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Friday, May 25, 2007

Towers of power Ancient temples of Angkor survive jungle of Cambodia


By Jay Solmonson, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 05/25/2007 03:00:04 AM PDT



SIEM REAP, Cambodia
THE DAYS of hacking through a jungle and fending off leopards and wild elephants before entering the gates of Angkor Wat are long gone.

Most of today's visitors arrive at Angkor Wat's moat-crossing sandstone causeway by air-conditioned bus or car.

The former jungle-smothered temple deep inside Cambodia is suffocated with visitors from around the world. And that was how far my wife and I flew to join 12 friends for a mid-winter weeklong stay at a nearby guesthouse on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap, a little tourist village, is the gateway to the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the Khmer kingdom from 802 until 1295. It's abuzz with a building boom. Expensive hotels, along with more humble lodgings, are springing up all over.

Tuk-tuks, a kind of rickshaw attached to a motorcycle, are toting tourists from their lodgings to an ever-expanding collection of shops, bars and restaurants. Yet, there's still enough ramshackle charm in this relatively safe and friendly place to make a stroll along its busy sidewalks a nice diversion from temple touring.

Back alleys near the old covered market draw crowds for simple and tasty Khmer fare. Curries and stir-fries share menus with dishes only for the daring. International visitors can finda taste of home. French, Italian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese restaurants and even an Irish Bar have set up shop.

Only in the last decade or so has Cambodia

been able to safely welcome tourists. Civil wars and the Khmer Rouge regime kept tourists at bay. Even now, in the midst of a tourist boom, visitors are warned not to wander off the beaten path as Cambodia still suffers from a landmine epidemic that will haunt the country for years to come.
So for our first day of touring Angkor — a vast and mysterious complex and home to about 100 temples — we followed the crowd over Angkor Wat's moat before passing through its outer gate. There, we got our first glimpse of one of the world's greatest archeological sites. It's one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

And it is breathtaking.

Five massive beehive-like towers rise some 200 feet from the ground. The three-story temple complex, built between 1112-1153 as both a temple and a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II, encloses a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. Its imposing grandeur struck me so much that I felt compelled to bolt from the tour-guided group.

The local guide had just started a long-winded spiel about the bas-reliefs lining the walls of the esplanades. While the bas-reliefs depict fascinating stories and characters from Hindu mythology and historical wars of Suryavarman II, I was just too excited to passively plod along.

With a reluctant nod from my wife, I followed a path into the heart of the temple. In my excitement, I scrambled up a steep rock staircase leading to the top floor of the temple, without thinking of the return trip. When I looked down from the top, I caught a sudden case of vertigo.

The narrow stair treads, only inches wide and with no handrailing, made me think no way was I crawling back down. Thankfully, the 21st century temple elders have retrofitted a railing running down the backside of the monument.

Where were my friends when I needed them? They were still marching along the corridors of the temple where the king's armies have been marching for 1,000 years. I found them just in time for the guide to wrap up his talk.

The following day, we dusted off our Indiana Jones smirks and left the crowds behind. We were headed to a temple of doom called Beng Mealea. The early 11th century Hindu temple is more than an hour from Siem Reap. To get there, you have to travel over bumpy roads running through rural Cambodia where water buffalos have been slogging through rice fields since the beginning of time.

The view from our van's windows of village life amidst the jungle set the scene for the tangle of trees, towers and vines that are Beng Mealea. In the early half of the 20th century, temple and jungle enthusiasts could combine a trip to Beng Mealea with a hunting party since the region was crawling with tigers, panthers and elephants.

In 2007, the crawling is done by tourists who must clamber over huge piles of rubble to see what Mother Nature has spared.

Because of its remote location, civil wars and the Khmer Rouge regime, tourists have stayed away from this still-off-the-beaten-track ruin.

