THURSday & FRIday, FEBruary 14–15 Siem Reap knows which side its bread is buttered on—and that’s Angkor Wat. The road from the airport into town is chockablock with brand-new theme park–ish hotels. If Phnom Penh is making a travel comeback, Siem Reap has long been rediscovered. Busloads of international tourists arrived while I was there, but the crowds were powerless to diminish my sense of awe at the sight of Angkor.
Angkor, the jewel of the Khmer Empire, which reigned supreme from the ninth to the 15th century, was a city of man-made basins, canals, and reservoirs. These hydraulic tributaries made this capital an agricultural giant and enriched the city with a surplus that financed the construction of the world’s most ornate shrines and temples. What remains is an astounding archaeological park to explore.
A shaded, tree-lined boulevard gave way to an open expanse, and there it was. Towering above an artificial moat, its lotus-topped towers reaching for the sky, Angkor Wat will knock the complacency out of the most jaded traveler. Adventure still exists and magical places are real, but I’m afraid your time to see this one is limited. With all the crowds arriving day after day, the ruins are literally being trampled to death. Already indentations from the steady stream of visitors are visible on the stone pathway leading into the site. They portend a future similar to the Parthenon’s. One day it may not be as easily explored. Go now.
Hinduism + Buddhism + Animism = Angkorian art. Drawing upon the subcontinental influences of India, the Khmers built Angkor Wat as a representation of the mythical cosmic mountain of Meru, heaven on earth. For the ancient kings, it absolutely was. Thousands of concubines and courtesans resided here, evidenced by their faces and bodies etched in stone. Devatas (female deities) are also represented on the inner walls, their complex hairdos and divine garments frozen eternally in bas-relief. I took extra care not to touch anything as I’ve read human sweat actually corrodes the stone. A disrespectful touch was visible on every smooth, shiny breast. Gallery walls inside depict protagonists and villains from The Mahabharata and the aforementioned Ramayana. The Hindu depictions of 32 heavens and 37 hells will seem familiar to any Sunday school graduate: final judgment followed by eternal peace or suffering.
Don’t miss the Bayon! At this temple in the city of Angkor Thom, King Jayavarman VII built 54 towers and decorated them with 216 faces representing the deity Avalokiteshvara. Only he used his own face as the model. His enormous face stares out in all directions. His enigmatic smile leaves the interpretation of benevolence or surveillance entirely up to you. The bas-reliefs surrounding the towers incorporate more than 11,000 figures depicting everyday life in ancient Angkor: gambling, prostitution, shopping, and exotic cuisine. I would’ve felt right at home.
The awesome power of nature is on display at Ta Prohm. Here colossal banyan trees literally crush and uproot this collapsing temple with their massive boa constrictor–like roots. To see it in person is to know that anything we ever build can only be temporary. With enough time the tiniest seed can devour an entire city. Later in the day my tour included a balloon ride far above the ruins. From 200 feet up the sandstone spires of Angkor Wat stretched defiantly above the encroaching jungle. It gave me a chill. Without the proper care we might destroy it faster than the jungle ever could.
My two-day Siem Reap itinerary: temples in the morning, nights on Pub Street. A British guidebook refers to the town of Siem Reap as a “dusty hole,” but I think it’s funky and fun. The road of megahotels empties out into a small town (OK, it’s a little dusty) with stylish pubs, restaurants, and hotels. My residence, the Victoria Angkor -- an Epcot version of Le Royal -- suited me just fine. After a day of exploring ruins, I wasn’t so picky about authenticity. My spotless room overlooked a gorgeous infinity pool, and room service always arrived lickety-split. A one-hour foot massage at one of the many reflexology places in town made me weep with pleasure ($15!). My masseur was so handsome I had to keep refocusing my stare upward to keep from looking creepy. There are lots of places in town that offer what locals refer to as “massage boom boom,” but buyer beware: There’s a full-on HIV epidemic among sex workers in Cambodia, so you might want to stick to reflexology.
