SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Beyond the Temple of Angkor Wat, Buddha and Shiva smile down on you through the penetrating light. On both sides of the road scores of stone figures cradle a 200-foot-long serpent in their arms. An oxcart rolls by. Atop its load of hay sits an orange-robed monk holding a saffron parasol in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
The carved faces at Angkor Wat, the apsaras (heavenly maidens), the heavily detailed bas-reliefs, illuminate present-day Cambodia like a stone libretto from an ancient opera. To look into the thousands of faces carved in sandstone gives one a playful clue into the lives of the Khmer people today. When visiting Cambodia, it would be a shame to exclude the present and concentrate solely on the past. A balance must be struck.
My first glimpse of this culture came from the back of a very small motorcycle. My ''taxi" driver was puttering down National Highway 6 from the airport in Siem Reap. My arms were wrapped around his bony midsection and my bag was wedged between his legs. It was hot, steamy, and dusty. The machine seemed barely able to hold us. But then I saw the others -- 100cc motorcycles carrying three, four, five people, one hauling a huge heap of tangled bicycle frames, another chugging along with a pig on board and a dozen chickens dangling. I saw pickups stuffed with 30 passengers.
I was ecstatic. This was where I wanted to be, in a place that defines the exotic, with the promise of seeing perhaps the most exquisite archeological ruins on the face of the earth.
That evening, after the sun set and the temperature moderated, I sat at an outdoor cafe on a quiet side street near the market. A welcome breeze came from an electric fan bolted to the concrete wall. Somewhere between the fresh spring rolls and the grilled chicken, I struck up a conversation with the people at the next table. They were workers here on R and R from their hospital assignments for a nongovernmental organization in a rural village.
''I couldn't wait to get here to sleep with air conditioning and eat in a restaurant," said a tall woman with a scarf around her neck. ''The Cambodians start their day so early because of the heat. The monks are chanting at 4 a.m., then the dogs start howling and the pigs start squealing. But it's only 90 degrees then, the cool part of the day."
''Ah, yes," said a British woman, raising her glass, the ice clinking, ''but a lovely 'G-and-T' [gin and tonic] every evening can make anything tolerable."
The next morning, after a breakfast of croissants and fresh fruit at the Sala Bai Hotel School, I received some welcome travel tips and encouragement from Joannès Rivière, the school's Parisian teaching chef.
''Oh, you can rent a bicycle in many places," he said, a cigarette in one hand, a café au lait in the other. ''Most guest houses have them, and if you walk to the end of the street there, a few shops have them."
When Rivière heard that the Temples of Angkor would be my first encounter with Cambodian culture, he smiled and drew on his cigarette.
''Oh, that is good," he said. ''After you see Angkor Wat, so much in Cambodia will make sense -- the architecture, the people."
I straddled my rented bicycle and pedaled away toward the temples. ''Angkor Wat" is the moniker commonly used to describe the huge archeological site that is about twice the size of Manhattan. However, Angkor Wat is but one temple among a collection of almost 100 built between the 9th and 12th centuries by the ancient Khmer civilization.
There are few obstacles to the wanderer here. You are free to explore, to disappear into cool corridors, to discover an elderly nun burning incense before a thousand-year-old Shiva.
My first day, I climbed among the tumbled stones at the Bayon, a temple built inside the four-square-mile fortified city of Angkor Thom. The Bayon contains a collection of 216 enormous smiling stone faces of Avalokiteshvara, all serenely looking off into the distance. The Bayon is also decorated with about three-quarters of a mile of thickly carved bas-reliefs that seem to cover every surface.
East of Angkor Thom, a flat 2 1/2-mile pedal, is perhaps the most remarkable ruin, Ta Prohm, if only because the Cambodians have left on it the imprint of the jungle. One imagines what the first French explorers saw here in 1842. Huge trees and their root systems are tangled among the walls and stones. The whitish-colored trunks give the impression of something liquid being poured from above rather than growing up from the ground.
The trees are well over 100 feet tall and provide delicious shade cover. Again, amid the throngs of tourists, one feels alone and almost neglected. Inscriptions found at Ta Prohm tell of the 80,000 people that were required for its upkeep, including 2,700 officials and 615 dancers.
