Before applying for my visa at the elegant Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, I talked to the British Embassy about the rumours of an impending civil war between the private armies of the Royalist and Socialist co-prime ministers. I was warned that after dark in Phnom Penh one should not carry too many dollars and that outside the capital one should travel only by aeroplane.
I decided to risk crossing the Vietnamese land frontier. About 100 western travellers on tight budgets do so daily and on this particular road no dangerous incidents have been reported.
My first impression, after the energy and purpose of Vietnam, was of the colourfulness and gentleness of the people, but also of their poverty, anarchy and slovenliness. The countryside of scrub, banana groves and tobacco fields and the towns, with their Wild West atmosphere, reminded me of the Caribbean borderlands of Colombia and Venezuela.
We drove furiously along 200kms of pot-holed roads, pausing only to repair a puncture and to catch a Mekong ferry.Phnom Penh, brutally evacuated by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in 1975, has now regained a population of about a million. After Saigon I was struck by the contrasting extremes of poverty and wealth. There are more Mercedes and smart new buildings, the result of United Nations and Non-Governmental Organisation investment, but there is also more garbage and more homeless and limbless camping out. The city with its boulevards still retains the air of faded French colonial elegance, set off by colourful Buddhist temples and shrines.
On the recommendation of an American fellow passenger I booked into a hotel with air conditioning. After a little bargaining I agreed to pay$10 for a bare room with a TV with five channels, including one French and one Indian.I soon discovered I was directly above a dance hall and that the hotel was a bordello. Among the heavily made-up, but beautiful filles de joie was an unkempt young client casually sporting a Russian machine gun. I decided to get my bearings by walking past the silver pagoda and beside the Mekong to Bert's Bookshop and Guest House. I thought I might stay there instead.
Bert's is a hive of useful gossip about Cambodia. There you can meet other travellers and expats who drop in for a browse, a drink and Bert's wife's famous chops and chips. Or if you just want a quiet read, you can sit in comfortable basket chairs amid trailing plants on the second- storey balcony overlooking the sampans on the Mekong.
Bert Hoak is a garrulous and warm-hearted bibliophile, an Alaskan American of German and Irish extraction who first visited Cambodia five years ago to work for an NGO. He fell in love with the country and with his charming young Khmer wife-to-be and they bought a massage parlour on Sisowath Quay. Disapproving of prostitution, they converted it into a bookshop, with probably the largest collection of second-hand books in English in Indo- China, and into a basic, but clean guesthouse. They even have a computer on which you can access the Internet.
Bert told me of the sights that many travellers miss. Four times a month there are moon festivals on the riverside in front of the Royal Palace. They feature traditional music, fortune tellers, and "more incense than you've ever seen before!" They are very traditional, very pleasant, and free. Also there is the nightly bat exodus from the museum & buildings within the compound of the Royal Palace. Every night at dusk, several million bats swarm out over a 20-minute period. It is best viewed from the park in front of the museum, or from the back deck of the Foreign Correspondents Club. Near town there is a restaurant that serves bat soup ..."a must" for any connoisseur of exotic foods. And nearby is a strange sight indeed: a monk is building a new Angkor Wat out of a secret formula of mud. I also discovered, though not from Bert, that just outside town, for $40, you can hire bazookas and machine guns and fire off as much ammunition as you like, barely supervised, for half a day.
Bert sells tickets for the "fast boat" up a tributary of the Mekong and across the vast inland lake of Tonle Sap, to Siem Reap, the local town for Angkor Wat. He told me the boat had been machine gunned by the smartly uniformed soldiers of one of the prime minister's armies a few days previously. Also fisherman who have their nets fouled are liable to take pot shots at passenger boats. Although no tourists had been hit he would rather not sell me a ticket and advised me to fly. Not wanting to return to England in a body bag, I splurged and went on Royal Cambodian Airlines.
The personable young part-time taxi driver, part-time student, who took me to the airport had spent half his life in a Thai refugee camp. Both his parents had been executed by the Khmer Rouge, as were nearly all the middle class and intellectuals.
Once in Siem Reap, I headed straight to the delightful Green Garden Guest House, recommended by Bert. I subsequently discovered that the fast boat had not been fired on but had broken down in the middle of Tonle Sap lake, had been overtaken by the slow boat and taken 22 instead of five hours.
I bought an official as opposed to a forged three-day ticket to the 50 or so temples, that cover an area of at least 100 square kilometres. This ensured that the money went to upkeep the temples. My guide motorcyclist cost me a further $7 a day. He explained that he hired the bike for $5, leaving himself $2 a day to live on.
It is refreshing in the heat to travel pillion along the beauty of the jungle roads. My guide spoke little English and at each stop I would escape him and the many soft drink and postcard sellers and walk through the jungle and up the steep flights of stairs of the Mount Merus - cosmic mountains - that the temples represent and that the Khmer kings built to be closer to the gods.
At the height of its civilisation the temple complex was a religious city supporting a population of almost a million. The local rivers were harnessed into great reservoirs or barays and into temple moats that today are filled with lotus flowers. On the temple walls are miles of carvings of Hindu deities, kings, armies, musicians, dancing girls, elephants, exotic creatures and intricate and beautiful foliage, all of which are echoed by the proliferation of the encroaching jungle. Now most of the temples contain Buddhist shrines. I spent many peaceful and awe-inspiring hours at Angkor Wat the largest religious building in the world, but I also returned to Ta Prohm, which has been left overgrown by the jungle with its vast intertwining roots that hold the temple together.
To capture the full beauty of Angkor's temples, you should go before they are developed into a Malaysian tourist paradise, with a massive sound and light show and with golf courses and conference centres. Now it may still be for you as it was for me, the experience of a lifetime.
cambodia fact file
How to get there
Cheap flights: return London to Bangkok from pounds 330 (see Teletext, Sunday papers, 'Time Out', etc). Single fare Bangkok to Phnom Penh by Thai or Royal Cambodia Air: pounds 186. There are currently cheap returns by Aeroflot, London to Saigon for pounds 440.
Bus from Sinh Cafe, Saigon to Vietnamese frontier: $5. Shared taxi frontier to Phnom Penh: $6. The journey takes about 7 hours.
"Fast Boat" to Siem Reap, for Angkor: $50 return. Royal Cambodia air to Siem Reap: $110.
Motor cycle taxis within Phnom Penh: about 1,500 riel.
Where to stay
Phnom Penh hotels with air-conditioned rooms start at $10. For elegance and comfort try the Renakse, opposite the Royal Palace, at $30 a night. Bert's Guest House in Phnom Penh has double rooms with fan, shower and toilet for $7 and singles for $6.
Green Garden Guest-house, Siem Reap: $10 a night.
Passport must be valid for six months from date of entry. Visa $20 on arrival at Phnom Penh airport or, for overland entry from Vietnam, in advance from Cambodian Embassy, Saigon. Three photos required. Ready within 24 hours.
One-day ticket to Angkor temples: $20; 3-day ticket: $40.
Dollars are usable everywhere in small denominations. The Riel is 2,700 to $1 or 4,300 to pounds l.
Good guide books: the "Lonely Planet - Cambodia" and the "Cambodia Handbook" in the Footprint series. Also, for Angkor, the "Odyssey Illustrated Guide to Angkor" and "The Art of South East Asia" by Philip Rawson, Thames and Hudson.