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Ancient Angkorian Highway

A map of the most important Khmer sites during the Khmer Empire! There are stone highways, canals, and bridges connected to the Angkor-Phimai temples, Angkor-Wat Phou temples, Angkor-Sambor prei kuk temples, Beng Melea-Wat Phou, Angkor- Roy et, and many many more!


WAT PHU CHAMPASAK, LAOS — From Saturday's Globe and Mail Published on Saturday, Feb. 04, 2006 2:37AM EST Last updated on Sunday, Apr. 05, 2009 1:26AM EDT

Standing below the ruins of Wat Phu Champasak, it's easy to see why kings and temple builders lavished attention on this spot for several hundred years. At midmorning on a weekday, it's less obvious why I can see just three other Westerners visiting one of the most venerated shrines in Southeast Asia.

The crumbling pile of palaces, galleries and balustrades occupies the lower slope of a mountain long sacred to the people of southern Laos. Water said to be holy seeps from the rocks behind the exquisitely carved sanctuary at the temple's highest level, and I can just pick out the Mekong River's muddy brown flow a few kilometres to the east. The location is as remarkable now as it must have been in the fifth century, when the first stones were laid.

This astonishing ancient monument, home to a festival attended by thousands every February, was linked for centuries by a stone road to the fabled Angkor temples of what is now northwestern Cambodia and on to a host of related sites in Thailand. [size=5][size=5]If it still existed today, it would be a cultural and historical superhighway comparable to the Inca Trail or the Silk Road,[/size][/size] but the route was already long overgrown by the time the region's modern borders were drawn in the colonial era. The revolutions of the 1970s closed temples and borders alike.

Geography and security issues have long made it cumbersome and dangerous to visit these ruins as a united whole. While Thailand is accessible to visitors, Cambodia and Laos have been slow to open up.

The last political barrier has finally fallen in the past couple of years, allowing adventurous tourists to transit a remote and unofficial border area less than 100 kilometres from Wat Phu. When the infrastructure improves, there's every chance that tourist demand will resurrect the historic connection between Laos and Cambodia.

For now though, overland travel along this route remains something of an adventure. I've picked up the trail at Angkor and its gateway town, Siem Reap, where tourist arrivals reached nearly 700,000 last year.

It's becoming impossible to find the kind of solitude that used to prevail here -- a disappointment for those hoping to play Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, but a welcome development for mainstream visitors and the Cambodian economy. Security is no longer a major issue, new hotels and restaurants are opening every week and road development is making it simple to visit formerly remote ruins such as Beng Melea and Koh Ker.

However, the tarmac does not extend to Laos, just 200 kilometres to the northeast. So, although it's possible to cheat and take a 45-minute flight across the border, the next leg of my trip begins with a ride on a fast boat south to Phnom Penh.

Just after dawn, our ferry leaves the chaotic landing of Chong Khneas, winds down a spindly river and guns its motors at the mouth of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. I sit on the speedboat's roof for the whole five-hour trip, trying to avoid sunburn but unwilling to miss sights of the stilt homes and dry-season rice paddies flashing past.

Phnom Penh was my home for three years and it is the hub of Cambodia's slowly improving transportation network, so I feel a wave of nostalgia when the boat deposits us at the capital's doorstep. I book a ticket on a small "minibus" -- a creaky van, really -- heading north the next morning.

When dawn breaks, our driver already has us outside the capital and is laying steadily on the horn as he weaves across both lanes, forcing smaller oncoming vehicles to the shoulder, as per Cambodian custom. We pass through Skuon -- a crossroads known for fried spiders, a local delicacy -- before half the passengers have even woken up. We pass Kampong Cham and turn onto a rutted red-dust road.

We are entering a part of the country that is geographically distinct from tabletop-flat central Cambodia -- rice fields give way to scrub forest as we climb slowly into the highlands that lead to Vietnam. There are also cultural differences; beside one particularly dusty stretch of road sits a mosque used by the Cham, Cambodia's main religious minority.

It has been barely five hours by the time we arrive in the riverside town of Kratie, and I have a decision to make. Stay the night, or push closer to the border? A glance at the town and a grumbling in my stomach persuade me to stay, and I'm rewarded with the kind of afternoon that comes only with travelling overland: I watch Irrawaddy dolphins on the Mekong, peruse the town's crumbling French-colonial architecture and join locals at the riverside to watch a fiery sunset.

Early the next morning, I'm aboard another minibus with Laos in my sights. The road to Stung Treng has much in common with the road to Kratie, except that there's even less pavement. We slowly navigate over potholes the size of truck beds and the dust from passing trucks begins to filter in through the bus's tattered floorboard. It's early afternoon by the time we reach Stung Treng -- just in time to catch another speedboat.

However, unlike the heavy-duty vessel that carried tourists south from Siem Reap, this boat feels fragile -- little more than a few planks of wood with a large outboard motor. For an hour and a half, my knees get intimate with my chin as we slalom through a course of rocks, sandbars and whirlpools. It's the dry season and the Mekong's waters are low.

Docking at the Cambodian border post is obviously a cultural experience for the five other tourists crammed into the speedboat, and for the six energetic French seniors we meet passing through in the other direction. Bargaining strategy is plotted as the groups negotiate with guards over the size of bribe -- this is, after all, an "unofficial" crossing. My basic Khmer language skills get me off the hook for half the others' rate: about $1.20 instead of $2.30. But I have no such privileges on the Lao side of the river. At least I'm finally across the border.

Although the southern tip of Laos is more than 700 kilometres by road from Vientiane, the capital, there is plenty to see in this region. Just north of the border, the Mekong widens to reveal a delta of sandbars and rapids known as Si Phan Don --- literally 4,000 islands -- where there is a low-key but growing tourism industry. Pakse and Savanakhet are old French market towns whose colonial shop houses are crumbling into picturesque neglect even as proximity to nearby Thailand fuels their new economies.

But I haven't spent three long days in the sticks for anything but the holiest temple ruins in Laos, and Wat Phu Champasak fails to disappoint. Ground was broken here under the Chenla civilization that ruled Cambodia and southern Laos in the fifth century, but the structures remaining today were built several hundred years later, during the Angkor period.

The similarity to Cambodia's temples is striking as I walk down an entrance causeway between two dry reservoirs and pass matching sandstone palaces, barely restored despite the temple's 2001 designation as a World Heritage Site. One suspects this will change if the moneyed masses start arriving.

I can feel the late-morning heat as I climb a sagging laterite staircase through a corridor of white-blossomed frangipani trees. This sanctuary is much higher than what you see south of the border, where builders were forced to construct their own mountains. The lintel carvings here are as exquisite as any of its type, speaking to the fact that this began life as a Hindu monument, like many Khmer ruins converted to modern Buddhist use.

With a quiet moment to spare, I pause near the bottom to consider a tiny structure just south of the stairs. [size=5]Beside it are several chunks of rock imbedded in a row -- remnants of the 1,000-year-old stone road leading south to Angkor.[/size] They lead nowhere now but the dense undergrowth, yet I remain impressed -- after all, this remains the second-best road from Cambodia.

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