Cambodia's hidden dragon

Vietnam and Thailand have been favourites for years, but now neighbouring Cambodia is coming out of the shadows. Actor and musician Richard Strange finds a country of wild water festivals, ancient temples - and louche bars
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The Independent Travel

Every year, Cambodia's Tonle Sap River performs an impressive party trick: it flows upstream. Too swollen by the meltwater from the Himalayan icecaps to escape through the Mekong Delta, in neighbouring Vietnam, the water blasts backwards, flooding the Tonle Sap Lake with fresh water. When the dry season begins, the river reverses again and flows south towards the sea. This resumption of normal service is celebrated with a clamorous water festival, the Bon Om Tuk, and three days of carnival in the capital. Phnom Penh, with its many ravishing buildings, sits grandly at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong rivers, and her tree-lined riverfront becomes pure theatre.

In the week of the November full moon, a three-day national public holiday is declared, and Phnom Penh's population is swelled by the arrival of a million visitors from all over the country. Imagine a cross between the Henley Regatta, the Palio in Siena and the Carnival in Rio, and you will get some idea of the exuberance that is Bon Om Tuk.

Nominally, the main focus of the festival is the dragon-boat races that pit village crews against each other. The races are fiercely contested over a one-mile course, from the port to the Royal Palace. Thousands of revellers stream along the river bank, and jostle with hawkers, food sellers, conjurers and musicians in a dazzling spectacle.

Out on the river, crews of up to 80 rowers, vividly decked out in their team colours, man the boats. At the helm a coxswain urges them on with shouts of exhortation. Sometimes a beautiful girl, perched precariously at the prow, coordinates the oarsmen with sinuous gestures as the boat slices its way through the soupy brown water. The vessels themselves, made of koki wood, are up to 30m long, painted in vibrant colours and ornately decorated with symbols of good luck and plenty.

The festival is a way for Cambodians to honour the river, their lifeblood, as it resumes its rightful course through their country. The fertile silt it brings benefits the rice paddies and fruit fields all along its route. The river is home to more than 800 varieties of fish, many of which find their way onto a typical Khmer menu.

It is my first day in Phnom Penh, and I am watching the pageant below from the relative calm of the veranda bar at the FCC, with a welcome drink in my hand. It is a pleasant 27C, and this is by far the most comfortable time of year to come to Cambodia. The FCC is the old Foreign Correspondents Club, in a prime riverfront location with enviable views up and downstream.

The elegant pillared room, in cream and dark wood, cooled by ceiling fans, is part-owned by a British expat named Anthony Alderson. Sipping a beer while poking at his laptop, the 40-year-old entrepreneur from Surrey tells me: "The festival was banned for 20 years, after [the US-sponsored dictator] Lon Nol toppled Prince Sihanouk in 1970. It was reinstated in 1990. For many Cambodians this will be their sole visit to Phnom Penh, like a pilgrimage to Mecca."

Alderson has lived out here for 13 years, with his partner Kellie, a New Zealand silk designer, and their two children. He opened his first restaurant in Phnom Penh, a pizzeria, in 1992. It was the first pizza parlour in the country, and he timed his opening to perfection; 22,000 UN peacekeepers had just arrived in town, with plenty of cash to spend, and no kitchens in the homes. The pizzeria was an instant hit and gave Alderson a taste for the hospitality business.

In 1995 he took over the management of the FCC, and turned what had been a poorly run gin-den, dishing up filthy food, into a funky bistro serving everyone from backpackers to ambassadors. "Our clients then were mainly journalists, who would drink 15 gin and tonics in the course of a day's writing," Alderson explains. It is now the premier stop-off for any visitor to Phnom Penh wishing to relax, have a drink or enjoy a good lunch or dinner.

