For most people, the ancient city of Angkor is synonymous with Cambodia, although other archaeological sites are widely spread across the country, most tourists indeed, fly in and out of nearby
Siem Reap and remain ignorant of the rest of the country.|
From ancient Egypt to the antique Americas cities people loves mystery, and the
temples of Angkor - the largest ruins in the world - have presented their own share of riddles and ‘mysteryosophic’ zealots have prompted fanciful explanations for generations of visitors and readers.
The image of broken masonry festooned with the roots of giant trees is so potent that people react with horror when archaeologists clear the forest and restore the temples, indeed, especially in these days of mass tourism, the charm of the site is undoubtedly ruined for ever.
Cambodia is a vast, shallow bowl with the edges rising steeply to the north, the east and the south into wild, jungle-cloaked mountains and plateaux. The central basin is dominated by an intriguing natural hydraulic system, on which the prosperity of the kingdom has long depended. At the centre of it is the
Tonlé Sap (the Great Lake), the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The Mekong courses into the Cambodian basin to the capital city of Phnom Penh, where the waters form a giant cross known to the French as the
'Quatre Bras' (Four Arms). The enormous volumes of water of the Tonlé Sap give rise to a teeming population of over 200 varieties of fish, and these form the major source of living for some three million people living around the lake.
In many respects, the countryside has not changed much since ancient times. The
wooden buffalo carts and ploughs are timeless, sugar palms still dot the
landscape. The majority of the population is rural and the only real city is Phnom Penh, which is home to over one million people and the second largest town,
Battambang, has around only 125.000 inhabitants. Although Phnom Penh is over 500 years old, it is only the effort of French colonialists that transformed it into a town which was once very pretty and seductive. Today Phnom Penh is a sprawling tropical city running along the riverfront a chaos of architectural styles, from the
Royal Palace to crassly modern and jerry-built houses, to the elegant cream and lemon-painted French
colonial buildings. Also Battambang has fine examples of French colonial architecture.
Today, Cambodia remains one of the poorest nations on earth after food production and basic infrastructure were destroyed during the years of war and revolution. Prostitution, including child prostitution, is a major social problem, 70 per cent of children interviewed in the vicinity of Angkor said that Westerners had approached them for sex. Once again Cambodia is facing a major ecological crisis that might have contributed to the decline of Angkor: illegal logging, pollution,
moreover a series of dams upstream in China threaten the country’s primary natural system: the Mekong River and the Great Lake.