Cambodia: A beautiful, haunting and heart-breaking country

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The country has a history that is both inspiring and depressing

I was greeted with the smell of lemongrass. After a night flight to Bangkok, and a dawn flight to Phnom Penh, and a car-ride through the chaos that is the Cambodian capital in rush-hour – a chaos full of miracles, like entire families perched on mopeds and apparently surviving – we arrived in an oasis of calm. There were mint cocktails waiting for us, and giant, carved elephants and men in pointy hats and purple knickerbockers, and grand staircases that you could imagine yourself swishing down, in evening dress, before meeting some Ernest Hemingway-type figure for martinis in the bar.

For this is Raffles Hotel Le Royal, built in 1929 in the heyday of French colonialism, when Cambodia was a peaceful country full of temples and paddy fields and Buddhas. It was the favoured haunt of writers and foreign correspondents, and it was here they fled in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh and launched one of the bloodiest regimes in history.

It's hard to believe now, as you collapse on a vast bed in a room that's all dark wood and gracious living, or wander to the Amrita Spa for a soothing massage, or sample the delicious buffet in the Café Monivong, but you can't get away from history in Cambodia, and this is a place – like everywhere else – that saw chaos and terror and death.

You could spend all afternoon, after your massage, and your lie-down, and your lunch, sipping G and Ts by the pool – and I have to admit it's tempting. The last thing you want, in fact, after no sleep, and the stress of getting yourself there, and that journey through the rush-hour traffic, is to be bussed out, in the heat of a burning sun, to a place where thousands of people were killed. But it's also, in a peculiar way, the best way to start your trip to Cambodia.

If you want sunshine, go to Torremolinos, but if you want to get a true taste of the beautiful, haunting, heart-breaking country whose capital, Phnom Penh, was once regarded as the "Pearl of Asia", you have to see the killing fields. You have to see the beauty born out of blood, and the courage that has grown – yes, like a pearl – out of suffering beyond imagining.

There are brilliant pink flowers and a stall selling canned drinks at the entrance to Choeung Ek. This was the point where the trucks stopped, two or three times a month, to deliver men, women and children to death and mass graves. Between 1975 and 1979 – a time when in Britain we were watching Starsky and Hutch and listening to Abba – about 17,000 died here, bludgeoned to death, poisoned, disembowelled or buried alive. Many of the killers were children, children who learnt to smash babies' skulls against the rough bark of a "killing tree" before later being killed themselves. Loudspeakers played music to drown out the victims' screams.

Even now, you can see bits of bone and cloth poking up through the ground. Many of the mass graves have never been disinterred. But if you can't see the bodies, you can see some of the skulls. There are more than 8,000 of them, arranged by sex and age, behind the glass panels in a Memorial Stupa, created in 1988. Green mats next to it say (in English) "Welcome" and next to them are buckets of chrysanthemums.

Inside, funeral music is playing. In a hut nearby, there's a notice, presumably put up by the Cambodian government. "They have the human form," it says of the Khmer Rouge, "but their hearts are demons' hearts."



***



Back in Phnom Penh, we saw more evidence of the "demons' hearts".

When the Khmer Rouge took the city, they requisitioned the Tuol Svay Prey High School as a centre for detention and torture.

"While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all" says a sign outside the former "Security Prison 21" – a sign offering detailed guidance on how prisoners should behave while having their torsos whipped with iron chains, or their organs, or bowels, cut out. In the rooms used for torture there are still iron beds, electrical sockets, and some of those chains. The floors, walls and ceiling are flecked with blood.

In rooms nearby are the most haunting photographs I've ever seen. Thousands of men and women – men with the same cropped hair, women with the same regulation bob – stare out at you, eyes frozen with fear. Upstairs are the tiny cells – some built in brick, some in wood – where they awaited torture and death. In theory, they were sent to Choeung Ek to die, but some died in those iron beds, and were beheaded so they couldn't be identified.

"I will see you down here," said our gentle guide. "I don't want to go up there," she added quietly. Like so many others in Cambodia, she is still living with the legacy of what she witnessed. She spent 14 years in a refugee camp, but was lucky to survive. Three million Cambodians did not.