It was lunchtime and I decided to put his cooking to the test. Sipping an iced watermelon juice, I was impressed by the scope of the menu. I ordered a deliciously rich and piquant goong ob woonsen - baked prawns with glass noodles, cooked with herbs and dark soy. The seafood in Phnom Penh is astonishingly good. The prawns were sweet and meaty, and the noodles were the colour of mahogany. Graham Greene and Norman Lewis, both habitués of the club in its former incarnation, would be astonished to find that these days the food alone makes the FCC worth a visit.

The FCC is more than just a good bar and restaurant though - it is an institution, a meeting place and a bolt-hole of sanity, if not always of sobriety. Keith Quinn was the US Ambassador during the coup of 1997. On 7 July that year, Hun Sen, the leader of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), overthrew Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a brutal, bloody coup. Two days of fighting left at least 58 people dead. The coup started on a Saturday. On Monday lunchtime Quinn filed his report to Washington saying, "The FCC is open; things must be returning to normal."

The FCC currently operates a small but comfortable hotel, with just seven rooms. In keeping with the colonial style of the bar, the rooms have dark wood floors, flagstone bathrooms and ceiling fans, and are stylishly but sparsely furnished. On the walls are the stunning panoramic photos of the river by the English photographer Paul Stewart, another resident of Phnom Penh. All rooms have a terrace and a dramatic view either over the river or the impressive National Museum.

Despite suffering exhaustion after a 14-hour flight from London, the lure of the water festival was too strong to resist and I wanted to get down in among it, to taste it, to smell it, to touch it.

On the street I was struck by how young the population is. More than half of the 13 million Cambodians are under 19 years old. They are fascinated by the sight of a 6'4", big-nosed European on their turf. Despite the fact that Cambodia is a very easy country to enter (you buy your visa at the airport on entry, for $25), the sight of a tourist is still something of a novelty in Phnom Penh. "Hello - what is your name?" they giggle as they pass. Every once in a while, a schoolgirl, emboldened and intoxicated by the festive atmosphere, touches my nose for luck, as if it is a supremely holy relic sent by a foreign dignitary to honour the festival.

Wandering away from the river, into the heart of old Phnom Penh, the nostrils are assailed by the familiar smells of Asia - a combination of spices, jasmine, incense, sewage and exhaust fumes. A family of five balanced on a single motorcycle is so commonplace that it no longer warrants the desperate scramble for the camera to record the scene. In fact, seeing a mere three on a two-wheeler seems positively wasteful and decadent.

Each night after the dragon races are done and darkness falls, eight colossal illuminated barges are towed into position on the river, to the raucous din of xylophones and gongs that blare from tinny speakers positioned the length of the riverfront. The temperature of the crowd rises in anticipation; some of the revellers shimmy along in a sinewy serpentine conga line, and the end of the day is heralded by a spectacular firework display. As the full moon rises, thunderclaps, starbursts and rocket flares tattoo the night sky. The xylophone music never lets up.

Next morning, the riverfront is all but deserted and hidden under a humid cloud cover. The frenzy and euphoria of the preceding three days and nights have gone and the city is returning to its workaday normality - the ferry boats and fishermen are plying their trade on the Tonle Sap again and the whole town is 20 decibels quieter.

Sipping a coconut and lime lassi on my balcony, I wonder how the mass exodus had taken place last night. Driving north for my next destination, Siem Riep, to visit the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, I found the answer. For every 20 people crammed into a minibus, there were another 20 clinging to the roof, along with the motorbikes, baskets, food and carpets they bought on the trip. They were returning home to their villages in the far-flung provinces of Cambodia, up towards the Thai and Laotian borders.

The drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is gently picturesque, past stilted houses and endless verdant paddy fields, until I reach the small town of Skoun. This stop-off is famous for one thing - the local delicacy is a tarantula-like spider, cooked in a gloopy, sweetish sauce. A woman approached my car with a trayful of the creatures. I was encouraged to try one - the legs are like meaty balsa wood, the head rather crunchy. Only the aficionado eats the abdomen.

