Saturday, October 23, 2004

China: Proof there's life beyond the Great Wall

China: Proof there's life beyond the Great Wall

Jeremy Atiyah recommends Chinese destinations off the beaten track.

12:01AM BST 23 Oct 2004

In the 13th century, this was not only the capital of
China but probably the largest and richest city on earth - to which Marco Polo notably bore witness.
Today it is still one of the most attractive cities in China. Its outstanding feature, around which the city curls, is the so-called West Lake, famed throughout China for its vistas of trees, hills, flowers, causeways, fishing boats, pavilions, temples and pagodas.
Spending a few days cycling or walking by the lake is a quintessential Chinese experience. Hangzhou can be reached by train in a couple of hours from Shanghai.

China's northernmost large city is as cold as Siberia in midwinter, with temperatures hovering between -20 and -30C. Thanks to the climate, the local people have been able to establish one of the world's largest ice- and snow-carving festivals.
The so-called Ice Lantern Festival lasts throughout January and into February. During these weeks you can visit entire buildings of ice that have been constructed on the frozen Songhua River, some of them many storeys high (slightly scaled-down replicas of the world's most famous buildings are currently in vogue).

Dress warmly and book early - the number of annual visitors, mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, now exceeds two million. Activities on offer include riding in horse-drawn sledges and swimming in holes cut in the ice.

The city itself is fascinating, much influenced by its proximity to Russia, with onion-domed Orthodox churches and colonial architecture aplenty. You can reach it on an overnight train ride from Beijing.

Holy mountains 
Some are sacred to Buddhism, others to Taoism, though the untrained eye will find them hard to distinguish. Either way, they have immense cultural and historical resonance and the Chinese set great store by them. Originally they were climbed by emperors and monks - and they have been scaled by pilgrims and tourists ever since.

Visiting any of the mountains today will provide you not only with classic Chinese scenery (temples and pinnacles emerging from misty bamboo forests, twisted pine trees on isolated ledges) but also with enthusiastic and gregarious Chinese multitudes, all "doing" tourism in the 21st century.
Among the most notable of the holy mountains are Huang Shan in Anhui province (easily accessible from Shanghai), Tai Shan in Shandong province, and Emei Shan in Sichuan province.

You can't get much closer to the heart and soul of
China than this, the birthplace of the great sage Confucius. For 2,500 years until the beginning of the 20th century, his descendants (the "first family under heaven") lived continuously in the centre of town at the fabulous Confucius Mansion, open to visitors.

The adjacent Confucius Temple is one of the grandest complexes of its kind in China, falling little short of Beijing's Forbidden City.

Qufu is a small, inexpensive, out-of-the-way town, with few foreign tourists and a splendidly tranquil feel - as well as some great Confucius souvenirs. Reach it on an overnight train from Beijing.

The Three Gorges are all that most tourists see of China's most populous province, but you could easily spend a lifetime holidaying here, starting out from Chongqing, one of the world's vastest cities, heading on to the Wolong Panda Reserve and climbing up into the rugged fringes of the Tibetan plateau.

The region's capital, Chengdu, is one of the most attractive large cities in China and famous for its teahouses. You can also join endless games of chess, take in an evening performance of Sichuan Opera and feast on some of the best food in China. You can fly into Chengdu from any of China's large cities, though it's an awfully long way by train.

Whatever your views on the political status of modern
Tibet, you'll have to enter China if you wish to visit this vast, beautiful region.

A convenient and hassle-free way to see Tibet is to book a one-way tour from Kathmandu (in Nepal) to Lhasa, along the Friendship Highway. Spend a week at it and you'll get to see many of Tibet's best-known monasteries, including those near Shigatse and Gyantse. A side trip to Everest Base Camp is also possible.

Lhasa is not quite the Shangri-la it once was. Traffic and high-rise office blocks now litter the downtown district, but its principal sights - above all, the Potala Palace - are still captivating.
Travelling on from here into the rest of China, you can either fly or take an exceedingly long and uncomfortable bus ride (unless you can wait until 2006, when China's rail network is scheduled to reach Lhasa).

Average winter temperatures in the regional capital,
Kunming, are about 20C warmer than in Beijing. For many travellers the best way to enter Yunnan is by flying from Thailand. You can also get there by bus from Luang Prabang, in Laos, or by train from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Apart from the weather, highlights include the small and traditional towns of Dali and Lijian, both touristy - but not too touristy - and no more than a short bike ride away from beautiful countryside.
In the far south, on the borders with Burma and Laos, lies remote and semi-tropical Xishuangbanna, where tourists trek though jungles populated by elephants and tribal peoples. Kunming is a three-hour flight from Beijing and about two hours from Hong Kong.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

On top of the world

On top of the world

In south-east Switzerland lies a region of vines, fine food, fighting cows and great high-altitude skiing. Jeremy Atiyah explores the canton of Valais

Published: 02 October 2004

Where do you go in Switzerland if you prefer good country living to skiing? Clue: not to the German part. In fact, the best place is almost certainly the canton of Valais, in the south-east corner of the country. You are practically on the Mediterranean down there anyway. Neither France nor Italy is much more than a peak away, and vines are as common as ski runs.

The whole canton is a rustic, jovial sort of place, full of dark-wood chalets and cows and geranium-boxes. As everyone keeps reminding me when I arrive, it boasts 22,000 vine growers, and 47 different varieties of grape. The region is by far the largest wine-producing area of Switzerland, sustained by a climate that is almost as sunny as Italy's. Why bother with skiing in a place like this?

Which isn't to say that there isn't any skiing. Valais happens to contain nearly fifty peaks of above 4,000m. Up there, among the serious mountains, you'll find attractions ranging from frozen pavilions to the gigantic ice-sheet of the Aletsch Glacier. You can go for a ride on the Glacier Express mountain railway. And some of Switzerland's most serious ski resorts are up here, including Verbier and Zermatt.

But as for me, right now, I'm sitting in the oenothèque of the Chateau de Villa, in the lovely little town of Sierre in the Rhône valley. An oenothèque is like a discothèque, except more sophisticated: instead of gyrating, we quaff wine and nibble amuse-bouches in the cellar of an ancient chateau, while discussing the numerous varieties of grape that are grown in this valley.

Later, I go for a traditional dinner of raclette in the restaurant upstairs. This is a variation on fondue, though the difference is more a matter of style than substance. With raclette, the waiter brings you your plate with a small yellow puddle of cheese already on it. When you have mopped this up with bread and potatoes, a second, different puddle is brought to you. And then a third. And then a fourth. And so on. Some hearty Germans have been known to get through 15 or 20 in an evening, though I manage just five, and even then the subtle distinctions between each are lost on me. Nevertheless, with the local wines, it makes a heart-warming dinner.

My Valaisian hosts, meanwhile, as soon as they hear I am British, begin thanking my race for having invented tourism to Switzerland back in the 19th century. They start going misty eyed at the thought of Edward Whymper, who conquered the Matterhorn in 1865. And they finish by telling me how grateful they are for the role my forefathers played in the Swiss economic and social revival of that century. "Not at all," I reply.

