Siem Reap, where heaven did wait

Times Staff Writer

Kicking up dust in the sleepy streets of the old French quarter of this improbable boomtown, I was thinking more about lunch than about the temples that had brought me here.

Inside a bright, cluttered restaurant, the manager clasped his hands to his chin and bowed. Then he asked whether I had a moment to help his niece with her English and whether I would like a glass of good Italian red wine. I said yes and yes.

I checked out the menu, feeling somewhat guilty about taking a pass on the authentic Cambodian dishes and ordering what I really craved: a ratatouille pizza smothered with tomatoes, mozzarella, eggplant, onions, zucchini and bell peppers.

"Would you like some marijuana with that?" the manager asked.

"Marjoram," I thought. "He means marjoram" -- an herb in the oregano family. It would have been rude to correct him and a faux pas to stop him as he sprinkled a tablespoonful of the reddish-brown powder on my pizza.

As I polished off the pizza, one of the best I'd ever had, he said, "Last time I tried that, I slept for three days."

I paid for my lunch ($6), and he thanked me and gave me a complimentary T-shirt with a huge happy face and the restaurant's name and phone number on the front and back. I took a motorbike taxi back to my hotel, the Sofitel Plaza Angkor. Back in my room, my legs began to wobble, and I decided to lie down for a minute or two. When I awoke, it was the next morning, and my guide to Angkor Wat was calling me from the lobby.

A trip to the temples

Angkor Wat is the largest complex of religious buildings in the world and, by most standards, the most beautiful. The temples, Hindu and Buddhist, were built between the 9th and 13th centuries in northwestern Cambodia by early rulers of the Khmer kingdom.

I had dreamed of visiting the temples here since reading about them as a child, but for years, it was a dream that was impossible to fulfill.

The Vietnam War, the bloody years of Khmer Rouge rule, the seizure by Vietnam, a 1993 peace that turned sour, all this turned around in 1998, when Cambodia became a constitutional, democratic monarchy. Today, visiting the Angkor sites is safe, comfortable and easy.

My guide, included as part of my tour package, was a 35-year-old former Buddhist monk named Tarth Nu. He picked me up on a sunny February morning for the 20-minute drive to Angkor Wat.

"Where is everyone?" I wondered as we walked toward the temple. I counted four people on the causeway across the 820-foot-wide moat leading to Angkor Wat's five corncob towers. At the temple's most crowded spot -- the vertical steps to the top of the central pyramid -- there were no more than 30 people. But this was prime tourist season. (Winter is the coolest, driest time to visit Cambodia.) As I later learned, tourists were everywhere, spread thinly over an area as big as Rome.

I visited eight temples in two days with Nu. Each was an experience unlike the others, some marvelous and delicate, some bold and spectacular. Like many visitors, I was strangely silent, moved to tears at times, almost unable to pull myself away.

On my third day, I was on my own. There were many more temples to see, and my $40 three-day pass to enter the temples was still valid.

But I had an opportunity I hadn't had at the pyramids of Egypt or the ruins at Machu Picchu, Peru. I could meet the people who built them. Today's Cambodians speak the language of the Khmers of yesteryear. They worship the same gods. Their king, Norodom Sihanouk, is a descendant of the ancient kings. Angkor Wat is on their flag. They see themselves as part of a continuing civilization.

So I rented a mountain bike for $3 at my hotel and set off to explore Siem Reap, with 94,000 residents, a city about the size of Burbank.

Thanks partly to fears of terrorism elsewhere and to five years of peace and stability in Cambodia, this Southeast Asian kingdom is enjoying its first tourist invasion in two generations. It expects a record 900,000 visitors this year.

Today the city, always an important market town and, since the 1920s, the bedroom community for tourists, has 40 hotels and nearly 100 guesthouses, with a total of 4,213 rooms. In December, the Singapore-based Amanresorts luxury chain opened the $675-a-night Amansara resort, an airy and ultramodern 12-suite boutique hotel.

Nine more hotels -- all high end -- are being built, mostly by venture capitalists from neighboring countries. Already, 10 foreign flights arrive every day at Siem Reap/Angkor International Airport.

Despite the growth, the first traffic signal went up only last year. As I rode my bike, I saw few cars on the road, and the bicycle and motorbike traffic was light and orderly.

Along the banks of the Siem Reap River, fishermen filled their buckets quickly, and elderly men napped. In nearby cafes, ceiling fans beat the languid air, and young women invited me to come in for "happy" pizza, "happy" soup, "happy" stew or a beer. By now I had learned from other travelers that a happy-face symbol on a restaurant meant that the reddish-brown powder, said to be a potent form of marijuana, was served. (Sale and use of marijuana are illegal in Cambodia, but the law is not enforced for "traditional" uses, namely cooking.)

