Cambodia

The task:  create an earthly replica of heaven; that is, the sacred Mt. Meru and the cosmic ocean that surrounds it.  Given a few decades, plus the resources of an empire that covered most of Southeast Asia, this was pretty much a snap:

After several centuries of deferred maintenance, Angkor may no longer be the world’s largest urban center; but improved airline connections have probably put it within reach of a greater number of people. We, for instance, went there (the modern city of Siem Reap) as the last stop on our bicycle tour.

That’s Angkor Wat in the picture above, seen shortly after dawn, both an early capital and the temple with the best name-recognition.

But of the dozen temples and other ruins accessible with a single wearable punch-card pass, the site that best brings out the tourist’s inner Indiana Jones may be Ta Prohm.

Nothing says “Lost World” quite like a delicate stone carving caught in the clutches of a strangler fig. This Buddhist monastery, abandoned in the 15th Century, vandalized by iconoclasts and then given only minimal restoration in recent years, provides a brooding backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters and whirlwind vacations alike.

Here’s our local guide Borin pointing out another mystery: two of the images on this column seem to resemble, respectively, a stegosaurus and a drawing by Maurice Sendak. The best theory is probably that these are the result of imaginative coincidences.  On the other hand, it was once asserted that Angkor’s wonders were produced on a single night by a divine Architect.

The earliest of the works we see are Hindu monuments; some were re-purposed more than once as the predominant religion alternated with Buddhism, now by far the favorite. These are not the only attitudes that have changed:  Borin told us that the current older generation of Cambodians once wondered why the Americans hated them so much that they dropped bombs on them.  The younger folks view Americans favorably, regarding them as generous tippers.  He was our guide during our tour in Cambodia, working for Backroads; then, the next day, after the other guests had left, he was back as our fixer, on behalf of Trails of Indochina, making sure that we got not just to the airport okay, but into the best line for check-in.

By the way, it should not be imagined that the wonders of Southeast Asia are all visual.  By the time our trip was over, I had eaten, for the first time, jackfruit, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteen and longan.  And durian!  And — crickets!

Here a guide rides his personal bike. In Cambodia, Backroads uses only their version of the mountain bike, that is, their standard titanium frame but with fat tires and flat bars.