Angkor Wat bas relief by Randy Kerr. Cambodia’s Khmer kings dominated things in Cambodia until the early 15th century. Under their aegis, something like 600 Hindu temple complexes were constructed; but as Khmer rule declined, most became hidden beneath thick jungle growth. Rediscovered in 1860, they became a rewarding visit for the ardent traveler – particularly the largest site, Angkor Wat. From 1975 onward, Communist dictator Pol Pot declared Angkor Wat off limits to tourists. That bamboo curtain has since lifted and one of the world’s great prizes is again available to travelers.
Soaring about as high as New York’s World Trade Center, and more than five miles around, Ayers Rock dominates Australia’s Outback. Called Uluru by the Aborigines, who consider it sacred, the rock glows red in the sideways light of the setting sun. Two hundred miles from Alice Springs, it is one of the largest monoliths in the world; it is part of the Uluru National Park, which also contains the similarly striking Olgas.
On the large Indonesian island of Java, about 25 miles outside of Yogyakarta, lies the Buddhist shrine of Borobudur. Constructed in rising levels, it is covered with bas relief carvings depicting the stories of Buddhism. Like Angkor Wat, the temple (albeit huge) was hidden beneath island vegetation and rediscovered relatively recently for such an ancient site, with restoration beginning about 40 years ago. Countless carved stone images of Buddha are protected by stupas – bell-shaped, protective cages – found on the rising levels of the shrine.
Deep in the northern part of the Himalaya range, Mount Everest – at an elevation of 29,118 feet, the tallest point on earth – stands in granite certainty amidst its big-shouldered relatives (Kanghenjunga, Makalu, Annapurna and Nanga Parbat, just to name the tallest). New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, were the first to successfully reach the summit in 1953.
The Himalayas spread themselves across central Asia, extending into the nations of Chinese Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan; and for those who are not daring or fit enough to scale the sheer walls of the world’s tallest mountain range, there are flights over the Himalayas from Kathmandu, and helicopter excursions into Sherpa villages high in the range.
Great Barrier Reef
A chain more than 1,200 miles long connects coral reefs and islands into the world’s largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef. A natural breakwater, it traces a path off the Queensland, Australia coast, lying about ten miles off shore at its closest point. Its 350 species of coral provide plentiful habitat for colorful tropical fish, and combine into an immense structure up to a third of a mile thick at points, freckled with about 600 little islands.
Great Wall of China
During the reign of China’s first emperor (221-206 BC), Turkish and Mongol invaders had been plaguing China; so in the Qin dynasty, labor was conscripted and a huge wall, 1,450 miles long and 25 feet high, was constructed of earth and stone. It is famous for being the only man-made structure than can be seen from space. Additions were made in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Some of its sections have been restored in modern times, and travelers are eager each year to climb its steps and take photos from its watchtowers. In its heyday, the Great Wall stretched from the sea to the Gobi Desert.
Tucked into the Tasman Sea side of New Zealand’s South Island is Milford Sound, a setting of spectacular beauty where Miter Peak rises about a mile high to reflect into the calm waters of the sound. Along the side is the 34-mile-long Milford Track, which has been called the most beautiful walk in the world. Littered with streams and waterfalls, the sound is a happy, renewing and life-affirming sight.
Near Agra, India, the Taj Mahal – often called the most beautiful building in the world and surely the one most inspired by romance – comes into the day like a filmy apparition until the mid-morning sun forms it into its solid marble state. Commissioned by the Shah Jahan in loving memory of his favorite wife, it was begun in 1630 and took 24 years to complete. Ironically, the Shah’s son deposed him, and locked the Shah into the Red Fort on the hill above. Shah Jahan spent the rest of his life looking at the Taj Mahal from his jail window.
China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi – the same fellow responsible for the Great Wall – is buried in Xian, China. Relatively recently (1974), archeologists discovered his tomb and within it, a life-size army sculpted of clay. Numbering something like 7,000 strong, the army is supposed to be a guardian force for the emperor. This powerful leader founded the Qin dynasty, also called the Ch’in dynasty, from which China derives its name.
The longest river in China and third largest in the world (after the Amazon and the Nile), the Yangtze flows nearly 4,000 miles from Tibet into the Yellow Sea at Shanghai. Along its course lie the famous Three Gorges, beautiful, misty, mystical scenes of limestone cliffs rising from the river, where villagers fish with cormorants and China’s traditions haven’t changed since the middle ages.
But, China needs hydroelectric power and so the Yangtze is soon to be dammed in stages, forever flooding the scenic territory so long memorialized in Chinese watercolors and ethereal photographs. It can still be seen in its ancient state, but only for a short while.