I met a couple from Paris at Linga Bar. The bar was arty and stylish, but we got a little freaked out by the aggressiveness of one particular hustler and fled to Khmer Kitchen for dinner. I dined family-style with them and four of their local friends. Amok fish in coconut milk, pork with green curry, barbecued chicken, rice, and prawn soup. Dinner for six: $20! I wanted to be a big shot and treat, but they were all Desperate Housewives fans and refused to let me pay.
Saturday, FEBruary 16 The boat ride to Battambang took nine hours. It’s the dry season. At one point the boat actually stopped in the middle of the river because we ran out of water and had to be pushed through the mud. This isn’t a trip for the fussy, high-maintenance traveler, but if you crave an authentic experience of Cambodian life along the river, you’ll be happily rewarded. Our vessel, an elongated skiff with two long benches facing inward, inched up the Tonle Sap River. We floated past fishing villages and laughing muddy children (who all waved, smiled, and shouted “HALLO-O-O!”). We occasionally picked up a local fisherman or laborer. None of them wore shoes. A little boy and his grandmother boarded the boat—a mirror image of me and my grandma 35 years ago. They instantly adopted me. I made Grandma giggle with my dreadful phrase-book Cambodian. The boy kept me entertained for hours with the international game of “rock, paper, scissors” and babbled endlessly, oblivious to the fact I couldn’t understand a word. While the locals around me ate their bag lunch (fish and rice) I opened my unadventurous, germ-phobic travel snacks: Pringles, hermetically sealed chocolate chip cookies, dried fruit. A dusty farm girl sitting directly across from me hungrily eyed the box of cookies, and instantly I knew she hadn’t eaten in days. I gave her the whole box and everyone else my chips. Later, while slathering lotion on my arms, my sunscreen got the same hungry look from Grandma, so I squirted some very expensive SPF 45 into her parched, cracked hands. Delighted, she laughed, revealing a toothless smile. This was not a glamorous ride. Great portions of the fishing villages were piled with trash, and it took forever. But travel isn’t always about getting someplace. It’s about being someplace. Halfway around the world I felt welcome and safe. I was exactly where I belonged.
sunday, FEBruary 17 Spent the night in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. It’s a riverside town and home to a large selection of well-preserved French period architecture. This is a provincial capital. It’s not filled with pubs and food halls for foreigners, and that’s kind of the best part. No one was in a hurry to get anywhere. Cows lazed on the riverbank just below the old French consulate. I’m past the point of timidity with the locals, and I’m starting to blend. When walking through the markets, I’m no longer offered the barang (foreigner) price, and people are speaking to me in Cambodian. I smiled and nodded but still refused to eat a deep-fried cricket. My hotel was the Rottonak Resort, gay-owned and brand-new; a little bit of Palm Springs in Southeast Asia. Tidy bungalows surrounded an inviting pool. A very attractive staff reflected the tastes of the owner. Just at the point when I was starting to unwind, it was already time for me to leave. On my road back to Phnom Penh past rice paddies and through small farming villages, I mentally made the decision to return as soon as possible. I feel like Cambodia’s an amazing new friend I was just getting to know. I can’t wait to pick up where we left off.
Fly to Cambodia in style on Singapore Airlines (800-742-3333; SingaporeAir.com), which serves over 35 countries and has two flights a day to Phnom Penh via Singapore. A recently added flight option is from Houston to Singapore on a 777 that can include a Moscow layover if you wish. The 777 has the world’s biggest business-class seats and a new economy class with more legroom and 1,004 on-demand entertainment options.
First-class Thailand-based gay tour company Purple Dragon (011-662-238-3227; PurpleDrag.com) offers excellent custom-made travel packages with private English-speaking guides in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, and India.
A must-stay in Cambodia: Raffles Hotel Le Royal (800-768-9009; Raffles.com) is the premier hotel in Phnom Penh and regularly voted one of the best hotels in the world. Established in 1929 and reopened in 1997, walk in the footsteps of a long line of globe-trotters, writers, and the world’s royalty at the grand historic edifice that now brims with modern world-class amenities. Located in the heart of Phnom Penh, it’s convenient to the city’s attractions, such as the Royal Palace, Central Market, Russian Market, and the National Museum.
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