LUXURY ON LOCATION: Tomb Raider, Siem Reap,
The Movie: Tomb Raider
Location: Siem Reap
Angkor is probably the world's most amazing temple complex. Protected first by the jungles of northern Cambodia and then by the landmines of the Khmer Rouge, it is has now been well and truly rediscovered by mass tourism .
My first visit to Angkor was around ten years ago when the temples luminous appeal hadn't attracted the full glare of world attention -but it was about to. As we crossed the causeway leading to the main temple of Angkor Wat, the contrast between the poor shanty town at the water's edge and the ornate towers of Angkor reflected in the green lake struck everyone. People stopped, cameras clicked. The shot would take pride of place in a hundred holiday albums.
The only problem was the town wasn't real - it was a film set.
Mostly the guides didn't let on, it spoiled the photo opportunity. Some of them weren't sure what was going on anyway.
A day later the whole complex was closed when filming began in earnest. "It is a very important movie," said our guide proud to be better informed than his colleagues. "[It's] all about an archaeologist uncovering the sacred temples of the old Khmer Empire, a very worthy film about our ancient wonders. It will tell the world about us". Is the story ringing any bells with anyone. Yes you guessed it, the name of the film was "Tomb Raider". Yep, Tomb Raider the wham-bam adventure film based on the video game of the same name. The game where cyber babe Lara Croft (40-24-36) karate-kicks arse as she battles the forces of video evil?
Yes, I can see that would be educational.
The film, starring Angelina Jolie made use of the beauty of the temple site. In the years since my first visit Jolie has morphed from Actionbabe into Supermom and now has a whole tribe of Junior Jolies. Recently Jolie has reminded us how beautiful Cambodia
can be, in her new campaign for Louis Vuitton - photographed by Annie Leibovitz in and around the temple. She and Brad Pitt also support the country through their Maddox Jolie Pitt Foundation. Angkor Wat has changed too. It is no longer just a destination for the dedicated, it too is now world famous; a superstar among heritage sites.
Built during the long golden age (802 to 1402) when the Khmer Empire was the richest and most powerful in South-East Asia, are more mysterious and forbidding than any contrived film set could ever be.
One of the most magical of all the temples is Ta Prohm. Here the jungle has not been cut back and you walk through courtyards where the carvings and giant banyan tree roots are so intertwined that it is hard to tell where stone ends and tree begins.
On my first visit red tape covered the entrance and crowds of Cambodian kids were sticking their heads through the stone windows to gawk at the dolly grips and gaffers that make the movie world turn. We'd come a long way and we weren't going to let some boring old blockbuster stop us seeing one of the wonders of the world so we walked pass the bno entry signs erected by the film crew and climbed in over a pile of fallen granite blocks and through a sculptured gateway. The ruins were so shaded by murky green jungle that it was as if we were swimming through some strange underwater palace.
Angelina Jolie for Louis Vuitton, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in Cambodia
We wandered in silence, the spirit of the stone had taken our tongues. A young monk smiled serenely from a doorway, a splash of brilliant orange against the lacy stonework. For a moment the film crew and their fuss seemed a million miles away.
Not for long. As a shaft of sunlight lit up one of the giant trees I raised my camera.
"You can't take that picture," boomed a voice. Only then did I notice a small figure in black, Angelina Jolie, strolling between two granite blocks with flanked by jack-booted minders. "You're right," I said. "I can't. Not until you all move out of the way." To her credit Jolie apologised and moved.
On a return visit I discovered that although Angkor Wat now has more tour buses and crowds than a Hollywood premiere, the temple complex itself still retains its mystery. Luckily Angkor has more than 100 other temples that location scouts haven't yet discovered. Many are still covered by undergrowth and as more areas are cleared of mines those willing to get off the well-worn tourist track can visit some amazing sites. There are temples where Buddhist nuns live in the towers like cave dwellers, others with walls covered with reliefs of buxom dancing girls, some with causeways and moats and others which still need rescuing from the rainforest. It has taken half a century, but archaeologists in Cambodia have finally completed (July 2011) the renovation of the ancient Angkor Baphuon temple once described as the world's largest three dimensional puzzle.
SOFITEL ROYAL ANGKOR
Angelina Jolie and some 100 of the film crew stayed here during filming. The first of many luxury hotels now built there, the hotel has exotic gardens, a large free-form swimming pool, the luxurious Angkor Spa and a variety of restaurants.
A sumptuous colonial villa with ponds full of lotus flowers and white water lilies. In your suite with private Jacuzzi bath time is a memorable experience in an oversized bathtub with a view of the gardens.
The people of Cambodia are some of the poorest in Asia and have lived through years of war, unrest and genocide. Here's how you can help: the Australian Cambodian Foundation operates the only Australian-run orphanage in the country, founded in 1993 by the amazing Geraldine Cox, who lives in Phnom Penh and works daily with the orphans. It gives shelter to 70 orphans and other refugee children in a family atmosphere. The orphanage is looking for new premises. It is a small charity which means virtually all donations get the orphans. The philosophy of the foundation is to fit in with the local traditions and culture and to teach the children to grow up to be self sufficient. They urgently need funds.
The victims of landmines are everywhere. While in Siem Reap, the town nearest the Angkor complex, you'll drive past the HALO Trust building, a private charity which was supported by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, which helps clear mines around the world. Australian soldiers and civilians are also providing training and organisational support to help Cambodians clear mines.
Luxury Links: The International Campaign to Ban Landmines
The Khmer Empire produced some of the finest art and architecture the world has seen. Now the temples, some remote and unprotected, are being raided by art thieves who hack off the statues and carvings to smuggle to Thailand for private sale. Even if you have the money to do so, don't buy Angkor artefacts in Thailand.