I personally have no intention of climbing the Matterhorn, though I confess that I can glimpse it from the balcony of my hotel. I am staying in the little village of St Luc, in a quiet little side valley called the Val d'Anniviers, located vertically above Sierre. The valley is so untouristy that it doesn't even get a mention in the Rough Guide to Switzerland, though in typical Swiss fashion, frequent and punctual local buses serve it from Sierre, dropping off passengers at every village and hamlet in sight.

The village is not exactly throbbing with life; its top tourist attraction is a an ancient bakery. But my hotel is the 100-year-old Bella Tola, run by an astoundingly efficient and hospitable couple called Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs, along with their three picturesque daughters. It's the kind of place that Edward Whymper might have felt comfortable in, to judge by the shuttered windows, oriental rugs, creaking floorboards and antlered heads on the walls. What's more, we get superb four-course meals for dinner every night, which almost rules out anything as rash as going skiing.

The weather forecast is for cloud and snow, but every morning the sun shines gloriously. The locals look unsurprised. "It is the microclimate of the Val d'Anniviers," they say wisely. "It is the same sun that grows our grapes."

In this weather there is no excuse not to try the skiing, and funnily enough it turns out that there are plenty of options. Within walking distance of the Bella Tola, you can jump on a funicular up to St Luc's own pistes, where the quiet pleasure of skiing in an area with no foreign tourists is soon clear. Over the next couple of days I try two other skiing areas in the valley, namely Grimentz and Zinal. At Grimentz, from the ski lift, I stroll to the top of a 3,000m peak to gaze out over what feels like most of Switzerland. I might be in a valley full of country bumpkins, but this feels quite glamorous.

And at the end of the day I end up in the absurdly picturesque village of Grimentz, with its geranium boxes and old stone barns and towers. As dusk falls, I am taken on a little tour of the village, stopping first at the Maison Bourgeoise, a kind of parliament for village elders. It's a very Swiss place, half town hall, half secret society. Its walls are lined with ancient pewter jugs and the coats of arms of members. In the cellar I am shown giant barrels of wine, some of which have been here for centuries. Given that they are topped up whenever the barrel is half empty, this may be the only chance I will ever have to drink a 17th-century vintage, albeit a diluted one. It tastes like strong sherry.

The tour continues. The next stop, oddly enough, is a cowshed, where local cows are tended and fed during the winter months. A big old farmer who calls himself the President of the Cow Co-operative arrives and introduces me to the beasts. They low, and toss their pretty heads. When the snow melts, they will all be taken up to the hills to graze in the meadows. It is then that the cow-fighting tournaments of Valais will get underway.

In fact, to the Valaisians themselves, these tournaments are no laughing matter. They are the highlight of the cultural calender. Men go about glued to their radios. It is the cows themselves who hold the competitions; their owners merely organise rules and venues (Alpine meadows usually do).

The tournaments proceed on a knockout basis, with each pair of cows wrestling head-to-head until the weaker cow surrenders. There are strict rules and categories. There are referees. There are even anti-doping tests. Such injuries as occur are superficial, and deaths are unheard of. Elimination rounds throughout Valais eventually culminate in a grand final that is held in May, near Sion. This final tournament is annually attended by at least 10,000 people.

The president of the Grimentz Cow Co-op lovingly points out a particularly fetching cow that came second last year. I ask him if the farmers of the Val d'Anniviers love their cows more than their wives? "Never!" he retorts with an appalled expression. "We love them equally!" I understand what he means. Every cow has a name, and each has a cute fringe and long eyelashes. I say goodbye to them, and head back into town. I think I'll take the fondue tonight, rather than the steak.


Jeremy Atiyah travelled to St Luc in Switzerland with Inntravel (01653 617906; A week's skiing in the Val d'Anniviers costs from £618 per person including seven nights half-board at the Hotel Bella Tola, return flights from Heathrow to Geneva and transfers. The same package taking the Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris, with onward rail tickets to Switzerland, costs from £663. Saturday and Sunday departures are available from 19 December-3 April. Inntravel can pre-book downhill ski passes at discounted rates. British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies to Geneva from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Swiss (0845 601 0956; and Kuwait Airways (020-7412 0007; fly from Heathrow and easyJet (0871 750 0100; from Gatwick, Luton, Liverpool and Nottingham. The best way to reach the Valais is to buy a "transfer ticket" (£53) in the UK from the Switzerland Travel Centre (00 800 100 200 30;, which will take you from Geneva airport to any train station in the canton and back. Trains depart hourly for Sierre and take two hours.

The writer stayed at the Grand Hotel Bella Tola (00 41 27 475 1444; in St Luc. Prices for a double room start at Sfr320 (£141) half-board. St Luc is a one-hour bus journey from Sierre, with a change at Vissoie. Buses depart every hour.

The Glacier Express (00 41 27 921 4111; travels from Zermatt to St Moritz, with a total journey time of around eight hours.
The cow-fighting tournaments, known as Les Combats de Reines (00 41 27 327 3570; take place from March-May every year.

Switzerland Tourism (020-851 1700;
David St Vincent

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Banyan Tree, Bangkok

Banyan Tree, Bangkok

A bed for the night in Thailand

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 05 September 2004

Where is it?

On the South Sathon Road, in the middle of Bangkok's business and diplomatic district. It is about 10 minutes from the entertainment and shopping area of Silom Road and the BTS Saladang station.

It's a spa hotel with open-air swimming pools and dining areas of the kind you would never expect to find in the middle of the urban hell that downtown Bangkok sometimes feels like.

The comfort factor
Apart from the glass-fronted eating area overlooking an (artificial) craggy rock-face with waterfalls and a banyan tree, the lobby areas are pleasingly low-key. It's discreet and businesslike, with a predominance of dark colours. When I arrived a flautist was playing in the bar. The rooms are all suites, comprising living rooms, albeit smallish ones, and bedrooms with king-size beds. All rooms have incense and aromatherapy burners. Many also have excellent views. The hotel has 61 floors, reached by lift at an astonishing speed.

The bathroom
There is a shower and a separate bath of the short, deep, Asian variety (you can sit in it, but not lounge). Distinguished black stone pots hold the soaps and shampoos. Snazzy, his-and-hers, black-and-white cosmetics bags contain executive mouthwash, loofah mitts, cotton buds, cotton wool, toothbrushes, Colgate, sewing kits, shavers, bath hats, bath salts, nail files etc. In fact, those bags are large enough to stash all the cosmetics you've lifted from other hotels on the same trip.

The food and drink
The rich and glamorous will not need to leave the hotel. The Vertigo Grill is the centrepiece of this selection, which includes some of Bangkok's most stylish restaurants. One of the highest outdoor restaurants in the world, it is the place for a once-in-a-lifetime meal. You reach it by a steep flight of steps running up from the 60th floor. Once there, you'll enjoy fresh-air views that stretch for miles. To one side, at the Moon Bar, people lounge on cushions and drink while looking into thin air. The food is American-bistro-style, with emphasis on top-quality ingredients rather than sophisticated or elaborate preparation. The grilled meats and seafood are superb, and the tiger prawns (skewered on a liquorice stick) will probably be the biggest you have seen. You could easily find yourselves paying £100 per head for three courses with wine. Before booking, check the weather: at these heights, the slightest breeze becomes a gale. It can also be chilly (but lovely silk fringed scarves are provided for ladies in the event of too much wind). But you needn't worry about things blowing out of your hands and plummeting on to the heads of innocent tuk-tuk drivers far below - the place mats are immovable stone and the menus are solid metal. If Vertigo doesn't take your fancy, you can descend to the 60th floor to dine at the (indoor) Chinese restaurant, Bai Yun, instead. This restaurant, serving Nouvelle Cantonese cuisine, is also one of Thailand's best.