You carry these thoughts with you wherever you are in Cambodia, and you're right to. This is not something you can wash away with cocktails in the Elephant Bar (there's a cocktail, the Femme Chic, in honour of Jackie Kennedy, who stayed at Le Royal) or by eating a delicious dinner in the Restaurant Le Royal, or even with a few gentle lengths in the pool. But those cocktails and that dinner provide vital tourist dollars to a country recovering from profound trauma. They won't erase it. Nothing can erase it. But to see a country, and understand its past and present splendours, you have to know its history.

It was, nevertheless, a relief to have a day of gentle sight-seeing in Phnom Penh, a vibrant mix of temples, markets and colonial buildings, and of bustle and crumbling grace. First, we went to the Royal Palace complex, still the official residence of King Sihamoni (a 50-something bachelor ballet dancer who has so far failed to produce the requisite heir) and therefore with only selected bits open to the public. Much of it is 20th-century, though there's a pavilion that was built for Napoleon in Egypt in 1869 and moved here in 1876. What the palace lacks in age, it makes up in grandeur. The Silver Pagoda, covered in 5,000 tiles and five tons of silver, is breathtaking. Inside, there are more Buddhas than you could shake a sceptre at: a massive emerald one, a life-size gold one, studded with diamonds, an 80kg bronze one, and thousands of tiny ones, surrounded by silver floral arrangements and silver cigarette boxes. Asian kings, it seems, like their bling.

One of the chief pleasures of wandering around this Disneyland-with-a-royal-Asian-twist is watching the Cambodians relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. It was one of the pleasures of our next stop, too: a small wat (temple) at the top of 300 steps. Vendors nearby were selling bacon and eggs, flowers and grilled pork to offer to the gods, or the chance to set a songbird free. Inside the temple, there was a giant Buddha (of course), accompanied by flashing neon lights and tinkling music.

The artefacts on display at the National Museum were a little more tasteful. They're magnificent, in fact – more than a millennium's worth of fabulous Khmer sculpture, including an eight-armed Vishnu from the sixth or seventh century, giant wrestling monkeys carved from sandstone and practically an army of post-Angkorian Buddhas, many rescued from Angkor Wat.

We had lunch overlooking the Mekong, and after (at last!) a few hours by that gorgeous hotel pool, we went back to it, to glide down the river in a little wooden boat, and drink beer while the sun set. In a fishing village of huts on stilts a woman swung in a hammock, girls washed their hair, and children bobbed in the water like happy ducks. As we gazed out at the pointed roofs silhouetted against a sky shot through with brilliant pink and orange, the city at last seemed at peace.

Now it was time for the temples. If you do them properly, you have to get up early, and so we got up early for the long drive to Sambor Prei Kuk, originally known as Isanapura, the pre-Angkorian capital of Chenla. On the way, we stopped off at a service station, where travellers and passersby were enjoying a wide range of snacks, including fried crickets, ants and tarantulas. One of our party grabbed a long, hairy leg and took a bite. From the expression on her face, it clearly wasn't delicious. It is, however, probably not a great idea to risk anything that might turn your stomach because the roads outside Phnom Penh can do that on their own. They may have been cleared of mines – thoughV C there are still up to four million left in the country – but they're a far cry from smooth Western Tarmac. By the time we arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk, we felt like thanking all the gods for our arrival.

And there were plenty of opportunities, because there are more than 100 temples scattered through the forest, many dating back to the early seventh century. There were plants poking through the ancient bricks and among the Sanskrit inscriptions and the carvings, and it felt like a world lost to nature and forgotten, except by the children who followed us around. They asked us – in better English than the government-sponsored guide who was thrust upon us – our names and what we earned. In Cambodia, according to our real guide (who had to defer to the government guide), everyone asks everyone what they earn.



***



In the next few hours, on the bumpiest roads I've ever been on, we had the chance to see more of this fascinating country: landscape that shifted from lush green to arid brown, and then back again, animals scrabbling for food under houses on stilts, and in one village what appeared to be an entire school – dressed in the standard national uniform of white shirts and blue trousers or skirt – on bikes. In the same village, we saw men chipping away at stone Buddhas – as if there was a national shortage of Buddhas. Which, I can tell you, there isn't.

By the time our minibus juddered to a halt, at the end of a track in the depths of the jungle, we were ready to collapse. Refreshment, thank god, was at hand, but first we were taken to our accommodation – a whole tent each, with a real bed, and a separate (tented) loo and ingenious shower. In those few moments, dusk descended, and we emerged to flaming torches and margaritas.

