Freckled and tan and thin as a gecko, Nan Kempner is slouching around the pool of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. "Isn't this delicious?" asks the best-dressed-list recidivist as she drags on a bummed cigarette. "Just delicious," Mrs. Thomas Kempner of New York and the gossip columns repeats herself. "Just being here and breaking all the rules."
What exactly are the rules?No smoking and no sun. Those, and a temple a day. Claude Lévi-Strauss was right when he predicted that the modern traveler would spend his leisure chasing the "vestiges of a vanished reality." But he didn't anticipate tourists like Mrs. Thomas Kempner and me.
It's not that we're jaded. We're just taking a pass on the ruins today. Mrs. Kempner is sitting out a World Monument Fund day trip to Angkor Thom; I'm nursing an allergy to force-fed awe with a cold chicken salad and an icy beer. If the customary reaction to the mythical worlds of Disney is a giddiness so severe as to induce vertigo, one typical response to the mythical world of Angkor Wat is a solemnity that can make your head ache. Yet it might surprise you to know that the charms of the two places are not so different.
Just five years after it first became accessible again, Angkor Wat—or, more correctly, Angkor (its largest temple is often confused with the temple complex itself)—already presents itself to a visitor as a well-groomed 77-square-mile temple city, efficiently organized, daunting in its apparent scale but easy to cover in three days. It is a place where a brand-new, Vietnamese-operated visitors' center resembles a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, where foreign hotel chains are furiously building new luxury lodgings, and where the horrors of Cambodia's recent past have been as deftly submerged as the subterranean tunnels that contain the workings of Disney World.
"A year left, maybe," says Sottha Khunn of how long Cambodia will stay unspoiled. We're dining at his mother's house in Siem Reap, Angkor's attendant town. The meal is a feast of many courses and many subtle flavors. Among those at the table is a famous American food critic. By now everyone knows that foodies are reliable bellwethers of the Next Big Thing, and this quixotic diva with wispy blond bangs is in Southeast Asia specifically to sniff out trend.
Khunn himself left Cambodia 27 years ago, first taking a variety of cooking gigs in Paris and eventually becoming the head chef at New York's Le Cirque 2000. As all chefs do, Khunn at last burned out. He came home to Cambodia on an extended visit. Although his family originated in Battambang, there is only a scattering of temples near that colonial city, hardly enough to lure any tourists, and Mrs. Khunn's house doubles as a B&B. In business terms, Angkor is the future of Cambodia.
THE KHUNNS' TWO-STORY HOUSE SITS IN A FENCED COMPOUND on the main road to the temple complex. There is a funerary stupa in the yard dedicated to Sottha's late father. The shrine resembles a Buddhist version of the saccharine Madonnas on the half shell not uncommon in Brooklyn, and you would never think twice about it if you didn't know that it was constructed in part as a response to that time in Cambodian history when religion was forbidden, when families were systematically decimated—a period just 25 years ago, which Khunn, when he refers to it, calls "garbage."
Almost all the land near the Khunns' house has been cleared for resorts, hotels, or restaurants. What isn't already under construction has been earmarked for some sort of tourist enterprise. The staggering rate of development over the past two years more than justifies the New York Times's recent assertion that Angkor "is on its way to becoming the prime tourist attraction in Southeast Asia." The reason is easy enough to understand. Unlike Pagan in Burma, or Indonesia's Borobudur, Siem Reap is almost laughably convenient. The roads are paved. There is, for the moment, no repressive military regime to ruffle the conscience.