The people
At the Vertigo bar they look like and probably are internet millionaires: the cream of Asian youth, casually dressed, talking in numerous languages (but if the customers look good, they rarely match the waiting staff who are as stunning as they are charming).

The area
As at all Banyan Tree hotels, life revolves round the spa. You can sit eating raw vegetables and drinking apple and ginger tea, and getting your knots worked on, then go for an outdoor swim in a pool that is so high above the streets that you'll feel as though you are in the countryside. The spa, spread over two floors, has a sauna, steam room, wet and dry treatments, body wrapping, facials, as well as aerobics, yoga and dancing classes.

The access
Wheelchair access, except the top-floor restaurant. Children are welcome.

The damage
A deluxe suite is cheapest, at $160 (£90) per room.

The address
Banyan Tree Bangkok, 21/100 South Sathon Road, Sathon, Bangkok 10120 Thailand (01494 675636;

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Italy: Head For The Heel

Italy: Head For The Heel

Forget Tuscany. The new 'in' region is Puglia. Jeremy Atiyah finds out if it's hip or hype

Published: 18 July 2004

Puglia? The Next Big Thing? The new Chiantishire? That's what I keep hearing. The heel of Italy, I learn, has suddenly become fashionable. Tourists are discovering that its olive oil, wine, landscape, art and culture exist in proportions previously thought to exist only in Tuscany.

But unlike Tuscany, with its British veneer, Puglia is being seen as more authentic. Or so people want to believe. Well, all right, Puglia didn't give us the Renaissance. It didn't change the world. It doesn't have Florence or Siena. It doesn't have Dante, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medici family or the Borgias. But it does have funny little rustic cottages with conical roofs called trulli. And since the beginning of 2004, it also has three new direct air connections to the UK, where previously there were none.

And I confess that this is bothering me. Let me declare my interests: I love Puglia, and its gentle hills, its Baroque towns, and its funny rustic cottages. I don't want to share it with the hordes of Brtis from Tuscany. I pride myself on having found Puglia before Ryanair did. I already feel nostalgic for the days when you had to fly to Rome, and catch the overnight train to Lecce, arriving shortly after dawn in a strange southern land, dotted with olive trees and little white villages that looked as if they might be in Greece.

Back then, you never met any British tourists during your holiday. The trulli were allowed to crumble in peace. The azure sea was the preserve of effortlessly brown and beautiful locals. The only industry of the scuffed fishing ports was fishing. The only sounds from the interior were those of peasants fermenting their wine and pressing their olives and killing their pigs.

But now what? I'm back, having just arrived on the new Ryanair flight to Bari (very convenient it was, too). What I want to know is: how long will it take for Puglia's lovely old towns to fill to the brim with tourists? When will the overflow from San Gimignano and Siena arrive? How long will it take before those picturesque hillsides with their ruinous trulli resound to the sounds of stonemasons laughing their way to the bank? How long until every bewildered Pugliese peasant has his very own English neighbour?
The omens are not promising. Puglia's southern climate invites year-round tourism, and as a long thin peninsula, it offers an inordinately large amount of coastline, just waiting to be developed. I've already heard rumours that several golf courses and marinas are planned.

Anyway, I'll be staying in the Valle d'Itria, a region famous for its gentle hills, fertile land, historic towns and trulli. This is by no means the only attractive part of Puglia: the heel of Italy stretches for another hundred miles to the south of here, while to the north lies the wild and beautiful Gargano peninsula. But I am sticking to the rural delights of Trulloland. And the first thing I do on arrival is call the owners of Long Travel, one of the very few UK tour operators who have specialised in Puglia since long before the advent of Ryanair. Ray and Annie Long promptly take me on a tour of the trulli that they are letting out to tourists. We are soon on tiny lanes, amid meadows and orchards blooming with poppies and other wild flowers.

In case anyone still doesn't know, a trullo is a stone cottage topped by one or (usually) several conical stone roofs. Some are tiny cottages; others verge on the palatial. Driving around the Valle d'Itria, trulli roofs can be seen peeping up on all sides. If you drive off the main roads and on to the country lanes, trulli are sometimes all you'll see. Many comprise little more than quaint piles of rubble amid the almond, walnut and olive trees. The Longs' own trulli are gorgeous little cottages in perfect rustic locations of the sort that any self-respecting Englishman would die for. I, too, covet their natural stone floors, their terraces, their courtyards and their trees. It is hard to imagine that Ryanair customers will not soon be clamouring for them.

But strangely enough the Longs themselves seem ambivalent about the growing tide of tourists. In the short term, they concede that their business may profit. But in the long term? "We aren't sure," they murmur, "whether the local authorities can be trusted not to go mad." And conversation turns to golf courses, giant hotels, marinas ...

As for foreigners coming in and buying up all the trulli - it's already happening. The masons who are qualified to restore those conical roofs are indeed prospering, as are some who are not. Naturally, I am bitter about this, as should any Englishman be who has always wanted to buy a palace in Puglia for next to nothing, and live there safe in the knowledge that his nearest English neighbour is in Tuscany.

Swallowing my envy, I accompany the Longs to meet their own neighbour, whom I can certify to be a peasant of the most authentic variety. He shows us his pig, his cow, his sheep, his rabbits. We see the place where his wife prepares her homemade pasta and bakes her own homemade bread. We sample his cheeses and sausages over a glass of rough wine, and I worry that on present trends, these humble Pugliese pleasures may be extinct within a few years.

In the evening I head back to my lodgings in Martina Franca, one of several exquisite towns in the valley. Through a local agency, I've rented a flat in the old town: I've got my very own vaulted ceilings, stone floors, antique furniture and a roof terrace. All around me is a warren of whitewashed lanes, staircases, arches and terraces and tunnels. It echoes to the sounds not of traffic, but of eating and cooking. Turn any corner and you'll walk face-first into a pair of pants, where someone's laundry line has sagged.

There are more foreign tourists wondering round Martina Franca than in the past, but right now I can report that the locals outnumber them by about a thousand to one. My visit coincides with Easter and the streets are thronged with immaculately dressed families heading for church. By 11pm they will have transferred, small kids and all, to the restaurants.

Over dinner, I notice with approval that increased tourism has not yet inflated the price of wine: a litre of house red in my restaurant of choice costs €2.50 (£1.70). And when I order the dirt-cheap "starter of the house" I am brought a vast tray of delicacies, including pickled mushrooms, succulent mozzarella, crunchy fennel, spicy meatballs, tender octopus, fizzy cheese, stuffed zucchini and cured meats (and afterwards the waiter looks troubled when I decline the offer of a main dish).

