Angkor, spread out over an area of about 40 miles in northwestern Cambodia, was the capital of the Khmer Empire from A.D. 800 to approximately 1200, and was abandoned in 1431, following the conquest of the Khmer kingdom.
After decades of war and strife, its temples and monuments are once more open to travelers, and are among the world’s premier architectural sites. The city’s highlight, Angkor Wat, is a temple complex built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. It took 25,000 workers over thirty-seven years to complete the construction, but after the fall of the empire, the complex remained unknown to the outside world until 1860, when French botanist Henri Mahout stumbled upon it deep in the jungle.
Constructed in the form of a central tower surrounded by four smaller towers, it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and is embellished throughout with exquisite statues, carvings, and bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
Though considered a less-stellar attraction, the nearby fortified city of Angkor Thom boasts at its heart the Bayon, the last great temple built at Angkor. The Bayon is surrounded by fifty-four small towers that are now, like all of this magnificent religious complex, entangled in the dense growth of the implacable Cambodian jungle. The steamy undergrowth and mysterious play of light and shadows joins nature’s work to man’s, evoking an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom atmosphere.
Now restored to its 1930s colonial splendor by Raffles International, the Grand Hotel Angkor is the ideal home base in the area, with a state-of-the-art spa and 14 acres of gorgeous gardens.
Once considered the loveliest of the French-built cities of Indochina, Phnom Penh has managed to preserve much of its charm through the violence of Cambodia’s recent history; let’s hope the same can be said after the current invasion of foreign investors and joint ventures.
The best way to savor this fascinating city as it rediscovers itself is to stroll its wide, bicycle- and pedicab-jammed avenues, which are lined with colonial architecture in various stages of repair, and stop in at one of the sidewalk restaurants that are springing up around town.
In the midst of it all, the sprawling Royal Palace is off-bounds to visitors except for a magnificent consolation prize, the Silver Pagoda compound. This is one of the country’s rare showcases for the brilliance and exuberance of Khmer art and civilization.
Pol Pot destroyed most of it, but he overlooked masterpieces like the life-size gold Buddha, weighing close to 200 pounds and adorned with over 9,500 diamonds, the largest approaching 25 carats. One can only wonder what the Royal Palace is holding back.
It’s a long and bumpy ride north from Hanoi to Sapa, the country’s most picturesque hill resort, perched at 5,000 feet in an incredibly beautiful mountain area that the French used to call the Tonkinese Alps, near the Laotian and Chinese borders.
The area is home to a wealth of hill tribes – collectively known as the Montagnard (“mountain people”) – who come to the Sapa marketplace on Saturdays to sell their homegrown fruit and vegetables and handicrafts and to share news. Of the thirty-odd ethnic groups that live in distant villages on the mountainsides or deep valleys, the friendly Black Hmong and Red Dao dominate. You might get a good deal on a water buffalo.
Sapa is the perfect base for day trips or overnight treks to Mount Fansi Pan (Vietnam’s highest peak) or to the Montagnard villages, where the natural beauty of steep, terraced vegetable gardens and crystal-clear streams are easy on the eyes and refreshing to the spirit.
Uzbekistan has the most interesting historical and architectural legacy of all the Central Asian republics freed from Soviet domination in 1991. Its pinnacle is Samarkand, the navel of the vast empire held by Timur, a.k.a. Tamerlane (1336-1405), one of history’s greatest and cruelest conquerors.
A fabled city that fired European imaginations with tales of its legendary beauty, it was built and embellished by architects, artists, and craftsmen abducted by Tamerlane and his descendants from faraway conquered territories. For 2,000 years, the city was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road, its bazaars thronged with merchants and shoppers.
Since its construction between the 14th and 16th centuries, Samarkand’s Registan has been considered by many to be the noblest public square in the world, a breathtaking showcase of a civilization that placed supreme value on tangible beauty. A courtyard the size of a football field, it is surrounded on three sides by the soaring arches, towering minarets, and fluted turquoise domes of three madrassas (Islamic colleges).