I finished the day wandering through the Temple of Preah Khan, where I came upon a wizened woman attending a candle flame and burning incense before an old gravesite. The quiet, the ancient stone, the fragrance of the incense, produced a moment where history seemed to float like the smoke between us. She stared into the future, I into the past.
As the sun set, I cycled back into Siem Reap through the darkening jungle, monkeys hanging in the trees. The market stalls were closing, men lounged in their sarongs, and a baby stood perfectly content, cooling in a five-gallon bucket of water.
That evening, at the Arun Restaurant, I feasted on sauteed morning glory greens, fresh spring rolls, and chicken cooked in coconut milk. I drank cold Angkor beer. The muscles in my legs twitched and my skin tingled as the fresh pineapple on the dessert plate filled my senses.
On my walk home, I encountered a ragtag group of children alongside the Stung Siem Reap, the river that bisects the town. Before I knew it, they were all around me.
''Hello, mister," said one young girl in a dirty blue dress, ''You want to buy postcard? Where you from? America? Oh, I know: Canada to the north, Mexico to the south. You know the capital of Missouri?"
I didn't, but I bought some postcards.
On the next two days I hired a tuk-tuk, a small open-air trailer pulled by a motorbike, $10 for the day, driver and all. I revisited Angkor Thom and Preah Kahn because I felt I had hardly exhausted the possibilities there. On my third and final day, I had my driver pick me up at 5:30 a.m.
Arriving at Angkor Wat in the predawn darkness is a rather riotous event. Crowds trying to beat the midday heat look like fans approaching Fenway Park before a World Series game. Buses disgorge Japanese, Chinese, European, and US tourists. Tuk-tuks line up like ants at a picnic. Motorbikes weave among the cars nearly clipping off mirrors. Then all these people disappear, eaten up by the acres of ancient courtyards, the miles of darkened stone passageways.
The Temple of Angkor Wat is believed by scholars to be the largest religious structure in the world. Its size is matched by the exquisite detail, nearly every inch of wall carved with bas-reliefs depicting epic stories, both religious and historical.
Guides are abundant at Angkor Wat, but I found it pleasurable to wander unencumbered. The four walls surrounding the inner temple, each 200 yards long, depict in dizzying detail a number of ancient stories. There are the epic battles from the Hindu Mahabharata, with warriors coming from the south and north, meeting in furious battle at the center. The army of Suryavarman II, the Khmer king of the 12th century, is portrayed in a triumphant battle march, replete with warlike chiefs on elephants and well-armed soldiers on horseback.
As the shadows lengthened, I ambled through the outer courtyards on the dry brittle grass and looked back at the amazing spires that crown the inner temple. It was here that I met Kosal, a young Cambodian who comes to Angkor Wat every Sunday to practice his English. He knew much about Angkor Wat and gladly shared his knowledge. When I asked him if he and his family lived near the temples, he paused and answered in measured English. His answer was all too common.
''My parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge," he said almost flatly. ''I lived with the monks after that, and was a monk myself for four years. But that life is too hard for me, and I didn't like that there was no woman in my life."
I ended my day at sunset, atop the temple of Phnom Bakheng. Although crowded, it somehow evoked a universal feeling of joy.
Before I left Siem Reap the next morning, I wandered through the marketplace, a remarkable display of food and handmade Cambodian crafts. I drank mango smoothies at a sidewalk restaurant and watched the river of Cambodian life flow by. After experiencing the wonders of Angkor, the faces seemed more familiar, the richness of Cambodia illuminated and ever more beautiful.
When I asked the young staff at the Sala Bai where I could buy a bus ticket for the next leg of my journey, they quickly interceded.
''Oh, we can do that for you, sir. And we will arrange to have someone take you to the bus station."
And this they did, professionally and efficiently. When I saw that my ride was a pickup truck, I was startled. Then I realized my luck: I had the back all to myself.
Contact Dennis Cunningham, a freelance writer in Wellfleet, at email@example.com.