The first time I visited Phnom Penh, I arrived by boat from Siem Reap and stayed in a wooden guesthouse over a lake. I was a backpacker then and that was 10 years ago.
This time is rather different. Today the lake is gone, filled in to make way for a bland middle class housing estate. This time I’m checking into the best hotel in town, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, and my room is in the historic wing dating from 1929, with its beautiful checked marble floors, moulded panelling and roll-top baths. I’d seen it before in the film The Killing Fields, watched one evening in that backpacker joint on the lake.
In the days when Pol Pot’s Marxist army marched into power in 1975, this hotel was the last refuge for foreign journalists before the Khmer Rouge forced all foreign nationals in to the nearby French Embassy, before they were expelled completely.
Until 1970, tourism had boomed under Cambodia’s Sihanouk royal family, but a coup in 1970 and then, in 1975, another by the Khmer Rouge, aided by the chaos caused by the Vietnam War, put paid to all that. A three-year, eight-month and 20-day period of mass evacuations and genocide, during which time Phnom Penh was forcibly emptied of its inhabitants, almost two million were killed – almost a quarter of the population. Decades of guerilla warfare followed.
Jon Swain, then an Agence France-Presse journalist, details the last days of the hotel prior to the fall of Phnom Penh in his 1995 book River of Time. He had arrived in Phnom Penh in 1970: “My home was Studio Six, a two-bedroom duplex with ceiling fans on the ground floor of the Hôtel Le Royal.” By 1974, he recalls, “Only at the hotel was there still something of the lazy charm of the prewar days. But most of the French community had deserted the city after the Khmer Rouge shelled it.” Then, later, “The bombardments were so intense that journalists abandoned their rooms at the top of the hotel, which were fully exposed to rocket and artillery fire, for those on the lower floors”. The higher rooms were available at the bargain price of $5 but there were few takers.
During the “last days” of Phnom Penh, the façade of the old hotel “was bedecked with giant white flags and red crosses and surrounded with barbed-wire barricades. It had been declared a ‘neutral zone’ by the Red Cross”.
A Scottish medical team set up an operating theatre inside one of the (now demolished) bungalows in the hotel grounds. The hotel ceased to function as an “exclusive hangout of foreigners and rich Cambodians, being converted into a refugee camp”. Soon it was abandoned completely. Most foreigners moved to the former French Embassy compound before being trucked to the Thai border by the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh fell on April 17, 1975.
According to a former member of Khmer Rouge Battalion 310, this group of military cadres was in charge of the hotel between 1975 and 1979. To the west of the main building was the underground food storage where rice, local wine and dried fish were stored. The cadres occupied the main building as office and residential quarters.
Svay Ken, a staff member who survived and returned to the hotel in October 1979 to recommence work, was philosophical about the state of the hotel: “Some of the furniture had gone, most remained…the hotel looked much the same…there was cleaning to be done after the intervening years.”
During 1980, the hotel was known as the Samakki and was taken over by international aid agencies; in the 1990s, thanks to Raffles International, it was restored and reopened in 1997.
My room, 307, is on the top floor, with a great view of the blooming rain trees at one end of the swimming pool. Opposite my room is the newer wing of the hotel dating from 1997, though it looks very much like the old one. The area around the hotel has been relatively well-preserved, though the brand-new, neon-lit 39-storey Vattanac Capital Building, which will contain a hotel, apartments, offices and shops, stands out in an otherwise low-key central district. Fortunately, much of the new development has taken place outside the city centre.
Within walking distance is Wat Phnom, meaning “mountain pagoda”, a landscaped temple-park after which the city is named. Down near the river and another historic throwback, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, is the Royal Palace, a striking complex with sharp golden spires. Built in the 1860s but looted by the Khmer Rouge, it tells a familiar tale of closure, refurbishment and reopening. It’s hard to tell which buildings are temples and which are not; Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, known as the Silver Pagoda, with its Buddhas made of crystal and gold and silver-tiled floor, is the main attraction. Our guide, Zenith Tith, tells me that the royal flag flying is a symbol of hope, peace and good fortune for most Cambodians, who rue the day they ever turned their back on the royals, even though the country has been a constitutional monarchy since 1993.
Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum of Cambodia, which, among its 14,000 item collection, houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptures, ceramics and bronzes, from prehistoric times to periods before, during and after the Khmer Empire, which at its height stretched from Thailand, across present-day Cambodia to southern Vietnam. Dating from 1920, the museum is a reassuring reminder that vast swaths of history existed both before and after the Khmer Rouge.
We walk to nearby Friends restaurant for lunch and I’m pleased that this downtown area has escaped large-scale demolition and redevelopment. With its low-rise buildings, small local shops and restaurants and a tree-filled streets, it feels a bit like the old quarter of Hanoi. The restaurant serves a delicious menu of tapas-style dishes, including rich fish amok, served in banana leaf pouches, and stir-fried chicken with mango.
Then it’s off to the Central Market – worth visiting for the building alone, a striking art-deco structure dating from the 1930s, when Cambodia was still under French control. Inside is a clean and relatively ordered collection of products arranged by theme – fruit and vegetables, seafood, dried seafood, takeaway food including cooked insects such as scorpions, crickets and tarantulas, spices, cloth, ready-made clothes and jewellery – and vendors are open to bargaining without being aggressive.
The best way of getting a feel for the city, though, is by cyclo. With Khmer Architecture Tours, I take a guided cyclo tour with Virak Rouen, a local architecture student. Visiting both colonial and modernist buildings, stopping to go inside some of them, this is a fascinating insight into heritage that is vanishing by the day. “The problem is that none of the old buildings are protected,” says Rouen. “So you see even the city’s oldest hotel has been turned into a KFC.” Thankfully, some old buildings, though decaying like downtown Yangon, are still standing, presumably waiting for a well-heeled investor to come along and restore them.
Back at the Hotel Le Royal, I watch a dramatic thunderstorm from the comfort of my bedroom. Downstairs, Restaurant Le Royal is an elegant fine-dining venue with impressive original features and an old-world feel. The menu, which includes Khmer amok bangkong – steamed Mekong lobster in a spicy sauce with local herbs, served in a young coconut shell – is both decadent and reasonable value, with three-course lunch and dinner menus from about US$50 (Dh183) per person.
Yet no visitor to Cambodia can escape the past, as virtually no-one in the country was untouched by it. The newly released Netflix film First They Killed My Father, directed by Angelina Jolie, centres around a five-year-old girl called Loung Ung, who is forced from her family's home in Phnom Penh and trained as a child soldier while her six siblings are sent to labour camps.
On the way to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, south of the city centre, Tith elaborates on his already impassioned narratives about the Khmer Rouge, corruption, and, when asked, his own family’s traumatic forced breakup. Tuol Sleng, which had been a high school, was turned into S-21, the country’s most notorious detention, torture and execution centre. There are more tourists than when I first came here 10 years ago, but the disrespectfully loud behaviour of some groups is soon quietened as they tour the buildings, filled with the last pictures of the dead and detained, and some of the cells and shackles used. Just seven of the 17,000-20,000 people held here are said to have survived, and victims were anyone who bore the hallmarks of “class” or was seen as a threat by a paranoid regime – from government officials, academics, doctors, teachers and engineers to students, monks and factory workers.
Some of those detained at S-21, just one of about 150 such places around the country, were sent to the “killing fields”, again, of which there were hundreds. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, about a 45-minute drive from downtown, is the most famous. The first thing you see here is a memorial stupa containing some of the skulls, bones and torn clothes of those bludgeoned to death here.
Tith says many of the Khmer Rouge’s killers were recruited from minority groups, “because they were uneducated, easy to use and brainwash. They played very lovely revolutionary music as they blindfolded people and killed them. There were up to 400 killing fields, and over 19,000 mass graves.”
After our tour, Tith continues with his detailed narrative, including angry questions about why the Khmer Rouge is still recognised by the UN, parallels in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Syria and why there are still former Khmer Rouge members in power in the country. Tith says that in 1976, when he was 10 years old, his family was sent from Phnom Penh to Battambang.
“Me and my siblings were separated from our parents on arrival and we never saw them again. We don’t know what happened. This was Cambodia’s Year Zero. Angkor was the Zenith.”