Another of the most visually stunning sights in this city of superlatives is Shah-i-Zinda, a complex of mausoleums dating mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries. Exceptional masterworks of terra-cotta, majolica, and intricate tilework, they were created by master Persian and Azerbaijani craftsmen, and together form a showpiece of ceramic art that remains unrivaled in Central Asia.
Some of the earliest mausoleums are those of Tamerlane’s wives, his beautiful young niece, and his sisters, but it’s the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, believed to have been a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, that is Shah-i-Zinda’s most famous. An air of holiness surrounds the tomb, and three pilgrimages to it are deemed the equivalent of one to Mecca. Qusam ibn-Abbas is the “living king” who gave the complex its name, though ironically it’s come to be known as the City of the Dead.
The 20th century hasn’t yet arrived in Bukhara’s Old Town, let alone the 21st, and even though the city’s origins are lost in time, that didn’t stop local authorities from arbitrarily choosing 1997 to celebrate Bukhara’s 2,500th anniversary.
Like Samarkand and Khiva, Bukhara was one of the legendary Silk Road caravan cities, but unlike its neighbors, it has avoided growing into a modern city (like Samarkand) or being so overpreserved that it’s had the life squeezed out of it (like Khiva). Instead, Old Bukhara has a lived-in center. Close to 150 buildings are protected architectural sites, and overzealous restoration has been kept at bay so far.
The 12th-century Kalan Mosque and Minaret and the 1,000-year-old Ismael Samani Mausoleum are some of the architectural highlights, but much of the Old City’s present appearance dates to the 16th century, when Bukhara was capital of the Bukhara khanate. Of the dozens of caravansaries and bazaars, 100 madrassas (Islamic colleges), and 300 mosques that filled the desert city in those days, many remain, in various states of dilapidation and preservation.
Once you’ve seen Bukhara’s famous monuments, take time to wander its backstreets, where goats have unofficial right of way, children romp, and old men fill the teahouses playing the backgammon-like game shishbesh. It’s a precious glimpse of Central Asian life and culture on a more personal scale.
All color seems to have drained from Turkmenistan’s dusty post-Soviet capital, but the Sunday market in Ashkhabad (the City of Love), an archetypal Asian bazaar as Cecil B. de Mille would have created it, is filled with a cast of thousands. It’s a throwback to the marketplaces that for millennia have dotted this area, which was once crisscrossed by the ancient network of trade routes collectively known as the Silk Road.
Most foreigners now come for the sheer entertainment value – you can buy anything here, but the draw for centuries has been carpets. Marco Polo wrote home about these beauties, commenting on their intricacy, quality, and rich colors.
The Tolkuchka Bazaar is still one of the world’s premier sources of rugs for serious buyers with a trained eye. Most are handwoven locally in the age-old tradition, but factory-produced alternatives with synthetic dyes have recently made an appearance. Although the style of carpets prevalent here draws its name from Uzbekistan’s city of Bukhara, these rugs have always been made in Turkmenistan and were traditionally used to cover the floors and walls of the nomadic Turkmen’s yurts.
A trip to the steppes of Central Anatolia is the next best thing to intergalactic travel, at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience. Centuries of wind and water have sculpted a surrealistic landscape from the soft volcanic terrain: minarets, cones, spires, “fairy chimneys,” and rocky pinnacles in shades of pinks and russet-brown soar as high as five-story buildings and cover an area of about 50 square miles.
Ancient inhabitants of Cappadocia hollowed out the tufa cones and cliffs to create troglodyte-style cave dwellings that are still lived in today. A major trade route between East and West, Cappadocia was home to a dozen different civilizations. The early Christians arrived in the 4th century, sculpting from the rock domed churches, complete with vaulted ceilings, columns, and pews. T
he open-air museum is the site of an ancient monastic colony, once said to have had more than 400 churches, hermitages, and small monasteries. Today fifteen are open to the public. Some of the simple frescoes date back to the 8th century, but it’s the rich Byzantine frescoes of the 10th and 13th centuries that are the most astonishing.
Modern-day troglodytes must head for the utterly unique and charming Yunak Evleri hotel, a romantic web of tastefully restored connecting caves dating back as far as the 5th century.
