine clearance or via journalists investigating what has become a playground for paedophiles. But it is also a country brimming with beauty and hope for the future.

Tourism has played a big part, with the temples of Angkor Wat the main attraction.

This beautiful temple-and-city complex formed the heart of the 12th-century Khmer empire that stretched through modern-day Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It is thought that up to a million people lived here, at a time when London was populated by little more than 40,000.

The magnificent ruins fuse elements of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, mythology and beliefs into vast monuments adorned by benevolent faces of the god kings that smile enigmatically.

Angkor Wat's modern history is as fascinating as its ancient beginnings.

During the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the temples were used as bases, hospitals, prisons and garrisons by the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge alike. This is borne witness to by the bullet holes that pepper the outside walls of Angkor Wat and the destruction within.

My father, who visited the temples in the Sixties, remembers the wealth of sculptures, the serene Buddhas, the armed Hindu deities and intricately carved basreliefs.

Many are still intact, though too much has been destroyed. The Khmer Rouge, fuelled by Marxist-Maoist antireligious rhetoric, performed hideous acts of destruction, demolishing temple stupas with hand grenades and decapitating statues with machetes.

Some of the smaller outlying temples were torn to pieces and the immaculately carved stone used to build roads and houses. Much restoration is now taking place, as archaeologists from all over the world try to reconstruct many of the holy shrines based on images from libraries.

Others, however, such as Ta Prohm, have been swallowed up by the jungle, the roots of ancient trees twisting through the decaying edifices.

Siem Reap is now the main tourist hub from which to explore the Angkor region -

accommodation ranges from backpacker dorms to the style and elegance of La Residence d'Angkor, a hotel newly acquired by the Orient Express group (020 7960 0500, www.orient-express.com).

This relatively new city is developing a style that the god kings would have approved of: high quality resorts have opened up in the shape of the Foreign Correspondents Club (00 855 63760 280, www.fcccambodia.com), a truly colonial experience, and the wonderfully indulgent Shinta Mani Spa (00 855 63761 998, www. …

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