In Siem Reap, I checked into one of the countless hotels that are being built all over town. The road from the airport is lined with shiny new hotels announcing "Soft Opening - special rates". It is beginning to look like Las Vegas. Siem Reap is gearing up for a massive tourist influx. With the heart-meltingly beautiful 12th-century Angkor Wat as the jewel in its crown, there is every chance that Cambodia will soon emulate the popularity of its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.

The Hotel de la Paix is a swanky 105-room art deco treasure trove. Part-Theban palace, part-ocean liner, it is the most luxurious of all the new top-end hotels. It "soft-opened" in July, and while it is not yet up to speed (only one in every five of the rooms was booked during my stay), it offers a standard of accommodation and a level of service many Western hotels would do well to emulate.

Designed by Bill Bensley, known for his work for the Four Seasons hotel group in Asia, the rooms are coolly modern, and come with handcrafted lamps, intricate wall-mountings and fine linen. Every room has a DVD player, wi-fi internet connection and an iPod that guests may take with them on excursions.

The communal Art Lounge has a vast bar, lit by fibre optics that bathes the room in alternating soft, soothing pink and green light. On one wall, films are projected without sound. The exhibition of artworks changes monthly, and always in some way reflects Khmer culture.

Pursuing the theme, the hotel's Meric Restaurant features Khmer cuisine, cooked by the highly rated New Zealand chef Paul Hutt. Roots and tubers, flowers, small fish, wild honeys and herbs are all traditional Khmer foods, as well as more than 1,000 varieties of rice. At a Khmer gourmet evening I ate steamed maan (fermented fish) with Khmer crudités, krill (the tiny shrimp that is the staple of any discerning whale's diet) and * * ambarella (something between a quince or crabapple) salad, and stir-fried frog with basil. Every dish was delicious, subtly flavoured and aromatic, and presented with real attention to detail.

Like new hotels the world over, the Hotel de la Paix sets great store by its spa, and boasts a swimming pool, gym and a wide selection of treatments and yoga classes. The FCC Angkor - the sister hotel to the Phnom Penh FCC - was also a wonderfully relaxing place to stay between visits to Angkor Wat and the other temples in the vicinity.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of boutique and luxury hotels in Cambodia - fuelled by the demand for high living at prices that are, by international standards, low. Chatting to Anthony Alderson in the funky first-floor bar of the FCC Angkor that overlooks the Siem Reap River, he told me, "We are selling an oasis here. For $100 a night we offer designer quality at an affordable price."

For a few dollars more, you can try one of the treatments from the spa. I chose the 58 Stones one, where polished black basalt stones from the Grand Canyon are heated and placed on the muscles, then used to massage legs and feet, back and shoulders, arms and hands, and head and neck. The whole process takes an hour and a half, and is like being bathed with warm honey.

The games room even has a black pool table made by the legendary Brunswick Company in Cincinnati - "97 per cent accuracy on the cushions," said Alderson proudly as he cleared the table. Just my luck to find the rogue 3 per cent while I was playing.

Next door to the FCC is the art gallery and curiosity shop owned by the 41-year-old Anglo-Irish traveller Jerry Swaffield, who arrived in Cambodia two years ago, via Bangkok and the Philippines. He is an illustrator by trade, and at 15 was the second-youngest artist ever to draw for The Beano. Who was the youngest, I asked the wiry Swaffield. "Bob sodding Monkhouse," he replied with a wink.

As well as illustrations, Swaffield makes "assemblages of junk", which he refers to as "scraptures". These bizarrely beautiful objects are part fetish, part totem. Linger in Swaffield's gallery for an hour or two, and many of the transient characters crisscrossing Cambodia will almost certainly drop in for a coffee or a smoke. I waited a mere 40 minutes before Peter O'Sullivan, who had played bass guitar with my band in the 1980s, walked into the gallery. After spending a suitably dissolute youth, Peter became involved in the landmine clearances in Cambodia and now leads tours with his company, Wild Frontiers, to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Astonished to see him after so long, and in such unfamiliar surroundings, I asked what on earth he was doing here and he answered, "Where else would I go - this is the only place to be!" And, in a way, he was right.