The early morning dew and smoke from cooking fires hung like a fog over the jungle floor as our car approached the ancient ruins surrounding the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat.

I was especially eager to view the monuments because of widespread reports that they had been carelessly perhaps even systematically-destroyed by the Communists who won control of Cambodia in 1975.

Beyond that, I had been looking forward to finally walking through Angkor Wat, the largest standing religious building in the world.

On my last visit to this part of Cambodia during the days of the Lon Nol government in 1973, the area around Angkor already had been in the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge for three years.

I got my only glimpse of the temples on that grip by climbing a rickety staircase to the roof of the Grand Hotel in Siem Reap, where I peered at Angkor Wat's 54 towers through binoculars.

This time, however, the Cambodian government gave our party-British scholar Malcolm Caldwe,, Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and myself-the better part of two days to view some of the monuments scattered over 60 square miles around Angkor Wat.

It certainly appeared that there had been no major damage-either from the war or since-to the ancient complex.

But the droppings of animals, water seeping into the foundations of monuments, and the white and green fungi growing on statuary seemed to pose a potentially serious threat to Angkor Wat's future.

Bernard-Phillipe Groslier, former curator of the Angkor conservatory who headed a Frnch-Cambodian team that had restored many of the monuments before the expanding war forced it to halt in 1973, had told me the monuments required constant maintainence in the humid jungle climate.

But the Cambodian experts trained to care for the monuments were nowhere to be seen.

When I asked why, our guide said that intellectuals-unless they were dedicated to the goals of the Cambodian revolution-were not necessarily employed in their fields of expertise.

But what about the signs of deterioration, the anthills I saw stuck to bas-reliefs, and the piles of bat dung eating away at the monuments.

"We have not enough manpower to take care and maintain these monuments precisely," he concede, "But no one loves Angkor better than our own people."

I was to hear Angkor spoken of in similar terms of reverence many times during my visit, and I believe this offers a clue to the intensely nationalistic ideology of the men who rule Cambodia today.

Unlike most Ocmmunist countries, where the faces of leaders stare down from the wall of virtually every building, I cannot recall seeing a single photograph of the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea, as they call it, during my two-week stay.

"We do not want a personality cult," one official said.

Instead, watercolors, oil-paintings and photographs of Angkor adorn the halls of every building and it began to appear that it was more politcal message than art.

The apparent use of Angkor as a symbol of the revolution is part of an effort by the new rulers to stress the heritage and identity of a people who until 1953 had been virtually continously under French, Thai or Vietnamese domination since the 14th century.

After returning from a climb up on of Angkor's towers, we sat sipping coconut juice in a courtyard and Ok Sakun, a Foreign Ministry official long believed to have been purged, apologized for his shallow knowledge of the Angkor statuary and its meaning.

"When we were children, the French told us that the Brahmans of India were responsible for these monuments-that they were not ours," he explained, "to hear them, the temples appeared as if by magic."

He was not the only intellectual I mt who initiated a discussion of Cambodia's long-buried heritage.

Thiounn Mumm, codirector of the country's main technical institute, abruptly brought up the subject one day while lecturing us on the radical education policies of the new government.

"

Our civilization is 8,800 years old, and we have a tradition of being independent, sovereign and self-reliant," he said.

"I would like to stress to you that the civilization, not its architecture, not is engineeing or its irrigation," he declared. "In our revolution also, we have copied no one-and no one can say we have."

Thiounn Prasith, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry official in charge of Asian affairs, agreed that the Communist government has made Angkor Wat a symbol.

"On April 17, 1975 (the day of the Communist victory), we gave our people the honor and dignity they had lost for many centuries," he said. "Since the Angkor empire, it was lost. Now that we have secured it, we are determined to keep it."

Although many may quarrel with this historical interpretation, it appears to be the driving force behind a cult of heritage in the new Cambodia.

The government has also made visits to Angkor Wat a major part of its political reeducation program.

One of the questions that I regularly asked Cambodian I met during our journey was how often they left their village cooperatives, and where they were allowed to go. The only trips they ever mentioned were to Angkor, or to Phnom penh to visit the National Museum.

"They must know their culture," one official said, "We reopened the National Museum two months ago for the same reason."

As in many areas, the new Communist leaders appear to be carrying homage to Angkor to something of an extreme.

While I was walking through the Banteay Srei, a small salmon-colored monument at Angkor, I noticed Cambodian guards letting young Cambodian guards letting young women poke their fingers into the filigreed lintels covering the doorways.

As I watched several trace the shapes of statues with their hands, one knocked a statue over in the process.

"Is that wise?" I asked a guide, recalling how French experts fretted over similar abuses in the past during my visit in 1973.

"It belongs to them," he replied.

But the new government does not intend to continue its policy of the past three years of allowing only diplomats and special guests to visit Angkor.

A group of 40 Thai tourist agents and a handful of foreign journalists were allowed a brief visit to Angkor yesterday as a dry run of new one-day tours that will be operated from Thailand beginning New Year's Day.

I was told that thousands of tourists had already signed up for the $225 sidetrip from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

By reopening Angkor to tourism, the new Communist leaders are bringing back a reminder of an era now past.

It seems unlikely, however, that the new Camboaia will ever resemble the old in most other ways.