A freak of nature and a geological fairyland, Pamukkale (Cotton Castle) resembles a series of bleached rice terraces as you approach. The white travertine tiers, joined together like huge water lilies by petrified cotton-candy waterfalls and gleaming white stalactites, are the result of hot mineral springs whose calcium-rich deposits have been accumulating for millennia.
A popular resort since Roman times, Pamukkale still draws tourists, who are put in a festive mood by the bizarre formations and otherworldly weirdness. It is as dazzling during the day, when they appear pure white, as at sunset, when they pick up the muted pink and purple pastel colors of the sky.
Although proven harmful to the pools – and despite a ruling that will sooner or later be enforced – wading in the 97°F. water is permitted for the time being, though anything other than a splash, a wallow, or a footbath is pretty much out, owing to the fact that most of the pools are only shin-deep.
The otherwise unremarkable Pamukkale Motel is on the site of an ancient sacred Roman bath; sunken pillars and architectural fragments litter the bottom of the pool, which is deep enough for swimming.
A sailing odyssey along the “Turkish Riviera,” where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet, unveils the glories of Turkey’s ancient cultures. Whether chartered by a group or family, or individually rented by the cabin, a fully crewed wooden gulet, the two-masted diesel-propelled boat of traditional design, is the perfect way to explore the 230-mile serpentine Lycian coast, much of which is inaccessible by car.
Here the waters take on a luminous blue that can be found nowhere else in Europe (hence the names Turquoise Coast and mavi yolculuk, or Blue Voyage) and provide the perfect backdrop to Greco-Roman ruins, sun-drenched beaches, simple lunches of fresh fish at cheerful dockside cafés, and even a small island given to Cleopatra as a gift by Marc Anthony.
Cruises usually cast off from the ancient port cities of Marmaris, Antalya, and Bodrum, the latter a former fishing village and charming seaside resort whose harbor is dominated by the striking Petronion, or Castle of St. Peter, built by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem in 1402.
Surrounded on three sides by water, it is one of the last and finest examples of Crusader architecture in the East, and was built from the remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the marble 4th century B.C. tomb built for King Mausolus by his sister and wife, Artemesia. As grand a tomb as has ever been built, it gave the English language the word “mausoleum” and stood for 1,500 years before being felled by an earthquake.
Bodrum has changed considerably in the last decade and is best known today as the yachting center of the Aegean. These are supreme cruising waters, with no fewer than eighty anchorages listed between Bodrum and Antalya.
Most gulet cruises are booked for a week, but even a day trip south to the gorgeous mountain-rimmed Gökova Körfezi (Gökova Gulf) is worth it for the pleasures of a secluded cove and a simple fish lunch prepared by your crew. Generally speaking, cruises east of Marmaris take in classical sites, mixed in with some spectacular scenery, while the Aegean voyage west of Marmaris has a less ancient bent.
Konya is Turkey’s most important center of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, and for nearly 700 years has been home to the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. Their Mevlana Tekke (Mevlana Monastery) was founded by the 13th-century poet and philosopher Mevlana (master) Jalaluddin Rumi, who believed that an ecstatic, trancelike state of universal love could be induced by the practice of whirling around and around, in the manner of all things in the universe.
Each year in mid-December his followers celebrate his shebi Arus (“day of union” – the day he died) by performing the sema, the whirling dance, one of the world’s most mesmerizing spectacles. With their right palms up to the sky as if to receive God’s grace, their left palms down as if to distribute it to the earth, the dervishes whirl around the room, directed by a dance master and accompanied by an orchestra of traditional instruments, and eventually assume a whirling position around the sheik, a senior dervish who represents the sun. In whirling away their earthly ties, the dervishes effect their union with God.
Following Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, the Mevlevi order was banned as an obstacle to Turkey’s modernization. After an interruption of twenty-five years, a group of dervishes convinced the local Konya government to once again allow the performance of “the Turn” as a cultural performance. It has continued annually to this day. The Mevlana Monastery – now a museum – is visited by more than a million Turks each year.