In Siem Reap, a spread-out town of 175,000 people 300km to the north, Raffles’ sister hotel, the famous Grand Hotel d’Angkor, again stands apart. Dating from 1932, it too was refurbished in 1995 and reopened in 1997. Like its Phnom Penh counterpart, it has a long list of luminaries who have stayed. The original iron lift in the lobby, the expansive outdoor pool and the sculpted Café d’Angkor restaurant are the highlights.
Having last been here 10 years ago, I’m also wondering how much the spectacular ruined city of Angkor, with its dozens of largely under-guarded and crumbling temples, will have fared with rapidly rising numbers of tourists (currently over two million a year). But apart from a new government ticket office much further from the site than the old one, an ugly new North Korean-designed museum and another ugly Sokha Hotel – the site itself – a massive 400sq km, with much of it covered in jungle – is sufficient to handle large numbers of people, especially when you remember that in its heyday it was one of the world’s largest cities, with a permanent population of over a million.
Our guide, Sieang Pheakdey, says that greater numbers of tourists has brought in a huge amount of money for restoration, but that sadly, because of corruption, some of the restoration efforts have seriously damaged the temples. While some of the complex’s small roads have been paved, most of those in and around the jungle has not. Despite a few more facilities, it still feels wild.
Between the 9th and the 15th centuries, Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, and swung back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, before being abandoned due to war and natural disasters.
In the 1980s and 90s the temples were looted, with many statues and other antiquities finding their way out of the country via Thailand.
Pheakdey explains how the temples were crafted using sandstone quarried 90km away, with stones weighing up to 12 tonnes being transported using a network of canals, plus workers and elephants. The main temple of Angkor Wat, still the world’s largest religious building and occupying a site of 500 acres, used 10 million sandstones weighing up to 5 million tonnes and was exactly aligned with the stars, Pheakdey tells us, demonstrating by whipping out his iPhone compass at the temple’s keystone. The sandstone needed water to sustain itself in the heat, he goes on, which accounts for the moats surrounding the biggest temples. “Without these they would have crumbled,” he says. Look closely at the temple’s most famous bass relief, the Hindu epic Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and you’ll see violence that looks like a vision of the Khmer Rouge – skulls being speared, bodies being torn apart, strangled and buried.
Ta Prohm, a former monastery known as the “Tomb Raider temple” thanks to its appearance in the film, still has its key draws, whole buildings being swallowed up by the octopus-like tentacles of enormous strangler figs and silk cotton trees – yet some areas are now roped off, and an unsightly crane slightly spoils the photos. But the surrounding jungle is as thick and green as I remember – it happens that I’m here in the summer wet season – and the green moss that covers the blocky structures is affecting.
There are some temples we visit that are empty: just go slightly off-the-beaten-track to find them. My favourite area is still Angkor Thom, a 9 sqkm walled city-within-a-city. Its enormous gates and walls are still intact, and we take a private boat trip on its 14km-long moat. We are the only ones there, and the calmness as the moon slowly rises is unmissable.
Within Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple is still evocative, with its 54 towers – each representing a province the king was ruling over – adorned with 216 huge, mysterious faces. On the lower levels, despite being right beside the pathways and within reach of tourists, the faces on the dancing asparas, carved over 700 years ago, are still fresh. Also depicted is a Khmer circus. A strongman holds three dwarfs, and a man on his back is spinning a wheel with his feet; above is a group of tightrope walkers.
Just outside Siem Reap, where the Cambodian countryside is still largely free of mechanisation, electricity or running water, is the Phare Circus, short for phare ponleu selpak, or “the brightness of the arts,” named after an NGO school founded in Battambang in 1994 by nine men who had taken art therapy courses at a refugee camp.
The circus, launched in 2013, has trained disadvantaged young people with a desire to work in the arts to world-class standards, and in the process offers tourists an insight into Cambodian folk tales as well as ancient and modern expressions of history and other themes. It’s an energetic, entertaining and hopeful show, and I’m also encouraged by the makeup of the audience.
While 10 years ago most tourists to Cambodia were western or Japanese, visitors are now from all over the world. In this way, things are looking up.