By the time that's finished it's nearly midnight, and in the streets an Easter procession has begun, overlooked by the ancient Baroque façades of the central piazza. Dumpy ladies in black carrying Roman candles come followed by men in strange capes and headdresses, and emergency workers with "Misericordia" written on their jackets. At the sight of the effigies of Jesus and Mary, the silent crowd breaks spontaneously into a reverent prayer. In the background a band of trumpeters and trombonists is playing an emotional and, indeed, epic dirge that seems to owe as much to Hollywood as to the Catholic church. Given the almost complete absence of foreigners, I attribute this to TV, rather than to the corrupting influence of tourism.

As I already know, historic and traditional towns such as Martina Franca are plentiful in this region of Puglia. Nearby is Ostuni, piled on a hill overlooking the sea. Cisternino and Locorotondo are equally charming. Only Alberobello, self-appointed capital of Trulloland, strikes me as avoidable. It boasts entire streets lined with trulli. It has a trullo church. It has something called the Supreme Trullo, which claims to be the grandest trullo in existence, and the mother of all trulli. My hope is that Alberobello will suck in the new surfeit of tourists and detain them for as long as possible, perhaps in a dungeon of the Supreme Trullo.

For my last couple of days I decide to get out into the countryside, to sample another kind of accommodation unique to Puglia. A masseria is the local version of a country house, or chateau. Traditionally, these grand old buildings are flat-roofed, block-shaped structures, with floors and ceilings of native Leccese stone. If you have half a million quid to spend on your Pugliese holiday home, you buy one of these instead of a trullo. Some of them, in the meantime, have been restored and converted into country hotels.

I try a couple. One is the Masseria San Domenico, which offers probably the most luxurious accommodation in the whole of Puglia, with its private beach, giant swimming pool and golf course. The masseria itself is in beautiful white stone, with little Baroque flourishes; its rooms give out on to ancient olive groves full of flowers. The atmosphere is expensive and classy, though I am somewhat intimidated by the presence of security guards attending the VIP guests. The other masseria I get to try is the Melograno, which has the faint air of an Andalusian (or Mexican) hacienda about it. Its courtyards are dotted with some of the most gnarled and ancient olive trees I have ever seen in my life. With its pool and its shady gardens, this will place will succeed, I suspect, in absorbing a few Ryanair customers.

But the general problem of staying in a masseria-hotel becomes apparent at dinner time. The attached restaurant will no doubt be classy. Except the problem is this: who wants to eat in a classy restaurant in Puglia? Who wants to sit at a table next to a besuited Milanese banker and his wife, in a region where the humblest, cheapest trattoria is unfailingly excellent?

From the Melograno, after dark, I escape by car a few miles down the road to the seaport of Monopoli, one of several similar ports along this coast. At ten o'clock at night its piazzas are packed with perambulating townsfolk. Waves are beating on its massive stone walls. Fishing boats are pulled up in its ancient harbour. In tiny restaurants people are ordering fishy delicacies, while old women are mourning for their sons lost at sea in winter storms of long ago, and giant old churches of weather-beaten stone are looming over the hearts and minds of all of us.

It is atmospheric rather than beautiful, but that's all right by me. None but the most dedicated aficionados of Puglia, I suspect, will ever find time for towns such as this one.


How to get there
Return flights to Bari with Ryanair (0871-246 0000; cost from £98 return in August.
A week's car hire through National Car Rental (0870 400 4560; costs around £202.

Where to stay
Long Travel (01694 722193; specialises in tailor-made holidays in Puglia, with trulli of different sizes available for rent. Prices start at around £635 per trullo per week in August, including car hire.

Long Travel also organises hotel accommodation. Bed and breakfast at the five-star Il Melograno, near Monopoli, costs from £125 per person per night through Long Travel.
I Paesi della Luce (00 39 080 430 1588; offers quaint old apartments inside the old town of Martina Franca from about £35 per night. Double rooms at the Masseria San Domenico, near Savelletri, cost from £160 per night booked through Great Hotels of the World (0800-032 4254;

Further information
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254;

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Soviet, Islamic Turkish - join the culture club

Soviet, Islamic Turkish - join the culture club

Jeremy Atiyah offers a guide to all the 'Stans'

Published: 16 May 2004

Apart from sharing a common syllable at the end of their names, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia all offer a combination of searing deserts and vast mountains, overhung by the whiff of long-lost civilisations.

The culture is a mix of Soviet, Islamic and Turkish, which can make for bureaucratic difficulties: separate visas are required for all the countries, and lone tourists are sometimes viewed with suspicion.
A tour operator might help; some offer overland trips spanning several of the Stans together. Explore Worldwide (01252 760100;, runs a 25-day trip through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China for about £2,100 per person, including flights. Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; offers a 21-day Spectacular Central Asia tour, combining Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for £1,990 per person, including flights.

You get an idea of Kazakhstan when you realise that it is the ninth largest country in the world, but that only 15 million people live in it. Most of the country comprises drab, empty steppe, and most of the towns were constructed in the Soviet era, when aesthetics counted for nothing. Of more interest are the erstwhile capital city, Almaty (now Central Asia's most cosmopolitan and prosperous city), and the mountainous southern and eastern fringes of the country, where fabulous trekking can easily be arranged in the Tian Shan and Altai ranges.

Getting there: British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies direct to Almaty from £590 return. Tour operators: Naturetrek (01962 733051; offers two-week, all-inclusive birding and botany tours from £2,000.

As a country, this Stan is the most liberal in the region. It is also by far the easiest to visit: its government (unlike that of most of its neighbours) actively promotes tourism. And given its abundance of stunning mountain scenery, the trekking here is some of the best in the world. After trekking with horses in the Tian Shan Mountains, you can sunbathe on the beach by the shores of lake Issyk-Kul, once used by the Soviet Navy for secret torpedo-testing.

Getting there: British Airways flies direct to Bishkek from £690. Tour operators: Regent Holidays (see above) offers a 12-day tour from £1,250 per person, including flights, b&b in Bishkek, full board and shared facilities outside Bishkek and when camping at Song Kul, transfers and sightseeing with English-speaking guides.

Regrettably, this Stan has hardly been visited by tourists since the fall of the Soviet Union, due to ongoing civil strife. A glance at the map tells part of the story: it is a strangely thin country, prodded by fingers of its neighbours. And its longest border is with Afghanistan. The one part of the country that is safely visited is the Fannsky Gory mountain range - great for trekking, but the best base from which to launch visits to this area is Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Getting there: If you want to fly from Europe to Dushanbe there's a once-weekly flight from St Petersburg on Pulkovo Aviation. Good luck. Tour operators: Steppes East (01285 651010; can organise a trekking itinerary for you, starting from Samarkand. A two-week trip costs about £2,000 per person.

This is one of Asia's most obscure and dullest countries, cut off from Europe by the Caspian Sea, and from most other places by mountains. Its deserts are thinly scattered with the ruins of long-forgotten Silk Road cities, if you can find them. One other reason to go there might be to witness a grotesque 21st-century personality cult: portraits and statues of President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov are everywhere, including a floodlit 12m-high golden statue revolving atop a tower in the centre of the capital city, Ashgabat. The country's second city, Turkmenbashi, has also been named after him. I've been there. It's very dull.

Getting there: Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; flies twice a week via Istanbul for £545.

