ANGKOR, Cambodia: Rising about 4:30 a.m., they slip through the dark, armed with cameras and extra rolls of film.
They creep across the stone bridge that sits above a murky moat and wait.
By the time the sun peeks over the five stupas of Angkor Wat, thousands of people, tourists and orange-robed monks are scattered across the grounds.
They are there to witness Southeast Asia’s premier tourist attraction at the height of its beauty.
Even after decades of civil war, genocide and poverty, the sun still rises over Angkor Wat, a 12th-century temple that is witnessing a long-awaited stir in travel to the region.
Just a short time ago, land mines and king cobras were more prevalent than tourists; now the land is almost infested with visitors.
Long-forgotten and neglected, the ruins of the ancient capital of the Khmer civilization are experiencing a revival of sorts.
In its day, the Khmer empire was the mightiest in Southeast Asia. For 500 years, it controlled much of present-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Each ruler was expected to build a temple as a symbol of his divinity. A construction binge that lasted several hundred years ultimately drained the nation of natural resources and left it vulnerable to invasions.
In the 15th century, the Khmer empire moved its capital to Phnom Penh, and the stone temples at Angkor were lost to most of the outside world for centuries.
In the late 1800s, European adventurers “discovered” the temple complex overgrown by jungle.
Travel writing spurred a period of tourism until the 1970s, when civil war prompted by the infamous Khmer Rouge regime left the temples deserted once again.
The group outlawed everything from religion, weaving, film and dance to education, health care and money.
Anyone who was suspected of being educated, be it a doctor or a monk, was swiftly executed.
This sent Cambodia into a downward spiral that took it back to the dark ages. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated all cities and put people to work in the countryside. In the ensuing years, a fifth of the population either was executed or died of malnutrition or disease.
Until a 1997 coup by the current leaders of Cambodia (the Cambodia People’s Party), the country was without a stable government.
Built between the ninth and the 15th centuries and spread across roughly 77 square miles, the Buddhist and Hindu temples of Angkor are comparable to Central and South American ruins of the Mayas and Incas or the Pyramids of Egypt.
They evoke an eerie but audacious Indiana Jones feel (although it was the Tomb Raider movies that were filmed there).
Like the world’s other famous ancient ruins, each temple at Angkor is a little different from the next. You could spend weeks seeing every temple at Angkor, then a few more weeks exploring smaller, more isolated temples that are scattered across the rest of the park.
Angkor Wat is perhaps the most architecturally stunning temple, but it also is the most crowded.
Perfectly symmetrical, it is a Hindu representation, albeit in miniature, of the universe where the gods live. The five mountains (the five towers) are surrounded by a cosmic ocean (the moat).
On the first-level gallery sits the Churning of the Sea of Milk, perhaps the most famous relief in the country. It depicts both gods and demons tugging on a giant snake, thereby churning the ocean and releasing the elixir of eternal life.
The temple was and still is finely tuned to precise solar and lunar dimensions. When a visitor stands on the western edge of the temple grounds, the sun appears to rise out of the temple.
At the vernal equinox, also the Khmer New Year, the sun is directly above the central tower where the king lived, symbolizing the joining of the solar god Vishnu and the king, thus linking heaven and earth.
It is comforting to know that a fragment of mankind can work in perfect harmony after all that has happened around it. Perhaps that is what lures people here.
Angkor Thom, which means great city, shares the cosmological layout of Angkor Wat and hosts several considerable sights such as the Terrace of the Elephant and the Terrace of the Leper King. It usually is one of the first stops on any tour because of its proximity to Angkor Wat.
At the exact center of Angkor Wat, hundreds of large stone faces are intricately carved out of the sides of the temple, and bas-reliefs depict daily life.
The jungle slowly has made its way over and under the temples; this is most evident in Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn, just north of Angkor Wat.
Colossal trees grow out of the temples and in some cases cover walls and swallow whole blocks that weigh several tons apiece.
Although vegetation has been cleared from most of the other temples, it was left untouched in these two to illustrate the awe-inspiring power of nature.
Built on a man-made mountain capped by a temple, 10 thcentury Phnom Bakeng allows the greatest view of the area. You can see Angkor Wat rise above what seems to be an endless sea of jungle.
Sadly, much of Phnom Bakeng long ago deteriorated. But the sight is popular, namely because elephants can be ridden up to the summit for a price (and ridden down for an even cheaper price). Otherwise, it’s a 15-minute hike each way.
With no lodging on the temple grounds, almost all visitors stay a few miles away in Siem Reap, a town that never would have existed under the Khmer Rouge. It offers five-star dining and hotels (as well as food stalls and cheap guesthouses) and a small but animated strip of night life.
Visitors also can find traditional Khmer dance performances, and local artwork and handcrafts at one of several markets.
Everything from coconut sticky rice, fried insects and bottled water to hand-woven blankets is sold by locals outside almost every temple. Musicians, once outlawed, play lutes and drums and set up makeshift stages near temple entrances.
Clearly, a resurgence of traditional culture has begun, along with intense development. In fact, some of the development is threatening to ruin Angkor and exploit one of the world’s largest religious monuments. Example: the tacky yellow sightseeing hot-air balloon permanently tethered nearby.
But the country that needs the income so badly is finally getting the tourist dollars it has missed out on for decades.
Cambodia is taking small steps toward becoming a more rounded destination. Travel within the country is becoming more accessible. The still-deserted beaches in Sihanoukville are seeing more visitors and traces of foreign investment.
Treks in the north and tours along the Mekong River also are becoming more prevalent. Even gruesome reminders of the notso-distant past such as the Killing Fields or the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh are turning into tourist destinations.
Rumors even have circulated that former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s jungle hideout will become a resort.
Cambodia still has a minimal tourist infrastructure. The government barely is able to hold together a modern society. Most people live in so-called Fourth World conditions, without electricity or running water.
Few roads are paved, bandits launch occasional raids, and government officials sometimes are corrupt.
But the tourist industry seems to exist safely, and with each rising sun it grows just a little bit more.
First published in the Columbus Dispatch (2004).
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.