Statistics show Cambodia to have all the trappings of extreme poverty: Life expectancy is 57 years, and 1 of every 9 children will not survive to the age of 5. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital, hundreds of thousands of people live in squatter shacks with no plumbing, and sewage runs through the unpaved streets.

I saw none of this in Siem Reap. The city is clean and smells like citrus and coconuts. Tourism money has visibly trickled down.

I parked my bike at a guarded lot for 10 cents and walked over to the Psar Chas, the Old Market, covering a city block in the heart of the old French quarter, a district of graceful French Colonial architecture, cream-colored stucco buildings with tomato-red shutters, cool lemon colonnades and breezy second-floor verandas. Most of the buildings house restaurants and shops, which display bright silks, gleaming silver, lacquered pottery, wicker footstools and bolts of batik fabrics.

From two teenage girls giggling behind emerald velvet-lined showcases at a corner stall, I bought two silver filigree bracelets, one decorated with a procession of elephants, the other with a stylized pattern of nagas, the cobras that guard the temples of Angkor. Each bracelet, with a bit of bargaining, cost $15.

Then I retraced my steps, and I at last found the tourists. Three tour buses filled with French, American and Japanese visitors escaping the midday heat at the temple complex were parked in front of a Thai restaurant called Chao Praya, between the two biggest luxury hotels in town, the Sofitel and the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. Inside the restaurant were long tables for tour groups, and outside were smaller tables ringing the 40-station buffet, under a pagoda roof.

A hostess pulled out a chair for me at a shady spot with a view of flowering dwarf trees and a tiled courtyard. A waitress recommended the papaya salad, and it was wonderful, bursting with chili peppers, peanuts and cilantro. At the grill-to-order bar, I ordered some river fish and chicken, scooped up peanut crepes and filled a bowl with red beef curry. I often eat Thai food, but this was better even than the food in Thailand.

I paid $8 for the buffet and $2 for a glass of Chardonnay and thanked the hostess.

I rode my bike back to the Sofitel and jumped into the enormous lagoon pool. The air temperature was no more than 80, but the pool was hopping. The swim-up bar and the extraordinary service -- pool boys replaced our wet towels while we were swimming -- were irresistible. Life was good. I could get used to this.

In the evening, I took a motorbike taxi to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor for happy hour -- a two-drinks-for-one happy hour, not the reddish-brown powdery kind. The Grand, built in 1929, was Siem Reap's first hotel. Restored in 1997, it is again a polished jewel, if a bit formal.

I took the long, curved marble staircase down to the Elephant Bar and sat on a rattan stool, which matched the window shades. Plaster tusks supported the ceilings. I had been to old colonial hotels in poor tropical countries before, and I knew what kind of conversational topics to expect: beggars, barbarians and bowels.

But not this time. This was a high-minded group, these 20-odd Americans and Canadians drinking Pimm's Cup. They were debating whether tourists or monsoons were the bigger threat to the temples of Angkor. They were typical of the thousands of tourists who crossed my path in five days, mindful of the environment and the threat that visitors like themselves might pose to the temples.

I paid $4 for two glasses of a refined French Merlot and stepped out for a night on the town.

Death-defying dance

Aline of tuk-tuks, motorbikes pulling carts with upholstered loveseats covered by canopies, awaited outside the Grand Hotel. I asked a driver to take me to Jasmine, a restaurant with a nightly apsara dance show. Of all the motifs of Angkor -- the lions, cobras, crocodiles, demons, dragons and elephants -- apsara dancers are the ones that touch the hearts of today's Cambodians. They are a symbol of national survival, of the eternal life of the Khmer kingdom. The apsara dancers, from the Sanskrit ap for "heaven" and sara for "dancer," appear frequently in bas-relief at both the Hindu and Buddhist temples in the Angkor complex. There are more than 1,700 at Angkor Wat alone, each one different.

When the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, they carried off the apsara dancers. In time, the Khmer royal courts began to train dancers again, but from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed nearly all of them and their teachers as well. Not until 1995 was apsara dancing performed again in Cambodia, appropriately, at Angkor Wat.

The $11 buffet consisted of Chinese, Khmer, Thai and Continental food, with such choices as cashew chicken, spaghetti, shish kebab, chili fish and prawns in oyster sauce. Most of the tourists sat at long tables. I had a table to myself, close to the front.