As a cultural destination, this is by far the most exciting of the Stans. You can go to the opera on the cheap in the capital city Tashkent, before heading for the historic Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Given that you can also arrange fabulous trekking here in the Fannsky Gory (actually in Tajikistan but best accessed from Samarkand), you might not want to bother with the other Stans at all. The only downside of Uzbekistan is that it is a nasty police state.

Getting there: British Airways flies direct to Tashkent from £525. Tour operators: Intrepid Travel (020-8960 6333; offers a 10-day budget tour for £625, not including travel into the country.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Who needs the EU?

Not Switzerland, that's for sure. As other countries forge bonds, Jeremy Atiyah explores a land that likes to remain apart

Published: 25 April 2004

I'm in Geneva, riding noiseless trams and looking at beautiful parks and expensive shops. Authoritative studies say that Switzerland is the world's best country to live in. But is it a happy place?

The Swiss haven't always had it so good. They've had their wars. Two hundred years ago, their country was roughly equivalent to today's Afghanistan. No wonder Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein's monster during her sojourn by Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816: the Swiss of old were not chocolatiers or bankers or clock-makers, but wild mountain warriors, fiercer than the Taliban.

Switzerland has evolved somewhat since then. Instead of belligerent mercenaries, it now has the Red Cross, the Olympic Association and much of the UN. It has top hotel-management schools and business schools. It has Fifa, Uefa and countless international sporting federations. Geneva alone has 32,000 international civil servants.

But what does this internationalism do for a country? Aren't the Swiss in danger of forgetting who they are? Switzerland deigned to become the 190th member of the UN in 2002, but it still looks down its Alpine nose at the EU. It fears economic migrants from countries such as Britain. And it has become so rigorously neutral that it seems to have lost any indigenous personality beyond a half-glimpsed memory of cows and cheese and yodelling milkmaids.

Well, that's an impression you can get. Right now, I'm in the windy old town of Geneva, where people scurry past with their collars up and their hats down. The buildings are dark and sombre. By the cathedral, I step into the Auditorium of Calvin, a cold chapel with walls of bare stone and lines of uncomfortable chairs. A grudging vase of flowers sits on the table. Geneva as a stronghold of Calvinism? That took plenty of character. This city is located approximately in France's kidney. Louis XIV later tried to kill it off. The most curious thing is that Protestant disdain for earthly riches subsequently transformed into the capitalism that filled Geneva with earthly riches. Bad luck John Calvin.

Hints that Switzerland was becoming a more cheerful place were already there in the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron turned up. He took the Villa Deodati as his lodgings - It is still one of the finest residences in Geneva, a mini-palace, commanding the leafy slopes of Cologny, with views over the lake towards Mont Blanc. All Byron and his friends lacked was some decent weather.

Meanwhile, in the present day, I ride a tram to Geneva's so-called International Quarter, to visit the Museum of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. I spend two hours here learning about the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality that inspired the movement, and that have saved countless lives over the years. It is a humbling, sobering experience.

And when I later board the train to Lausanne, I am still wondering why, in our envious little hearts, we harbour such petulant feelings towards this civilised little country. Why do we prefer to make jokes about cuckoo clocks, rather than talking about the Red Cross? Why do we think we detect the foul whiff of Nazi collaboration in the fresh Alpine air? Why do we still suspect the Swiss of abetting international criminals via their secretive banking operations?

I see little justice in this, but then again, I am now being treated to an expensive lunch by a nice lady from the tourist office at the Lausanne Palace Hotel, which means tucking into perch fillets fished straight from the lake, along with a dandelion salad and a crisp white wine, while looking out over Lake Geneva's clean, blue waters stretching out mistily to the feet of the massive French Alps.

"Of course we have our own character and personality!" protests my hostess, when I politely express my reservations. And she proceeds to tell me that the Canton de Vaud (of which Lausanne is the capital) is a land not just for international sports federations, but also for people who eat sausage with leeks and potato mash, and speak a rustic French that makes Parisians giggle.

And don't I know what invariably happens to people the first time they arrive here by train from grey Zurich. (Never mind drab London or dreary Paris.) Yes! They emerge through the tunnel on the hills above Vevey, and at the first sight of the luminous green vineyards that surround them, and of Lake Geneva sparkling in the sunshine, and of the romantic castles and villages dotting its shores, they instantly throw their return tickets out of the window! "Isn't it the best of all worlds here?" she says, sweetly. "The corner of Europe that combines northern efficiency with southern vitality? We don't need to join the EU! We are the most European country there is!"

I have a funny feeling that she is right. If Switzerland didn't exist, Europe would have to invent it, as a theme park; a miniature (harmless) model of the continent; a blank space on the map on which to project our ideals; somewhere for our enemies to reside, in five-star hotels, without obliging us to make war on anyone.

Switzerland has never baulked at receiving Europe's most pestiferous travellers, albeit on the condition that they be wealthy and/or industrious individuals. French Huguenots were the first to arrive, escaping from Catholic France in the 16th century. During the 19th century, when the Alps began to take off as a recreational area, private railways arrived, followed in short order by British tourists in moustaches and plus fours. Political refugees have continued to arrive, ranging from Russians fleeing the Bolshevik takeover, right through to Greeks quitting Egyptian Alexandria after Suez.

Later, I stroll round the Lausanne Palace Hotel, looking for ghosts of tourists past. These giant hotels by the shores of Lake Geneva were the prototypes of five-star hotels the world over, designed for the benefit of those who had been evicted from their own palaces. I see giant chandeliers and decorated ceilings as high as the sky. I pass the dimly lit Bar du Palais, resembling the House of Lords, with its leather sofas and red baize walls. Later, in La Table du Palais, the Michelin-starred restaurant with its soaring windows and views over the city to the lake, I find two bejewelled ladies chatting. Each has her ornamental lapdog.

The curious European custom of living in grand Swiss hotels may have become outmoded as a result of the stock market crash of 1929 (not to mention that other unpleasantness, the Second World War), but it is by no means dead and buried. If our own Queen were overthrown, I would urge her to take rooms at the Beau Rivage: located in the lakeside suburb of Ouchy, it is right by the pier for boats from France (perfect for dignified royal arrivals). Ouchy, furthermore, has excellent British credentials. Lord Byron spent time here, in the neighbouring Hotel d'Angleterre. And the houses hereabouts belong only to the richest of the rich.

When I visit the Beau Rivage, its splendid gardens and terraces are almost empty. But this has been one of the world's top hotels for more than 130 years. In the rooms, I find original carpets, paintings and giant walk-in wardrobes. At least 10 families still live here on a permanent basis. And down in the garden, in a discreet flowerbed, is a poignant collection of headstones - for the pets of the hotel's residents. Here lies Toots (1889-1903); here lie Tosca, Binkie, Lumpi, Beppo, Billy.... Later I drop in on the hotel's Ball Room, with its dome and stained-glass windows and gilt friezes and cherubs. The dances here, I fear, are not what they were.

Next door to all this lounges the Olympic Museum, another mandatory stop for tourists to the lake, with its admirable anti-war message of internationalism and neutrality. But on the grounds that it says nothing to me of autochthonous Swiss culture, I decide to go to a chocolate shop instead.

