We were on our way, heading north with our European-sized legs jammed into the Asian-sized leg room of the seats on Vietnamese Airlines. I had a curious emotion. For me the name Vietnam is intricately connected with what we call the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War. Our country also joined in that war and it was wrong! As a student, it was the one time that I became involved in political activity (at least until we repeated the same mistake by following the Americans into Iraq); we marched in the streets against the war and eventually we voted the then government out of office. Our troops came home and national conscription was abolished - it was a defining moment of my youth.

Life though is never simple. Vietnam was eventually reunified, but many Vietnamese caught on the wrong side were obliged to flee and those who came to Australia have enriched our culture. However, those who stayed behind have built a new nation and now we all go back as visitors and friends - time heals.

Yes, the thought patterns on this flight were curious. However, our first landing in Vietnam was but brief - we didn't even leave the airport, boarding a plane to Siem Reap in Cambodia where a history much more ancient and less known awaited us. We would be starting our trip with a visit to that long lost wonder of the ancient world, Angkor Wat.

The temples of Angkor

Early on our first morning in Cambodia, we found ourselves in a tuk-tuk with Kear, our guide for the day, heading north from Siem Reap in a long convoy of tuk-tuks, taxis, mini-buses and coaches, all heading out to the one reason for being here - the ancient temples of Angkor. We were but two of the two million people that would visit this official "wonder of the modern world" this year and our sense of uniqueness washed off us like dust in the Cambodian monsoon. Fortunately, it was the start of the dry season and the cool breeze created by our tuk-tuk was a pleasant way to start the day.

The South Gate of Angkor Thom

Our passage took us past the huge moat and western causeway of Angkor Wat itself and on to the South Gate of Angkor Thom - the 10km2 walled city built in the 12th century and last capital of the Khmer kingdom. The first impression on reaching this area is the enormous scale of the temple, palace and city complexes. Crossing the moat on a bridge guarded by 54 demons and 54 gods, we entered the gateway of Angkor Thom to begin our exploration of this fascinating lost world.

The 8m high wall of Angkor Thom

Ruins of the Bayon (12th century)

The iconic stone faces of the Bayon - we are watching you!

Our first stop was the Bayon, a buddhist temple built in the late 12th century; dominated by the surviving 37 of 54 towers, each with four giant faces, and where history has been written in the sandstone walls in a myriad of carved bas-reliefs. Kear provided the interpretation of the carvings and explained the history of the Khmer Kingdom and the building of the temples, as he led us through the stone labyrinth of the Bayon.

As hinted at before, we were not alone and the only distraction was having to regularly stop, while every Tom, Dirk and Harihito posed in front of a massive carved face or well-known feature. The name of the game for the day became to try and take a photo without another person in it.

Bas-relief of a battle scene between the Khmer and Cham

The face of Avalokiteshvala smiles benignly

Interior of the Bayon

The roof -line of Bayon

Four-faced towers rise above the temple

Pathway leading from the Baphuon Temple



From the Bayon, we wandered across to the Baphuon, an older hindu temple (mid 11th century) currently being restored and home to the remains of a giant reclining buddha, built later of sandstone blocks.

From here, Kear took us through the gate of the stone wall surrounding the Royal Palace to visit the Phimeanakas Temple, an impressive pyramid of red laterite and sandstone and even older (early 11th century). While it has no carvings left, we could climb the steep steps to its peak to take in the views of the palace complex below.

Leaving Phimeanakas, we wandered past two large sandstone pools to leave the Royal Palace and visit the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants, from where the kings would view processions and ceremonies. The walls of both terraces were covered with intricate carvings and, after the sheer size of the complexes, the intricacy and scale of the wall carvings of Angkor Thom made, for us, the other most striking impression.

Red laterite steps of the Phimeanakis Temple

Carvings in the Terrace of the Elephants

Sandstone pool and gate to the Royal Enclosure
of Angkor Thom

Elephant carvings on the
Terrace of the Elephants

One of 12 red laterite tower of the Prasat Suor Klat -
The Temple of the Tightrope Dancers

A jolt of reality - landmine victims playing traditional instruments

Leaving Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate, we passed the unfinished yet impressive temple of Ta Keo, whose construction was stopped by the inauspicious strike of a lightning bolt on one of its towers.

Soon, we were at the entry to Ta Prohm, a buddhist temple of the early 13th century and the one we were most eager to see. Mostly unrestored, with the roots of giant fig trees growing in and on the crumbling ruins, Ta Prohm most evokes the feeling that people must have had when these temples were first rediscovered after lying hidden in the jungle for centuries.

The unfinished 10th century temple of Ta Keo

Gateway to the 13th century temple of Ta Prohm

Approaching the temple in its rain forest setting ...

,,,, where the trees reclaims the constructs of man

Centuries old rain forest tree

So when did the ancient Khmer see
a Stegasaurus?

We were not disappointed; centuries old forest giants entwined their roots amongst the stone blocks of the temple, slowly prising the structures apart. It left a curiously satisfying harmony between nature and civilisation.

The aerial roots of a giant fig emerging
from the temple

Buddha peaking through the tree roots

In the Hall of dancers - Ta Prohm

Courtyard of Ta Prohm

Leaving the temple, we ran the gauntlet of another gaggle of women and children hawking books, drinks, souvenirs and trinkets .... everything only one dollar .... and headed off to find a lunch spot. We always find this hard ... there is nothing you want and only so many dollars that you can spend but you still feel guilty when you don't buy.

The causeway and moat of Angkor Wat

After lunch near the shores of Sras Srang, a large rectangular lake, dug out by the builders of Angkor, we headed off to explore Angkor Wat, the piece-de-resistance of these temples. Built in the 12th century to the hindu god, Vishnu, at the heart of walled and moated grounds, it is a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five towers rising 65m above the plain.

The approach in the afternoon sun as you cross the 250m causeway on the moat to enter the temple walls was impressive, made even more so by the shock of seeing the bullet holes in the sandstone of the gate entrance, a stark reminder of that more recent period of Cambodian history - the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

The classic late afternoon photo of Angkor Wat

One of the five towers of Angkor Wat

Exterior colonade

Interior library courtyard

Pool and covered steps

A "modern-day" buddha at the entrance

Part of the hundreds of metres of

Kear explains the stories of the bas-relief
to the fair Nello

One of 3000 carved apsara (heavenly nymphs)
on the walls of Angor Wat

Angkor Wat lived up to its hype, an amazing symmetry of carved towers, courtyards, pools and colonades with bas-reliefs of legends and history. However, the afternoon moved on and the crowds were starting to build up as people arrived to be there at sunset. We had a different idea - back in the tuktuk with Kear, we headed off to the shores of Ton-Le Sap - the huge lake and regulatory valve of the Mekong River - to climb into a boat, head out past the floating village of Chong Khneas and watch as the sun set far from the madding crowd; glowing dully red through the thin veil of cloud as it disappeared into the waters of Ton-Le Sap. Thanks, Kear, for an enjoyable day - we both learnt a lot about Khmer history.

Locals from the floating village

Sunset over Ton-Le Sap