Beauty, tragedy, fried spiders and jungle adventure: you can pack a lot into a week in Cambodia
Pochentong airport, Phnom Penh. Outside the terminal, the warm night air carries the scent of jasmine and open drains; from somewhere beyond the trees comes the sound of traditional Khmer music, rhythmic and exotic, and now a man is approaching us, holding out his finger-less hands, asking for money. Of course, a landmine victim; it’s hard to refuse him. Cambodia has rather a lot of them, a legacy of the Vietnam war and the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.
For independent travellers like myself and my companion James, arriving here can be an assault on the senses, but, as we soon discovered, Cambodia is also a country on the rebound, a land of gentle beauty, culture and warmth, despite its terrible recent past. Through darkened streets unlit by streetlamps, the taxi whisked us to our almost embarrassingly grand hotel: the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a palatial relic of the French colonial era, lovingly restored. Where once war correspondents tapped out dispatches, now white-tunicked waiters scurried discreetly across its polished teak floors, and in the Elephant Bar, still famed for its happy hour, we ordered Singapore slings over a game of pool.
As w breakfasted on fresh croissants, a man coughed discreetly behind us: “Monsieur, your taxi is ready.” With just two days in the capital, and me in a wheelchair from gunshot wounds sustained in the course of my Middle East reporting for the BBC four years ago, we had decided that hiring a car and a driver for £18 a day was the most efficient way to get around.
Phnom Penh is a peaceful, low-rise city with wide, tree-lined boulevards, where whole families ride past on a single motorbike, their smiles natural and infectious. In the cavernous Central Market, we came upon “the Spider Woman”, a lady selling no less than six bowls of assorted creepy-crawlies. There were giant spiders, glazed black and shiny, their bristly legs protruding over the sides of the bowl; smooth green beetles, mustard-coloured crickets and a pile of something I am fairly certain was fried cockroaches. “If this is Cambodian cuisine,” James said, “I’m sticking with the croissants.”
We were in for a pleasant surprise, though: at the Romdeng restaurant, an enterprise staffed entirely by trainee student cooks, Jamie Oliver-style, we feasted on grilled beef brochettes marinated in lemon grass, Khmer beef and peanut curry, then rice-flour crepes filled with caramelised banana topped with coco-nut ice cream, for £7 a head.
We certainly needed fortifying for what was ahead. Off a nondescript side street called Monivong Boulevard stood what was once a three-storey schoolhouse. It looked like any other high school in Asia: bare, concrete walls, flat roofs, palm trees in the courtyard. For four years in the 1970s, though, it became the Khmer Rouge’s most secretive detention centre, known as S-21, and the Cambodian government has since preserved it intact as the national Genocide Museum.
While Pol Pot’s fanatical cadres were busy expelling entire urban populations into the countryside, where more than a million perished, those deemed “enemies of the revolution” were brought here for imprisonment, interrogation and execution. In silence, we sat on the iron bedsteads in solitary cells where prisoners went through unspeakable tortures.
In bare, whitewashed rooms, I lost count of the thousands of black-and-white photographs of inmates who stared out, confused, terrified, probably at a loss as to why they were there. But the one that stays in my mind is that of the Australian tourist who sailed his yacht too close to the Cambodian shore, and was captured by Khmer Rouge gunboats and taken to Phnom Penh. His nationality did not save him; he, too, was tortured and killed.
This may sound a pretty grisly form of tourism, and I think it was one of the least enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent, but for Cambodians the genocide of the recent past is a key part of their history, and they want visitors to know about it. At the infamous “Killing Fields”, just outside the city, where a tall stupa has been erected containing countless skulls unearthed from mass graves, an inscription said it all: “The Khmer Rouge have the human form but their hearts are demons’ hearts.” MERCIFULLY, the Khmer Rouge is now history, and, after that, a visit to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace was like a soothing lotion. Amid immaculate lawns and well-watered flowers, we strolled in the afternoon heat, gazing at the ornate red-tiled pagodas, with the capital’s traffic a world away beyond the high walls. Our guide led us to the Silver Pagoda, with its huge Italian marble staircase and 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing a kilogram.
It was time to head upcountry, to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Indochina, via a short flight by turboprop plane in a monsoon downpour to the provincial town of Siem Reap. There, from the “achingly hip” Hôtel de la Paix, we rented a 4WD jeep and a guide who barely glanced at my wheelchair. “You want to go out on a boat and visit a fishing village on stilts? No problem.”
I liked that about Cambodians: perhaps because they have so many landmine victims of their own, they seemed to view the fact I could not walk not as an obstacle, but as a challenge.
In the relatively remote village of Kampong Khleang, two fishermen heaved me effortlessly into their boat for a chug round their world of stilted wooden huts, where life is lived 20ft above the waters of the lake. Then we shook off our shoes and sank into hammocks while rice and chilli were prepared for lunch, and the fishermen’s children took turns around the hut in my wheelchair.
It was a welcome glimpse of rural Cambodia, but the next day we had some serious sightseeing to do. Angkor Wat is not just Cambodia’s principal attraction, it’s the world’s largest religious building. It is actually one of a complex of huge stone temples dotted around the province and dating back as far as AD800, remnants of a once glorious empire and a city that housed a million people. Some, like the main lake-side temple of Angkor Wat itself, are neatly preserved, fringed by cut grass or coated in wooden scaffolding. Other, more remote, temples are shrouded in foliage, humming with mosquitoes.
The all-powerful jungle has all but reclaimed them.
Curbing our temptation to head straight for the jungle, we trekked round the more familiar sites: the magnificent stone faces of the Bayon, the carved heads that guard the gateway to Angkor Thom and the exquisite stonework of Banteay Srei, so fine, it was said to be carved by women rather than men. But at last, almost as a reward, we allowed ourselves the final day to wander unhurried over the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm, among the most mysterious, enigmatic and atmospheric of all Angkor’s temples.
Angelina Jolie’s producers knew they were onto a good thing when they filmed part of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film here. So enveloped was this temple by the lush forest, entire trees were growing on top of the ruins, giant, serpentine roots snaking down over the lichen-covered stone, as if slowly squeezing the life out of them. When we arrived, the place was overrun by a coachload of Korean tourists, but by sunset silence had descended, broken only by the raucous squawk of parakeets high in the treetops.
As the shadows lengthened over the tumble of fallen stones, the secretive archways and passages, the crumbling walls held up by jungle roots, I half-closed my eyes and tried to think back to a time, 800 years ago, when there were said to be 80,000 people tending to this temple, including hundreds of dancers. Then a whine in my ear brought me back to the present: mosquitoes, in the jungle, at dusk. Not a good combination.
It was time to head back to the Hôtel de la Paix and the evening’s tasting menu, eaten stretched out on hanging couches suspended from the ceiling. Across the courtyard, the moon rose, and a chorus of frogs rang out. From somewhere came the sound of Khmer music, and for a moment, I could have sworn I could smell jasmine.
- Frank Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent
TRAVEL BRIEF Getting there: there are no direct flights from the UK to Cambodia. Returns via Bangkok to Phnom Penh or Siem Reapstart at about £600with Trailfinders (0845 050 5889,www.trailfinders.com ) or Flight Centre (0870 499 0046,www.flightcentre.co.uk ).
Tour operators: with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk), nine nights, staying in five-star hotels, start at £2,750pp, B&B, including flights, car and driver. Or try Silver Bird (020 8875 9090, www.silverbird.co.uk ) or Somak (020 8423 3000, www.somak.com ).