This is more like it. The chocolatier is a man called Dan Durig who, oddly, comes from Cheshire. "The Swiss are the best people in the world to make chocolate for," he tells me, with a delighted look on his face. "They eat more per head than anybody else. They are the top of the market. They know what they are eating."

He shows me Madagascan and Ethiopian chocolates as he might show Merlots and Chardonnays. He produces bars of every degree of strength, ranging from pure milk to pure chocolate. We swill them round in the mouth, discussing the after-taste and the implications for health. (Cocoa butter, apparently, is good for cholesterol.) What could be more indigenous than this?

On the last morning, I take the train 20 minutes up the track to Montreux. It is a cold, quiet, misty day, with snowy peaks soaring straight up from the shores of the lake. If you care to buy an apartment here, you may need to learn the French word époustouflant (flabbergasting) before discussing the panoramas with your estate agent. The celebrities who have bought these views over the past 50 years include Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov and Freddie Mercury.

I'm more interested, though, in jolly Lord Byron, who, with impeccable taste, beat them all to it by more than a century. His particular interest was in the Chateau de Chillon, down the road from Montreux. There it still is, guarding the pass between the mountains and the lake, rising from the water, a bizarre jumble of crumbling towers, turrets, freezing baronial halls and ancient vaulted dungeons.

As the first to arrive today, I take my chance to rush round alone, before the tour groups arrive. The waters lapping on the mossy walls of the keep are dark under black skies, but as clean and cold as the day of creation. I repress a Byronesque desire to leap into them.

On a column in the dungeon, I see Byron's name where he carved it 190 years ago. Through the open slits in the walls, I hear the cold wind blowing and the waters of the lake slapping on the buttresses. Even in the 21st century, it is hard not to follow Byron in taking the romantic view, and using the imagination (rather than facts) to construct this strange and beautiful country.


How to get there
Return flights from London Heathrow to Geneva with Swiss (0845-601 0956; are from £75. British Airways (0870-850 9850; also has return flights from Heathrow from £75. EasyJet (0871 7500 100; offers return fares from London Gatwick from £50 and also flies from East Midlands, Liverpool and Luton.

Where to stay
The Hotel Beau Rivage, 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 716 66 66; offers double rooms from about £205 per night with breakfast costing an extra £7.50.

For more information
Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30;

Sunday, April 4, 2004

So is this place for real?

So is this place for real?

Jeremy Atiyah sees behind the mask of Singapore

Published: 04 April 2004

I'm in Singapore to find out if the whole country isn't one big PR stunt, something dreamt up by the ministry of tourism.

Because on the face of it, this place is just too good to be true. It must be the result of government spin. It will vanish as soon as my back is turned. The charming façades of those "heritage" quarters will be removed to reveal ugly concrete blocks and piles of garbage. The lovely canopies of rain-trees embracing the highways will be replaced by hoardings of naked women. The quiet couples slurping noodles after dark on verandas will become rioting, spitting, drug-taking delinquents. The very history of this island state will be unwritten.

Either that or I'm envious. My analyst would suggest the latter. Perhaps, deep down, I just can't bear to accept that the old patriarch Lee Kuan Yew had the foresight decades ago to train his people in civic virtues, and to plant all these trees, and to place conservation orders on the quaintest areas of local housing.

Anyway, this is what my mission boils down to: has Singapore been designed as a pleasure park for tourists? Or is it a real country, with needs and interests of its own?

I'm starting my investigation with breakfast in a place called the Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre, which is an outdoor market sheltered by a 100-year-old roof constructed of iron lacework from Glasgow.

How can there possibly be anything fake about this? I see vast numbers of food stalls and communal seating for everyone. Hundreds of fans are swishing overhead. In all directions, real Singaporeans are slurping, sucking and chewing on fish balls, duck rice, dim sum, curry and sushi. Most meals cost a pound or two. This cooling breeze, these strips of bitter gourd filled with fish paste, this ice-cold soy milk - they are real all right. This has got to be the best restaurant in the world.

I must say that if Singapore is a stunt, it is turning out a pretty clever one. When we climb into a taxi, I notice our driver drinking tea out of a plastic bag, hung from the ceiling of his car. "That's great!" I say. "Authentic!" "It is convenient and hygienic," says the driver.

A few traffic-free minutes later we are standing outside a beautiful old yellow palace, said to have belonged to the family of the local sultan. (It was the sultan who permitted Stamford Raffles to establish his colony of Singapore in the first place.) We are in the middle of a place called the Arab Quarter. It's a nice spot all right, with mango trees dotted about the garden. Muslims from Java and elsewhere, my guide tells me, used to gather here to prepare for the haj.

There is only one thing that looks fishy: that the palace, right now, is in the process of being converted into a heritage centre. So there aren't any real live Arabs in the Arab Quarter any more, I ask my guide. She promptly leads me round a corner to find a crowd in skullcaps scoffing noodles and drinking milky tea under a nearby colonnade. In fact they are Malay Muslims, but I suppose that'll do, especially given that we are now at the corner of Muscat Street and Kandahar Street, opposite what is undeniably a mosque. This Muslim food looks jolly good too: I can see piles of barbecued lamb and spicy aubergine, all being served on banana-leaf plates.

In true Singapore style, everything round here has been renovated to perfection. Picturesque palm trees line the streets. The fronts of the two-storey houses are still Chinese baroque, all half-moon tiles, bamboo roof-ridges, Malaysian swing-doors and Corinthian columns. Old saloon doors have not been torn down; ornate lattice vents, once used by women for peering out at strangers, are still visible.

We stroll about the local shops looking at brocaded fabrics and silks, carpets and jewels. Some of these traders claim to have been here since the 1820s. Shop signs betray their origins: "Abdul Aziz and Co" is next door to "Hui Leong Textiles". It is hard to find any genuinely crumbling plaster, but I do come across a genuine Arab food shop, Café Le Caire, where I can get hummus, kebab and a hubbly-bubbly to smoke.

Who cares about authenticity when things are as gaily multicultural as this? Not me. Not really. Just round the corner from the Arab Quarter is its subcontinental counterpart, Little India. Until the 1930s, cattle roamed this area; now it too contains a heritage centre, explaining its curiosities to us tourists.

I don't know how the locals feel about being exhibits, but they do look indisputably Indian. In the local food arcade crowds of short, dark people are tucking into masala dosa and eggs and milky tea. In the shops I see bangles and marigold wreaths. Shops are decorated with Hindu altars. Men are queuing up at the barber to have their eyebrows trimmed. A fortune-teller with yellow turmeric smudges on her face is talking about her customers to a green parrot.

We knock back a cup of cardamom tea in a posh vegetarian restaurant. Gandhi's exhortations are printed on the walls; jewel-encrusted ladies in silk saris are carrying plastic trays. On the wall outside is a facility for selecting and paying for our order by credit card. I would not describe this as a particularly authentic touch, but the air conditioning is excellent.

And next up on our tour of this touristic heaven is Chinatown itself. On the way there, my guide feeds me shocking details of the "four evils" that recently plagued this area, namely prostitution, gambling, opium and drink. She tells me about the "death houses", where lonely old people went to spend their last days (for a fee). And she generally paints me a picture of a hubbub of fish-sellers, food-hawkers, barrow-pushers, drink-pedlars, fortune-tellers and opera-singers packing the streets.

