Getting lost in a jungle beauty
THERE'S one thing very difficult to find around Cambodia's Angkor Wat - solitude.
The world's largest religious site attracts about 1.6 million visitors a year.
The symbol of Cambodia, and sometimes known as the eighth Wonder of the World, Angkor Wat appears on the national flag and currency - even a beer.
It is the nation's No.1 tourism destination (Angkor means capital and wat means temple).
Lines of mostly Chinese, Korean and Thai tourists - and an increasing number of Australians and New Zealanders - swarm over the amazing thousand-year-old site and the 100 or so other temples spread across many square kilometres.
This is the heartland of the ancient Khmer empire which reigned from the 9th to 13th centuries.
Abandoned in the 16th century, the Angkor temples were buried in thick jungle until the 1800s when their heritage - and tourist value - was recognised.
Since then dozens of temples are slowly being rescued from the enveloping jungle and restored, stone by stone.
More recently, the area was surrounded by landmines from the infamous Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s (signs warn you not to wander off the main roads and tracks).
The story of the Angkor temples is really the story of a long-running battle between Thai invaders and the local Khmer people, and a complex mingling of Hindu and Buddhist religions.
The temple ruins are the rich and remarkable remnants of successive Angkorian capitals which stood for half a millennium and reflected the pinnacle of ancient Khmer architecture, art and civilisation.
They are the products not only of kingly egos keen to leave their heritage but also tributes to the tens of thousands of skilled workers who cut and dragged many thousands of tonnes of sandstone from afar and carved the stories and images into them.
Since the temples are spread over a large area - often kilometres apart and too far for most to make foot travel a good option - you'll need transport.
You can't see all the temples. So, choose the ones you really must see and plan your visit.
You can ride a bicycle, an elephant or the popular tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a two-seater trailer attached.
The temple of Angkor Wat is, of course, what most people want to see.
One kilometre square, it is visually breathtaking. An enormous, three-tiered pyramid is crowned by five lotus-like towers.
It is especially popular at dawn when hundreds gather around the lily pond, cameras at the ready, to watch the rising sun play light games with the temple.
Built between 1113 and 1150 Angkor Wat is a massive marvel of carved stone blackened with lichen and age.
Its colonnaded lower gallery is carved with extensive bas-reliefs showing stories and characters from Hindu mythology, as well as the wars of King Suryavarman.
Beyond are steep stairs leading to elaborate towers and flanking rooms which served as libraries.
The other must-see temple is Banyon. This temple is an archaeological wonder of symmetry and grandeur half a kilometre away from Angkor Wat.
Its giant, moss-covered stone faces on each of its 37 towers have become the most-recognised images of the temples.
Angkor Thom is a three kilometre walled and moated royal city. It is notable for being one of the best of Angkor's temples and for its five gates, each crowned with four giant faces.
One of my favourite temples is Ta Prohm because of the way it has been overgrown by surrounding jungle, only some of which has been cleared.
It has deliberately been left untouched, except for the clearing of pathways.
You get a real feel for what other temples must have been like before they were partly restored.
Massive fig and silk-cotton trees have enveloped the temple. Root systems grow from towers and corridors.
Fallen pillars and piles of huge sandstone blocks litter the temple grounds (scenes from the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider were shot here).
It is virtually standing with the help of massive jungle growth, its sandstone structure locked in the muscular embrace of giant vines.
Attempts to remove anything would probably mean Ta Prohm would crumble.
Cambodia's nearby great lake, Tonle Sap, is worth a half day visit. It is one of the richest sources of freshwater fish in the world.
Head for Kampong Khleang, one of a number of fishing villages around the lake for a unique insight into a lakeside fishing community.
The village comprises a forest of stilted houses built 10 metres above ground to escape the lake when it rises in the wet season.
We're taken by boat out onto the lake to see a floating community where everything needed for a waterborne life - including farm animals - floats.
* The writer visited Siem Reap with the help of Helen Wong's Tours
GOOD TO KNOW
Helen Wong's Tours has a 13-day tour departing Siem Reap with 12 nights' accommodation in 3-4-star hotels, daily breakfast, 11 lunches and 8 dinners. Sightseeing and entry fees. English-speaking guide starting at $A2869.
You can find more information at helenwongstours.com.
You'll need to buy a pass for the park. They are sold in one-day ($US20), three-day ($US40) and seven-day ($US60) tickets. Three days is needed to comfortably see the most famous temples.
Although the Riel is the country's currency, the US dollar is widely accepted.
A two-person motorcycle trailer, a tuk-tuk, can be had for about $US15 a day (a guide will cost another $US25 a day).
For an aerial view of Angkor Wat, you can take a 200-metre high ride in a tethered hot air balloon, about a half kilometre away from the temple.