The men looking after us – of which there seemed to be an embarrassingly large number – made top-notch cocktails, and a top-notch dinner, too. We ate and drank late into the starry, flame-lit night.

As we staggered out of our tents, clutching our heads, at sunrise, that no longer seemed such a great idea, but spirits rose with a spectacular, hangover-crushing breakfast and with the sight, behind us, of a vast, brick pyramid. This, it turned out, was Prasat Thom, a seven-story sandstone temple built 1000 years ago. We were in Koh Ker, for a brief period (from AD928 to 944) the capital of Cambodia, and this magnificent building looming in front of us was, it turned out, only the beginning. We were in a vast temple complex, which looked as if it hadn't been touched for centuries, and with the exception of the odd khaki-clad guard, and the cicadas, we were alone. The surrounding area was teeming with temples: temples with Shiva Linga (vast phallic symbols) in them, like Prasat Thneng and Prasat Leung, and others (like Prasat Neang Khmau) in which the gnarled tree-roots and strangler figs laced, like a lattice-work, over them, looked as old as the stones.

And now we were on our way to the biggest temple in the world, but first, thank the Buddha, there was civilisation, in the form of the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor. For 75 years, this magnificent hotel on the edge of Siem Reap has been the place where anybody who was anybody – anybody, that is, seeking a bit of 1,000-year old epic splendour – has stayed. Gracious elegance, with dark woods and antique furnishings, was just the ticket after our night under canvas, and the gargantuan pool proved irresistible.

There was more punishment ahead, in the form of a pre-dawn alarm call, but the punishment, we were assured, would be rewarded. And so it was. The sight of the sun rising over the vast, spiky skyline of one of the most spectacular spiritual buildings in history is one you'll never forget. Particularly, it has to be said, when accompanied with the tongue-tinglingly delicious patisserie in the lavish packed breakfast that Raffles had provided.

You need sustenance for the hours ahead, to drink in the delights of Angkor Wat, a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five towers, like beehives, that rise 65 metres above the ground. It was probably built as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II (1112 – 1152) to honour the Hindu god, Vishnu, who lurks (in the form of a statue) in one of the towers. But it feels more like a homage to history, religion and life. In the extraordinary bas-reliefs, which stretch around the outside of the central temple complex, and which would take a lifetime to study, you can see pictures of battles from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, military marches from the army of Suryavarman (complete with parasols, elephants and the royal tiara), armies of monkeys and scenes from heaven and hell.

Nothing in Cambodia – or indeed in much of the world – is as spectacular as Angkor Wat, but other temple complexes are fascinating in different ways. Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Angkorian empire, has an entrance flanked by 54 massive gods on one side, and 54 massive demons on the other, each with a different expression – sad, happy, sneering – on their face. The carvings in the main temple are touching in their humanity: men cooking meals, women weighed down by children, chubby-buttocked soldiers in loincloths fighting, a man wincing because his bottom has been bitten by a tortoise. Ta Promh, "discovered" by the French explorer Henri Mouhout in 1860, and left as he found it, is a symbol of human impotence in the face of nature: a magnificent, collapsing, mythical mix of giant roots and giant stones.

On our last day, we went on a boat trip to Tonle Sap, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Asia. Four million people live on the lake, or the banks of it, many in tiny floating boats, in floating villages. There are floating schools, and floating restaurants, and floating health centres, and floating crocodile farms. It's a hard, hard life, to scrape a living and bring up a family in a space the size of a small room. But they do it. Day after day, they do it. Like so much else in this beautiful, sad, fascinating country, they weather the storms and go on.

Travel essentials: Cambodia

Getting there

* Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk ) offers a nine-night trip to Cambodia from £3,195 per person. The price includes Thai Airways flights from Heathrow via Bangkok, private transfers, two nights' B&B at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, four nights' B&B at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap, two nights' B&B in a tented temple camp, some meals and all excursions.

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Cambodia; the gateway is Bangkok, served by Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiairways.co.uk ), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Eva Airways (020-7380 8300; evaair.com ) and Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk ) from Heathrow. Connections to Phnom Penh are offered by Thai Airways and Air Asia (0845 605 3333; airasia.com ).

Staying there

* Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 981 888) and Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Siem Reap (00 855 63 963 888): raffles.com

Visiting there

* National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh ( cambodiamuseum.info ). Open daily 8am-5pm; admission US$3 (£2).

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