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March 30, 2011

WAT’S THIS? HOW ANGKOR WAS LOST AND FOUND


David Ellis

LOSING the keys to the house is one thing, but it's another thing altogether to lose the house as well – plus a whole community of hundreds of farms, trading markets and even palaces and temples that once spread over 400 square kilometres.

Yet that's exactly what happened when the old Cambodian capital of Angkor was sacked by the raiding Ayutthaya people of then-Siam (now Thailand) in 1431, and Angkor's entire population fled 315km to the safety of what is now Phnom Penh.

Behind them they left what had been the world's largest pre-industrial city whose kings influenced a vast area extending as far afield as Vietnam, China and the Bay of Bengal.

But surprisingly Angkor's raiders had little interest in occupying the city after their attack and retreated back to their homeland, leaving the now-abandoned community of timber buildings – that included Angkor's palace that was of wooden construction – to decay into the jungle in the damp of the tropical humidity and seasonal monsoons.

All that is, except for a vast temple complex that had somehow been built of stone, and which was surrounded by a moat which provided a ring of protection from the encroaching jungle.

For centuries Angkor lay forgotten in the jungle. A few wandering Buddhist monks stumbled upon the vast temples as they sought-out jungle communities for conversion from the Hindu to their own faith, and based on their tales it wasn't long before many myths and legends began to arise about "the lost temple in the jungle."

One of the first western monks to see the temples was the Portuguese Antonio da Magdalena in 1586, and he was so astonished at what he'd stumbled upon that he wrote: "It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen… it is like no other building in the world (and has) towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of."

But it was in 1860 that the French explorer Henri Mouhot came upon the temple, and it was his reports on his return to France that led to a whole new interest – particularly after he wrote romantically for a French newspaper that  "the lost temple rivals that of Solomon and (was) erected by some ancient Michelangelo…"

Coincidentally the French government adopted Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and following the extraordinary world-wide interest in Mouhot's reports about the Angkor temples, decided upon a restoration program for the jungle complex whose first buildings were created in AD802.

That restoration work still continues today on the more-than 100 temples that make-up the 81ha complex of Angkor Wat (Angkor means City and Wat means Temple,) and which draw more than one-million visitors a year.

There are few restrictions on where visitors may roam, but those in the know say it's impossible to fully understand the complex and its extraordinary architectural detail without the help of a well-versed local guide.

And it's also worth getting away from the actual stone temple complex and taking a bit of a jungle walk into where the original city of Angkor once surrounded the temples, as whilst all the buildings have long gone it's still possible to find outlines of some of the original streets.

As well, the neighbouring town of Siem Reap that's developed on the back of Angkor Wat is a bustling hive of activity and a fascinating second face of this part of Cambodia. It's got plentiful accommodation from simple guesthouses to five-star resorts, and good-value restaurants and lively nightlife activities are not hard to find – particularly along the aptly-named Pub Street.

And a must-do is a cold drink on a hot day in the classic art deco bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club near the Royal Palace, a former governor's mansion overlooking the Siem Reap River and now part of the luxury FCC Angkor Hotel.

GETTING THERE: Specialist Indochina tour operator Wendy Wu Tours has three- and four-day land only packages which take in the Angkor Wat temples and Siem Reap. They include accommodation and some meals, airport transfers, private touring with local English-speaking guides and entrance fees, and cost from $290 to $475 per person twin share.

For more detail contact Wendy Wu Tours 1300-727-998, visit www.wendywutours.com.au or see travel agents.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] ANGKOR Wat from the air: lost and found.

[] EXTRAORDINARY jungle discovery that greeted first European monks and explorers.

[] FINE detail of many of the thousands of individual items comprising the remarkable Angkor Wat temple complex.

[] YOU've got to be fit to explore some parts of the temples.

[] CONTRASTING architecture: the Foreign Correspondents Club in nearby Siem Reap is a former governor's mansion and a good spot for a cold drink on a hot day.

Photos: Wendy Wu Tours and David Baker

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