Until recently Cambodia, like Vietnam, was a byword for horror.
Only the most grotesquely fake guidebook could pretend that Cambodia, or ‘Cambodge’ as the French call it, is just an Indochinese jewel characterised purely by art, dance and music. Thanks to the Khmer Rouge's genocidal 1975-79 rule, the bump at the bottom of Laos has become a dark tourism venue littered with pain memorials. Take your pick between the Landmine museum, the Genocide Museum and the infamous Killing Fields.
The exhibits contained by the museums embody the Khmer Rouge maxim ‘Preserve them, no profit; kill them, no loss’. During the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, torture for phantom crimes was rife. Finally, ever paranoid, the Pol Pot regime decreed that the torturers, mostly children, be tortured too just in case their zeal had waned, proving the theory that revolutions do in fact eat their own children.
Cambodia has now, thank God, ejected the killjoy ultramaoists who even decreed that the leaves be trimmed from the trees. Sofitel and Le Meridien have made inroads into the country, now run by a constitutional monarchy, as have casino resorts such as NagaWorld, which somewhat spuriously name-checks the sacred serpents that protected the Buddha. One bespoke luxury tour firm even offers a ‘Cambodia for Billionaires’ package.
The main attraction by a mile is Angkor Wat. One of the world’s seven wonders, the giant, moated temple eclipses the colonial buildings that line the river at Battambang in the northwest and the mountain scenery of Rattanakiri in the northeast.
At weekends, Angkor hosts cello concerts. In December, Les Nuits d'Angkor, a marriage of ballet and traditional Khmer dance, unravels in front of the temple.
“As you sit in the warm tropical evening, accompanied by the xylophones, drums and oboes of the traditional Pin Peat orchestra, you will gradually be able to make out the silhouettes of dancers as they descend from above with slow sinuous steps,” says the puff. “As the glow within the temple intensifies a group of forty beautifully dressed dancers appears, gracefully lining the terraces of the temples.”
Do not become so mesmerized by the display of poise, strength and grace that you forget where you are. Beyond the spires of Angkor Wat, swathes of Cambodia are still studded with lethal landmines. There are more of them than there are people in Cambodia.
Likewise, guns are widespread. So, when tempted to embark on any late nocturnal wanderings, play it safe and stay in your hotel - or potentially be parted from your Riel coins, US dollars and platinum card.
The best way to navigate Cambodia is by jet: the country’s atrocious highways make Laos’ dusty tracks seem like mirror-smooth fresh tarmac.
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