And then it was daylight on the stage, and seven female dancers in glittering sequins and lame stepped out of the carved limestone of Angkor and swept us back eight centuries to the royal courts of the Khmer kingdom. Apsara dancing was revived as a life-affirming step in a death-defiant land, but I enjoyed it for its fluid, sinuous beauty.

After the show, as I walked out to Jasmine's motor court and watched the other guests pour into their tour buses, I looked for a tuk-tuk or a motorbike taxi, but none was to be had. Conventional taxicabs exist in Siem Reap, but they're not marked or metered. They're not allowed to cruise, and you can't phone for one. The road was dark, and there was no sidewalk.

My waiter appeared and asked, "Care for a ride home, sir?" Soon we were off on his motorbike.

For years now, experts have been predicting that Angkor would soon be ruined or spoiled, and this may yet happen. Right now, there's room for everyone. Yes, Cambodians are learning English. But they're not learning greed, and they're not learning guile. After centuries of occupation by hostile foreigners and bloodthirsty kinsmen, they're now being invaded by hordes who admire their heritage and believe that preserving it is a sacred trust.

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Around Angkor Wat

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, service is available on Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airways, connecting to Mekong Airlines; on Singapore, connecting to SilkAir; and on Air China, Thai and EVA, connecting to Bangkok Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,070.

I booked a package with Asian Affair Holidays, (800) 742-3133, www.asianaffairholidays.com, Singapore Airlines' tour subsidiary. For $1,480, I got airfare and three nights apiece in luxury hotels in Singapore and Siem Reap plus tours, transfers and buffet breakfasts. I used add-ons of $244 per night to extend my stay in Siem Reap and $280 per night, including air, to add Phnom Penh.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 855 (country code for Cambodia), the appropriate local code for Siem Reap as stated below, and the local number. The local code for Siem Reap is 63, but land line service is so poor that many businesses rely on cell phones, which carry prefixes of 11 and 12.

STREET ADDRESSES:

To find restaurants and nightclubs, use the landmarks cited below when no street address is given. Street names are rarely used or posted in Siem Reap.

WHERE TO STAY:

Sofitel Royal Angkor, Vithei Charles de Gaulle, 63-964-600, fax 63-964-610, www.accorhotels-asia.com. Doubles from $165, including buffet breakfast. 239 luxurious rooms, five restaurants, three bars, an enormous lagoon pool and a captivating outdoor apsara dance show, six evenings a week at 7:30, with Cambodian barbecue, $25.

Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Khum Svay Kang Kum Srok, 63-963-888, fax 63-963-168, www.raffles.com. 131 newly refurbished rooms, some with Angkor artifacts. Doubles from $256, including buffet breakfast. Siem Reap's oldest hotel, site of the Elephant Bar, with half-price drinks from 6-8 p.m.

Amansara, Road to Angkor, 63-760-333, fax 63-760-335, www.amanresorts.com/saram.html. Twelve new suites finished in terrazzo and timber. Doubles from $675, including two meals per day, house wine, and transportation and guide to the temples.

Red Piano, about 55 yards from Old Market, 63-963-240, www.asianexp.net/cambodia/piano.html. Prime location in a 100-year-old French colonial building, rooms $10-$26. I checked No. 7, a $26 room that's up one flight of stairs and down an immaculate hallway with a freshly lacquered floor. Big room with baby blue walls and a large bathroom, air-conditioned, one double bed and one twin, refrigerator. Red Piano is an all-purpose guesthouse with a pretty restaurant, music and drinks until late at night.

WHERE TO EAT:

Chao Praya, along the road to Angkor, about 100 feet from Grand Hotel d'Angkor, 63-964-666. Thai buffet $8, wine $2. Extraordinarily good Thai food, more than 40 selections and a grill-to-order bar. Warm and friendly service.

Bayon I, Wat Bo Road, 65 feet south of Route 6, no phone. Near the Old Market, opposite the hospital in the old French quarter. Excellent Khmer food, with amok fish, a curry served in a coconut shell, a specialty. Khmer food resembles Thai but is less spicy and places a heavy emphasis on fish from Lake Tonle Sap. Entrees $3. Drinks $1.50.

For apsara dancing, Jasmine Angkor, Achamean Street near Taptul Road, 12-855-209. Chinese, Khmer and Thai buffet $11, wine $2. Papaya salad with mint a specialty. Dancing begins at 7:20 p.m.

TO LEARN MORE:

Royal Embassy of Cambodia, 4530 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20011; (202) 726-7742, fax (202) 726-8381, www.embassy.org/cambodia.

-- Barry Zwick

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