But it's worth the trip. The temple is in a raw, unrestored state where jungle vines and monster-sized tree roots hold a death-grip on what's left of the sanctuary, giving it a haunted charm. Dappled light sneaks through the jungle canopy, making the mysterious temple all the more inviting to would-be archaeologists.

Thankfully, a few carpenters made it there before we did and had fashioned ladders and bridges along with some crude walkways through the crumbling ruins.

Also present were a team of temple guides who literally held our hands as we scrambled over fallen masonry and around huge piles of rubble, climbed over walls and squeezed through windows, (just barely for some of our full-figured friends), before passing through dark passageways on a circuitous route through the temple.

Beng Mealea was the wildest temple we explored, but not the only one left in the clutches of the jungle.

A little tamer, a lot more user-friendly and far more famous and popular is Ta Prohm. Located on the main tourist route not far from Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm receives visitors by the busload. Its status, enhanced by its star turn in the film "Tomb Raider," and its photogenic appeal make it a family favorite.

The 12th-century Buddhist monastery, unlike most other Angkor temples that were painstakingly reconstructed, has been left somewhat the way it was when European explorers stumbled upon it in the late 19th century. Like Beng Mealea, its towers and walls are wrapped in an entangled embrace of tree roots. The filtered light, the shroud of the dense jungle and the labyrinthine inner sanctuary add to the mystery of the temple — until hordes of picture-snapping tourists make you want to yell "Cut!" and to tell everyone to "Take Five!" somewhere else.

But you'd better be able to yell in Korean, as the Angkorian ruins are extremely popular with Cambodia's Asian neighbors as well as with Western visitors.

Although their popularity detracts from their otherworldliness, their towers, corridors and jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks sent asunder, make the ruins worth braving the crowds.

Guidebooks differ on the count, but Ta Prohm has been popular for a long time. About 80,000 people were required to maintain the temple. It was home to priests, monks, servants and 600 or so dancers. The others lived in surrounding villages and apparently embraced the temple and supported it with supplies.

Today, many temple walls probably would collapse without the embrace of the trees holding them to each other. Man-made bracing and other structural support help as well. And the only ladies we saw dancing were carved in stone on the temples' walls.

During our weeklong stay we would visit many other temples, all fascinating, but none more beguiling than the Bayon.

The Bayon temple lies within the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom, just minutes by road from Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom was enclosed by 24 feet high walls and surrounded by a moat 100 yards wide. Snap-happy crocodiles patrolled the moat. The city, about two miles square, had five huge gates, each with a causeway crossing the moat. The 60-foot high gateways were wide enough to welcome a procession of elephants.

The court, religious leaders and officials who lived within the city walls could stand on the beautifully carved Terrace of the Leper King or the Terrace of Elephants bordering the royal plaza, and take in the passing parade. Today, visitors stand where the king once stood to take in a passing parade of a different nature.

Angkor Thom was the capital of the king's empire and apparently the love of his life. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman VII as the groom and the city as his bride, according to Wikipedia.

The city is still much loved by Cambodians and visitors alike, who come to see a variety of temples that can be seen in succession on a short stroll. And none is more beloved that the Bayon.

We were transfixed during our first visit, so much so that when our friends boarded a boat to Phnom Penh, we stayed behind to spend our last few days in Cambodia in Angkor Thom.

And in the heart of Angkor Thom lies the Bayon. Its 54 towers decorated with more than 200 enigmatic gigantic faces have been greeting visitors for hundreds of years. After studying a few of the faces, with their mellow, subdued, charming hint of a smile, we felt like old friends.

Their similarities to statues of the king have lead some scholars to conclude that they represent Jayavarman VII himself, in all his omnipresence.I have no idea what he was like, but the court sculptors portrayed him in all his tranquility. Whether it was real or imagined, whether they did it out of love or under threat, is a mystery.

In the late afternoon the temple emptied, save a few stragglers, a handful of saffron-robed monks and us. We were perched as high upon the temple walls as we could safely climb. The light of the day inched up the towers, darkening the passageways below.