I would like to exclude the possibility that this is a fantasy, dreamt up to provide material for another of Singapore's heritage centres. But funnily enough, the first thing we see in Chinatown is another heritage centre, the excellent Chinatown museum, showing the original Chinese immigrants as the boat people of their day, arriving en masse, fleeing hunger in China. The journey by junk from Hong Kong, I now learn, took about a week, and many perished en route. Most came with the intention of returning, though few did.

The highlight of the museum is the re-creation of the shop-houses of the 1950s, showing how entire families lived in narrow rooms separated from their neighbours by thin partitions open at the ceiling. Today, we tourists can peer in to see their hard wooden beds, their reed matting, their thermoses, their pots, bowls, sewing machines and other knick-knackery. We can even hear the sound effects, on tape, of cooking and quarrelling - safe in the knowledge that today's Chinatown contains nothing but food stalls, trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

Wandering later through the same quarter, I'll choose a bowl of noodles with huge and delicious shrimps costing only slightly more than nothing. I'll drink from a fresh coconut. And I'll sit there and watch acrobats prance in the street while listening to snippets of Chinese opera and watching otherwise rational people burning incense sticks and paper money for the spirits of their ancestors. Isn't this authentically Chinese all right?

After my three-hour potted tour of Asia, it's time for a burst of Europe. Singapore, you see, has it all. My guide suggests that we drop in at Raffles Hotel, which, when we get there, does indeed turn out to be an intensely charming place, with modestly proportioned courtyards and palm trees and tiffin and turbaned porters. The famous Long Bar may have lost something with the advent of air conditioning and of recorded pop music. (Would Somerset Maugham have listened to Abba?) But if Raffles had been in Hong Kong, I muse, it would now be 40 storeys tall and have helicopters landing on its roof.

Which is not to say that Singapore can't do modernity. Of course it can. When I've finished looking at Singapore's past, my next task is to visit its future. This means a visit to the Esplanade Theatres right in the middle of town.

These two world-class concert halls may have cost more than £200m, but Singaporeans do not seem
to be complaining. For one thing, they look great. In fact they resemble two monstrous prickly durians. Big international orchestras have already played here; operatic megastars such as Jose Carreras have given it their blessing. And, as everyone knows, Singapore will not be a proper city unless it has a proper concert hall.

Night falls, suddenly, and it's time for dinner. My guide proposes an ex-convent called Chijmes. Why not, I say, gazing over a lovely complex of shops, bars and restaurants amid green lawns and frangipani trees. Over there I even see a chapel with stained-glass windows and a gothic tower. This place, it turns out, was run as a school by French nuns until the 1980s. But that must have seemed like a waste of a good heritage site, which is why the school has now moved out, and we lucky tourists have moved in.

After dinner, my guide surprises me yet again, announcing that a huge outdoor party called Zoukout is being held on reclaimed land not far from the city centre. Lots of trendy musicians and DJs will be in attendance, and we are going to join them. Getting into Zoukout is a bit like getting into the Pentagon. Only after many police checks do we finally step into an enclosed grassy field to meet a PR called Harry Ng, who is perhaps the only man in Singapore wearing a woolly hat. "Yeah, people are really gonna be freakin' out and enjoying themselves all night long," shouts Harry. He is probably right. Mild-mannered young people are queuing up outside. Skyscrapers glitter to one side. The weather is perfect. Does Singapore have an existence independent of its desire to please visitors? I am beginning to think it does.


How to get there
The writer traveller as a guest of Singapore Tourism. Return fares to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (0870- 608 8886; start from £560.

Where to find out more
Call Singapore Tourism on 020-7437 0033.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Ancient treasure

Ancient treasure

At a time when London was a tiny, insignificant city, millions prospered in Cambodia. Now the country is using this legacy to attract tourists. Jeremy Atiyah visits the remains of a civilisation

Published: 28 February 2004

Did Cambodians once build the world's greatest city, and live in the most prosperous country on earth? So I've been told, but right now I'm finding this hard to believe. I stroll through Phnom Penh, and see pigs rooting through puddles and rubbish. The people are charming, but their streets are dilapidated. On every corner, sundry ragamuffins await my generosity.

But perhaps the past really is another country: I've been reading about the Khmer kingdom of a thousand years ago, when Cambodia's irrigated paddy fields and fish-rich lakes supported a population of some 10 million, most of whom lived in the vicinity of Angkor (at a time when the population of London was 30,000).

What has happened in the interim? The Cambodians and the Khmers are one and the same people, but by the time the French arrived in the 19th century, they had sunk almost into oblivion. Their population had fallen by nine-tenths, and the remains of Angkor, having been mysteriously abandoned in the 15th century, lay lost and forgotten to the world, somewhere in the jungles east of Siam.

When receiving foreign tourists today, this is not an easy story for Cambodians to tell. The ancient temples of Angkor, naturally, are their greatest asset, and some hope that the revival of Angkor may eventually lead to the revival of Cambodia itself. But there is a painful edge to such myth-making: by dwelling on past glories, they remind themselves of how far they have fallen.

For the time being, at least, Cambodians seem willing to risk the humiliation. After a 20-year hiatus - between 1970 and 1990 - international tourism at Angkor is now booming. The closest town to the ancient city, Siem Reap, has countless new restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and cyber-cafés, as well as an international airport. Streams of boats, planes and buses make the 200-mile journey from Phnom Penh daily. I take the fast boat: five hours up the Tonle Sap river, past thatched villages on stilts, crossing half of the country in the process.

On arrival I hire a guide, a serious man with a bitter laugh called Kim, who wears the pain of being Cambodian on his sleeve. He starts talking about the suffering caused by landmines from the instant we meet. Then he glances at me: "But you don't hear mines exploding round Angkor any more. You tourists are fine." It's the locals who suffer, he wants to tell me. Angkor has been cleared, but mines still cause one death a day across Cambodia.

As we take the road north out of Siem Reap, Kim explains to me the basic facts of Angkor. It is not a ruined city such as Pompeii. Rather, it is the bare bones of an entire civilisation that flourished here between 1,200 and 600 years ago. When King Canute ruled England, this region was full of teeming towns and cities, in which millions of people lived and worked. Of the dwellings, warehouses and workshops of old Angkor, nothing is now visible. Right now, I am surrounded instead by what looks like dark, primeval forest. The only sign of life is the occasional motor-scooter. "Ordinary buildings?" echoes Kim, when I ask. "Oh, they've all disappeared. Only stone buildings remain."

He refers to a few structures of religious significance that were constructed at prodigious expense, in many cases using lava blocks imported from quarries tens of miles away. Today, scattered over some 200 square kilometres of jungle, these surviving temples rise up in odd isolation, like lilies in a drained pond, denuded of the towns and cities that previously surrounded them. It would take weeks to visit them all. Kim is going to show me a few of the highlights.

The first of these is Angkor Wat itself, the most magnificent and the holiest of all the temples, built by the great Khmer king, Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century. Approaching this vast structure on foot, I feel a kind of despair in the face of its incomprehensible dimensions. Its lotus-bud towers loom even in the remote distance, rising from within a walled enclosure nearly one-mile square. Before even reaching this enclosure, I have to cross a causeway over a colossal man-made moat, which once teemed with hungry crocodiles.

