5. Dispatch from Angkor

There is a worldwide election taking place. The old, tired and Greco-centric "7 Wonders of the World" is getting a long overdue update. If you vote, don't forget this place! There is nothing to compare.

We steamed up the Mekong to just above Kompong Cham (you will need a good map). The Moslem Cham people of this area rebelled against the Khmer Rouge and as a result there are not too many of them left. But enough about the bad old days.

We were blessed by dry weather, a cooling breeze - and the incredible warmth of the Cambodian people we met while strolling through their villages and temples. I can almost imagine the invading armies that carved up the ancient Khmer Empire, being just invited in by the hospitable welcome that seems a part of Cambodian DNA.

The handshake, our relic of showing your sword hand is empty, is not used. The French cheek kissing is also out. Pressing together of the palms with a smiling nod of acknowledgement seems so much more civilized - not to mention sanitary in a time of bird flu and friends with runny nosed pre-schoolers at home.

But to really see their core of civilization, to find the soul of these people, to remove all doubt to their claim of having built a Wonder of the World - you only need to view the cities of stone called Angkor Wat.

When the Kings of Angkor were building this vast complex, London was still a village. Visitors then mostly came across Tonle Saip Lake from the Mekong - we did likewise. This unique water wonder reverses its flow during the rainy season and more than quadruples its area into a vast inland sea - and provides perhaps the largest freshwater fishery on earth. This protein, and the rich rice lands around it, provided the surplus food and wealth needed to construct this huge complex of exquisitely carved temples and walls - truly an epic in stone.

Several days with a tuk (motor scooter pulling a rickshaw) and driver are required to take in just the most popular sites. Angkor Wat is just one of dozens of complexes here that were covered by the jungle for ages. The scale hard to comprehend - similar to exploring a jungle-choked island of Manhattan a thousand years after the last human turned off the lights. Some sites are still climbed by ancient old trees, their roots snaking across walls and pushing apart tons of stone.

Each evening, tourists choose a high tower to watch the sunset over the jungle. In the distance, other "Wats" poke up where other tourist do likewise. The hoards of locals selling trinkets, food and drinks are prevented from entering the walls by a small army of minders and guides - except last night as we sat atop a tiered mountain of a temple called Pre Rup.

I am offered a beer - "OK, only two dollar, very cold." I counter that the price is expensive (bargaining is expected). It soon became clear that the inflated cost was needed to support the police captain who allows selected vendors access to the temple's thirsty tourists. I raise my beer in salute as the captain struts by. His English is excellent and he has no problem addressing the subject.

He joined the police 10 years ago after doing his military service. His brother got him the job when money to continue schooling could not be found. As the captain in charge of all the monuments in the Angkor area, he is paid $22 a month - while a mere guide gets that much per day. To augment, the captain gets a buck for each of the beers and sodas sold atop the temple. He offers an extra police badge for sale, I demure. The eight year-old boy selling postcards pays him another $15 a month. Still the captain is thinking of quitting the force and buying a tuk--tuk scooter to cart around tourists. We pay our tuk driver $10 a day. He can't afford beer.

But I can. And today it is HOT! Sweat drips into my shoes. And even if it's a wet heat, one must stay hydrated! Drafts of wonderfully cold Cambodian beer are about 75 cents. So we take a day off and prepare for a trip into the jungle to visit the thousand year-old underwater carvings of the 1000 Linga (phallus). Just another wonder of the world, in this wonder-filled country.

- Sun-Roasted Rod