The sun's warm glow swept over the sculpted faces with their downcast eyes and thick lips that curl slightly upwards at the edges reflecting the famous "smile of Angkor" — an endlessly fascinating smile on a face that has launched 1,000 tour buses.

If you go

-When to go. Cambodia has a tropical climate, so it's warm to steaming hot year around. June to October is the rainy season. November to February is the dry season, with January generally being the coolest month.

-Where to stay. Our group reserved all the rooms in Journeys Within Bed & Breakfast inn, nicely located a short cab ride from the airport and the main ruins, and a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride to downtown Siem Reap. The B&B is owned and run by a young couple, an American man and his English wife who made our stay more relaxing than I would have imagined possible.

We ate many of our meals at the B&B after cocktails around the pool. There's nothing like an Angkor beer or a medicinal gin and tonic after a day of temple touring. The inn's Web site is http://www.journeyswithin.

-Photography. Shutterbugs will be snap-happy with all the photo ops in the Angkor area. I was traveling light and only carrying a Canon Power Shot A710IS, a palm-sized point-and-shoot camera. Bring extra batteries and memory cards.

-Health concerns. Visit the Web site of the Center for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov for inoculation requirements.

-Information. Lonely Planet's guide to Cambodia is a must read. Helpful Web sites include http://www.wikipedia.org, http://www.cambypublications.com and http://www.khmernet.com. Also worth doing is googling Angkor and Siem Reap.
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Building begins on border marker with Cambodia

TAY NINH — The southern province of Tay Ninh began construction of its second border marker with Cambodia yesterday.

The marker is located in the Xa Mat-Treapen Phlong international border gate area that straddles Viet Nam’s Tay Ninh and Cambodia’s Kongpong Cham provinces.

Another marker in the Moc Bai-Ba Vet international border gate area between Tay Ninh and Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province, was the first to be built and dedicated in September of last year.

The planting of border markers comes on the heels of the Viet Nam-Cambodia Border Delimitation Treaty. — VNS.
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China Steelmakers Plan Cambodia Investment

Four Chinese steelmakers have agreed to set up a joint venture to explore and develop iron ore mines in Cambodia, seeking to improve their control over supply and pricing.

Wuhan Steel, China's fifth biggest steel mill, is leading the project with a 50 percent stake, with Shanghai-based Baosteel Group taking 20 percent, Wuhan Iron & Steel said in a notice seen Friday on its Web site.

It said Anshan Iron & Steel Group and Beijing's Shougang Iron & Steel Group would each hold 15 percent in the venture, which will explore and develop mines in Cambodia's Preah Vihear province.

The four state-owned steelmakers signed an agreement on the venture in Beijing earlier this week.

"'The steel industry has no choice but to control iron ore resources. The new venture is a strategy by steelmakers to ensure their sustained and healthy growth,"' the notice cited Li Fushun, Wuhan Steel's deputy general manager as saying.

The venture follows exploration of the area by Cambodian companies and China's National Machinery and Equipment Group that found the region may have 2.5 billion tons of iron ore reserves, Wuhan Steel said.

It did not give any financial details of the venture.

Surging Chinese demand for steel has boosted iron ore prices in recent years, prompting Chinese steel mills join forces in seeking ways to control costs.

In December, Chinese steelmakers represented by Baosteel, the country's biggest mill, agreed with major Brazilian ore producer Companhia Vale do Rio Doce SA on a 9.5 percent price increase for iron ore in 2007, down from a 19 percent benchmark price increase in the 2006 contract year and a 72 percent jump in 2005.

The Chinese steel companies have also invested in mining interests in Brazil and Australia.

China is both the world's largest consumer and producer of steel. Crude steel output rose by 19.5 percent to 423 million tons last year - about 35 percent of total production worldwide - and is forecast to climb at a similar rate to 460 million tons this year. Read more!