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KING MEKONG; John Honeywell joins a river cruise in southeast Asia full of contrasts and memories.

Byline: John Honeywell

It was Lara Croft who introduced most of us to Angkor Wat, but she is not the only Tomb Raider to have plundered these Cambodian relics. This temple complex forms the biggest religious monument in the world - lost to the jungle until it was rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 19th century.

It largely survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that killed off much of the population and brought the country to its knees in the 1970s and 80s. But more recently, it came under attack from invading bounty hunters crossing the border from Thailand.

Now the greatest threat comes from the millions of tourists who are allowed to clamber over it pretty much at will.

The temples were built in the 12th century for Hindu worship and later converted for Buddhists by a Cambodian king who changed his country's religion.

I was lucky to be able to ascend to the highest point of Angkor Wat earlier this year. I also joined marauding macaques to clamber over the many faces of the Bayon temple, and marvelled at the way Ta Prohm - the real Tomb Raider temple - is being reclaimed by the jungle.

Before much longer, these intricately carved sandstone structures will inevitably be roped off and the numbers of admissions restricted.

A new visitor centre is already under construction, and eco-friendly electric transport will soon replace the swarms of tuk-tuks that deliver many Angkor's two million visitors a year from their hotels and hostels in nearby Siem Reap.

I was staying at the Sofitel hotel, with a 56-strong group of travellers part way through a 15-day Mekong Adventure with Viking River Cruises.

We had already spent two days in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi - where we trudged in solemn single file past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh in the mausoleum, and held our sides as we watched earlymorning sessions of Laughing Yoga in the city's parks.

We basked in the serenity of the temples the Temple of Literature - dedicated to Confucius - and we were driven in battery-powered cars for a whistle-stop tour of the frantically busy old town.

Having flown from Hanoi to our three-night stay in Siem Reap, it was a fourhour coach trip to join our ship at Kampong Cham, along roads which varied from highway to cart track.

A packed lunch kept us going on the journey and a comfort stop gave us the chance to get close to the phenomenon that is Tonle Sap - the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia. In the rainy season it more than quadruples in area and the river linking it to the Mekong reverses its direction of flow.

The lake feeds Cambodia with millions of tonnes of fish and it also supports thousands of acres of rice fields.

The seven days travelling on the Mekong went by in a blur of one-off experiences that will be remembered for years. The two-night stay in Phnom Penh was full of contrasts. Some of us drank our way through happy hour at the Raffles Hotel, spending more on one cocktail than we might have paid for a 50-minute massage downtown.

For the energetic, each day on the boat began before breakfast with a t'ai chi session on the sun deck. Excursions, shepherded by cruise directors Henry and Kong, took us to homes where families weave silk scarves to be blessed by monks in a Buddhist monastery, and to a silversmith village where six-year-old children learn their craft by turning tin cans into ornaments.

We visited a fish farm and an agricultural community where smiling women broke off from picking chillies to pat the bulging stomach of the visiting Happy Buddha (as I became for the day).

Somewhat more sombre was the visit to Cambodia's Killing Fields, with a heartwrenching description of the Pol Pot atrocities from a local guide who was one of the few members of his family to survive.

We sweated in a Vietnamese brick factory as men lifted very heavy baskets

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The temples form the biggest religious monument in the world

CAPTION(S):

TICKET TO RIDE Above left, John puts his feet up on a rickshaw, top, Viking cruise up the Mekong, and bottom right, the busy central indoor market in Ho Chi Minh City
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 28, 2016
Words:713
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