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Once unreachable, Angkor Wat now a tourism hot spot

Seemingly lost to war and jungle only a quarter-century ago, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat are fast becoming one of Asia's top tourist destinations.

On April 1, the number of hotel rooms in Siem Reap, the town nearest the site, reached 5,000, a 50 percent jump over the number six months earlier.

The newer places include the Angkor Palace Resort and Spa, the Victoria Angkor Hotel and the Goldiana Angkor Hotel. To fill these hotel rooms, entrepreneurs are opening new land, sea and air routes to Siem Reap, now Cambodia's No. 1 tourism destination.

As memories of Cambodia as a dangerous destination fade, the country seems likely to attract 1-million foreign tourists this year, a third more than in 2003.

For the buses that bring in backpacking tourists, the number of border crossings from Thailand has increased to five, from two last year. In a few months, paving is to be completed on a highway between here and Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, 200 miles south.

When the peak tourism season began last November, a fast, air-conditioned boat service was inaugurated between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The boat trip along the Tonle Sap river and lake takes six hours, compared with 45 minutes for one of the nine daily domestic flights.

Should visitors wish to bypass the capital, there are now direct flights to Siem Reap from Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok (seven flights a day) and several other Asian cities. When the dry season returns next fall, Korean Airlines plans to start scheduled service from Seoul.

Phnom Penh has ample charms, with the classic gold and white roofs of the Royal Palace and the lazy, chocolate-colored waters of the Mekong River. But Kenneth Cramer, an American who publishes free guides to the two cities, says his Angkor guide is bigger than his Phnom Penh guide.

"Siem Reap is exploding," John Vink, a Phnom Penh-based photographer, said on his first visit here in two years. Over a lunch of fish cooked in coconut milk at the Cafe Indochine, he explained, "There is an incredible amount of construction."

A few blocks away, on the veranda of the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Clarence Tan, the former manager, said competition was coming for this 1932 landmark hotel. "Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton, Westin _ they are all nosing around here," he said. The hotel, which he ran until the end of 2003, was renovated and reopened in 1997.

Questions play in the minds of many here: Can hoteliers fill the beds? Can the temples withstand the crowds?

"In June (2003), we could not sell a cup of coffee," said Mathieu Ravaux, the French owner of Chez Sop'hea, as he struggled six months later to keep up with carloads of French tourists rolling up to his restaurant across from the main entrance to Angkor Wat.

To prepare for more tourists, international aid donors have been providing financing for improved transportation infrastructure in the temple area _ road signs, newly paved roads through the most popular temple areas and a new air terminal for international arrivals, complete with marble floors and modern flight monitors.

To ensure the availability of clean drinking water, Siem Reap province has embarked on a $10-million water supply project, financed by Japan. Separately, work is to start in June on a $3.5-million sewer system and treatment plant, financed by the Asian Development Bank.

With the temple area cleared of land mines, the biggest physical danger to visitors is crossing streets choked with motorbikes.

Tickets to the temple sites are not priced to encourage off-season visits or to encourage high-season tourists to space out their visits. Most buy a $40, three-day pass. Instead of allowing tourists to spread their visits to the temples out over a week, they have to be used consecutively. By the end of Day 2, many visitors are "templed out."