And no sooner have I swallowed these enormities than I am being dazzled by the minuscule detail of the scenes in bas-relief that decorate the temple's inner walls. Kim hurries me through the lengthy Hindu narratives on display. Only at the so-called "scenes from hell", reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, do we linger: here I see bodies sawn in half, bones broken, stomachs filled with red-hot irons. I find the pictures amusingly quaint; Kim, however, is looking hot and bothered. He is thinking of his very own hell. "I was once forced to cross a minefield on foot," he explains. "Men were exploding in front of me. I felt their corpses splashing over me." He seems angry that the hell contrived by the stonemasons of King Suryavarman II should be inadequate to describe his own experiences.

When we leave Angkor Wat, heading north, the first place Kim wants to show me is a 40ft-high stepped pyramid called Baksei Chamkrong. It is a low-key site, free of tourists. Its lotus-bud pinnacle has eroded into a blob, and leaves rustle under our feet. But Kim has a reason for bringing me here. "Vietnamese soldiers' tombs," he whispers, pointing, as we step over a series of grassy hillocks. The conversation again shifts from the Buddhist god-kings of the past, to Pol Pot and King Sihanouk, and Cambodia's ongoing political crisis. "The Khmer Rouge respected Angkor," says Kim, laughing. "They wanted it protected. They saw it as a living symbol of Khmer power and glory."

Even as he speaks, we are approaching the southern gate of the walled city known as Angkor Thom. This was Angkor's last capital, created at the end of the 12th century by its most obsessive builder, King Jayavarman VII. In and around its walls lived at least a million people, making it one of the most important cities in the world. Naturally, the city gates were grand. Each had its own tower and triumphal approach, flanked by figures of demons. But only this southern approach is in anything like its original state now. "The statues are being pillaged," explains Kim, gloomily. "The demon heads are being stolen. You can get thousands of dollars for them."

Following a trickle of rice trucks and bicycles, we drive up to the gate. I half-imagine that a bustling city still lurks within: I picture King Jayavarman's family and officials, his military officers and priests, all enjoying the fruits of power. But once inside, what I see is the silent road, and the same forest as before. It is a gate into four square miles of nothingness. We pass troops of monkeys, sleeping dogs, and the occasional monk under a saffron umbrella. "Funny how this place was abandoned," I say. "It wasn't abandoned," replies Kim, defensively.

"We Khmers never forgot about Angkor." What he means is that Cambodian monks managed to keep the memory of Angkor alive during the long centuries after its abandonment, right up to the time of its "discovery" by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot in 1860. Trees may have reclaimed the jungle, but the temples of Angkor never lost their power to inspire the Khmer monks. "You can try, but you'll never get rid of the monks!" he exclaims. "You can shoot them, they don't feel a thing. The French tried to stop them, the Khmer Rouge tried to exterminate them. But they are still here."

The monks seem to be the one thing that Kim believes in. I am still feeling obscurely pleased about this when the road through Ankhor Thom reaches a clearing. And in front of us, suddenly, rise the multiple stone towers of Bayon. Even today, there is mystery in the way Bayon's stones emerge from the jungle. Columns resemble tree trunks, pink and mottled. The towers seem organic. Were they placed here by human beings, or by some other agency? The first Frenchmen who camped among these strange stones could scarcely tell. At night, rhino and leopard prowled nearby. The din of cicadas was enough to drive a man mad. And then, in the half-light, through tangled branches, one came to sense that giant faces were staring down from above - faces carrying the features not only of Buddha, but also of King Jayavarman VII himself.

Over the years, for the benefit of tourists, the trees over Bayon have been cut away. But merely to prevent the roots from engulfing Angkor and its memories is a constant challenge. "When tourists stopped coming in the 1970s, they grew back again," says Kim, a familiar tension appearing around his eyes. "And while we were cutting them down again, we found lots of skulls."

I feel as though I am engaged in a losing battle to blot out the recent past. I study the decorations on Bayon's outer walls, where all the civilised arts of 12th-century war and peace are depicted: cockfighting and sumo wrestling; a lady being fanned by servants; a boar in a pot and satay sticks being served for dinner; acrobats, chess players, masseurs, smokers, fat men, thin men, rich men, poor men...

Later, we walk through Bayon's tangled corridors, stained by moss, lichen and soot. In one of the towers, a snake is doing battle with a pullulating mass of bats, its white tail flashing in and out of view. Kim's laugh echoes strangely in the darkness. But our time is short. We have just an afternoon to pant our way round the remaining temples of Angkor Thom, and the shadows are lengthening. We march past Baphuon, which was completed in the year William the Conqueror came to Britain. Having been dismantled a thousand years later, in preparation for a major reconstruction, it suffered an unthinkable disaster: the pillaging of the plans. What remains is the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle.

Next, we pass the so-called Elephant Terrace, where, in 1960, a parade of 1,000 elephants was led by King Sihanouk to celebrate the independence of Cambodia. With the benefit of hindsight, this attempt to bask in the glory of the past was a pitiful failure.

By now, the yellows of midday have turned to russets and browns; the cicadas are like jangling bells. We walk round the corner, to Preah Paliley, whose crooked tower rises at a precarious angle, with giant trees growing horizontally from its stones. Kim's mood is sinking with the sun. "All the money from tourism goes out of the country," he gabbles, as we walk. "Tourists drive up prices and we locals can't afford anything any more."

Pieces of an orange fruit lie about in the long grass. "From the sleng tree," remarks Kim, kicking. "Sleng means bitter, or poisonous." Strangely enough, Sleng is one of the few Khmer words I know. I came across it in Phnom Penh, at Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng centre (now the Museum of Genocidal Crimes), where 20,000 people were "processed" by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Seventies. It was indeed a place of bitterness. Sleng fruit contains strychnine. "I know a policeman who spends the night here on guard duty," adds Kim. "He eats the fruit. Now mosquitoes don't touch him."

I laugh, half-heartedly. For some reason, in this forest, I'm now thinking of Hindu myths, in which the primeval catastrophe involves not flood, but fire. I look out over red walls and green ponds, half-reclaimed by grass and weed. Tendrils dangle from the growing darkness above, and the sounds of the jungle - whoopings and cacklings and shriekings - grow louder by the minute.


The easiest option is to fly to Bangkok or Singapore and take a connecting flight to either Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat), or the capital, Phnom Penh. Through discount agents, fares to Phnom Penh are available for around £680 return on Thai Airways from London Heathrow via Bangkok. To reach Siem Reap, you could combine a fare of around £500 between London and Bangkok with a flight to Siem Reap with Bangkok Air (01293 596 626,, for about £160 return.

If you fly in, you can get a visa on arrival for $30 (£17); take two passport photographs. Arriving overland, you will need to acquire a visa in advance.

Siem Reap has many hotels and cheap guesthouses; see

Protection against typhoid, hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, Japanese B encephalitis and rabies may be necessary; take advice from a travel health specialist like MASTA (09068 224 100,

The Foreign Office says the biggest risks are from "road traffic accidents; armed robbery after dark; landmines and unexploded ordnance in rural areas".