ANGKOR Wat, the vast complex of ninth-century temples and ‘eighth’ wonder of the world, is remarkable. Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia, on which 80,000 people live in floating villages of boats, is fascinating.
Phnom Penh at rush hour, with its two million inhabitants aboard their one million motorbikes and another million cars, is heart-stopping, while the five-star decadence of Raffles hotel is the final word in luxury. Yet the sight that makes us stop in our tracks is a single old man, walking along a dusty track, stooping and white haired.
“Look, there’s an old person,” someone says, and we all turn and stare. Anywhere else, you wouldn’t look twice. But here he stands out like a fly crawling across a dusty map; a survivor who has avoided the genocide that killed up to three million people between 1975 and 1979 and turned the rice paddies of Cambodia into the Killing Fields. In 1975 the country had a population of seven million. By 1979 it was four million, Pol Pot having ordered the murder of 21 per cent of the population.
I had been told the first thing I would notice about this south-east Asian country was that there were no old people. So it was a series of 30-somethings who revealed Cambodia to me, from the Killing Fields guide to the masseuse to the historian.
“Every family has its tragedy,” says our guide, Sattya Sao, 36, as he leads us round the infamous S21 detention centre – made all the more chilling by its location in an unremarkable secondary school, where blackboards still hang on the walls and pooled dried blood darkens the floors. Here, at one of 167 prisons, 17,000 people were interrogated and tortured before being sent to be murdered at the nearby Choeung Ek killing field.
“Pol Pot sent this country back to the stone age and killed three million people. My father was one of them,” says Sao. “In 1977, we were sleeping in our cottage. There was a knock. A soldier with an AK47 said my father had to help them because he had been a soldier in the US, so he went.
“Next day someone told my mother they saw him killed behind the village. She waited a week until it was safe, then went to find his body. But there were many bodies lying in the fields and she couldn’t find him. He was 34 years old.”
In the now peaceful green fields of Choeung Ek, where huge butterflies flit, almost 20,000 people were murdered, their throats cut with palm stems. We walk among the 129 mass graves, only half of which have been excavated to give up the 9,000 skulls now arranged in the memorial temple standing in the middle of the field.
That leaves 11,000 bodies still buried in an area the size of two football pitches. Recent heavy rain has loosened the earth and it is giving up its secrets. A bone sticks out of the red soil. “Arm bone,” says Sao. We pick our way round it, only to tread on a patch of blue material breaking up through the mud.
“Mind the clothes. And those ...” he points at little white flecks on the ground ... “are teeth.”
Like Sattya Sao, Pich is a guide in her 30s. She leads us through Angkor Wat, a series of stunning ninth-century temples just outside the city of Siem Reap, an hour’s flight north of Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s main tourist draw, it’s where Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider, and in between the ancient history, Pich fills us in on how her father was blinded in one eye fighting the Khmer Rouge, then died young. Left with six daughters, her mother sold pancakes on the roadside until an Australian tourist bought them a stove and their fortunes finally improved.
All her sisters are now teachers, and Pich, who learned English, is one of only nine females among the 100 official guides at Angkor Wat. “Education is what matters, especially for girls,” says Pich, who is part of a population explosion that has seen this young nation boom to 14 million and the country almost burst at the seams. The generation that Pol Pot denied an education by returning Cambodia to Year Zero is now scrambling to make up for lost time.
Back at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, lazy fans chop through the 30°C humidity and the only sounds are the splash of the pool as a guest ploughs long, lazy strokes up and down. It must have been much like this in the 1920s, when Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham were guests. In the spa, Rattana gives me a massage. You can start exchanging pleasantries, yet in Cambodia, two sentences in and you’re talking genocide.
Rattana’s father disappeared, her mother worked in the rice fields and she stayed with her grandmother. “We couldn’t go to school because the Khmer Rouge were there.” After the war, her family paid for her to learn English, leading to a job in the hotel and training as a masseuse. “For my children, education is very important. Things will be different for them,” she says.
But it isn’t all about the war. Cambodia is a vibrant young country where 80 per cent of the population is under 25, and life is celebrated. We enjoy a Khmer cooking lesson with Raffles head chef Wade James and his Cambodian sous chef Ming Tyn, the highlight being a morning at the National Road No 6 San Markee food market, with the chefs. Motorbikes putt back and forth among the stalls, beneath which toddlers play and adults doze in hammocks.
There is the trip to the gilded, Buddha-stuffed royal palaces of Phnom Penh and a lazy boat journey down its river. Then in Seam Reap we visit Artisans D’Angkor, where traditional skills are taught to a new generation, and the silk workshop of designer Eric Raisina, whose designs wow Yves Saint Laurent.
There is a day on the freshwater lake of Tonle Sap, where a decade of development has seen a jetty appear and the number of boats rise from ten to 300, and evenings exploring bars, not least in the appropriately named Pub Street, plus stunning dances and martial arts displays at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
You can’t go to Cambodia without visiting the past. People want you to hear their stories so that the lost generation is never forgotten. But at the same time they’re living in the present and focused on creating a better future. A country is not just its history.
Boat trips on Paris Le Mekong cost $20 per hour (00 855 016 700 249).
Janet Christie travelled with luxury tour company Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941, www.coxandkings.co.uk). An eight-day/five-night packages, including two nights at Raffles Le Royal, Phnom Penh, and three nights at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap, is priced from £2,595 per person – including international flights with Malaysia Airlines, private transfers, excursions and accommodation with breakfast.
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