Cambodia may not be the first country that springs to mind when you think of honeymoon destinations, but there’s more to the country than civil war and the atrocities committed under Pol Pot, which tend to overshadow the beauty of this South East Asian gem.
The idyllic islands that line the coast, mirroring the tranquil peace once enjoyed by the now-crowded neighbouring Thai islands, Sihanoukville’s palm-fringed shores, the endless vista of lush paddy fields, top hospitality, mouth-watering meals and the glorious Angkor Wat all seem to come as an afterthought.
It’s true though that to understand Cambodia and appreciate everything she has to offer, you first have to learn a little about her turbulent past.
Thirty seven years ago, Cambodia was crushed by the iron fist of the Khmer Rouge when on April 17, communist soldiers wearing the black uniform of death marched into the capital Phnom Penh.
Thousands of residents packed the city’s streets, waving flags to celebrate what they thought marked the end of years of civil war and welcome into power the party who had fed them promises of freedom and prosperity.
But the soldiers, the majority uneducated and in their early teens, had different plans. Armed with guns and leader Pol Pot’s vision of transforming Cambodia into a utopic agrarian society, they ordered the innocent out of their homes and cattle-herded them into the countryside where they were forced, under the most inhumane conditions, to farm rice.
During the next four years, more than two million men, women and children – almost 25 per cent of the population – died at the hands of the bitterly cruel communist regime. Many more were left physically and psychologically scarred.
But it’s the Cambodian’s strong spirit, mantra to each day try and forgive but never forget and determination to rebuild a better Cambodia that makes this such an intriguing country.
With this in mind, we delved into its dark past as we struggled to comprehend the depths humanity can sink to during two essential but harrowing trips while staying in the capital.
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, sits the infamous killing field site, Choeung Ek – the largest of the many execution sites and dumping grounds that litter the country. After the Khmer Rouge fell, mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were excavated from the huge manmade trenches that still scar the landscape.
The majority of the skulls discovered now fill a 62-metre tall Buddhist stupa that solemnly stands in the centre of the site to commemorate all those who suffered.
Another haunting trip that weighs heavily on the conscience is Tuol Sleng, or S-21 prison. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh they transformed a high school into a political prison – surely no coincidence as the regime often used “going to study” and “education” as a euphemism for execution.
During the next four years, more than 14,000 prisoners passed through its heavily guarded doors. Each was subjected to days of horrendous torture before being slaughtered or sent to death at Choeung Ek. Of them, only a handful survived.
As soon as you walk through the torture house’s doors you’re confronted by the grim horrors that took place inside. Stunned into an immediate silence, we were met by endless rows of wide-eyed, petrified faces staring at us in room after room. These are the thousands of photos taken of prisoners as they entered.
A chilling tour of the prison shows the cramped, make-shift cells complete with shackles, terrifying torture tools and interrogation rooms, which have all been preserved, down to blood splats on the floor, as a stark reminder of the merciless crimes.
While Cambodians work hard to tell the world their story to make it is never repeated, there’s so much more to Cambodia and her capital than a tragic past.
The small but vibrant capital city sees modern sit comfortably next to traditional, with a mix of high-end hotels, backpacker havens and everything in between. Grand boulevards surround the stunning Grand Palace, which is open to visitors, spacious parks offer welcome relief from the at times oppressive heat and intricate temples stand on pretty much every corner.
Britain’s dwindling high streets could pick up a few top tips from this bustling city because there isn’t a single boarded up shop in sight. The lack of dominating chain stores means the streets are full of quirky boutiques, galleries boasting an eclectic array of art, and endless collections of cafes, coffee shops, bars and restaurants that cater for every taste and budget.
Unlike struggling British markets, Phnom Penh’s are bustling affairs. The Russian Market is an adventure, if you can face battling the crowds, and an assault on the senses, if you can brave some of the smells.
The loud chatter of haggling as deals surround the stalls selling everything from textiles, videos, DVDs, scarves and weird and wonderful fruits and vegetables, meat and fish – Cambodians don’t believe in hoarding food at home like us Brits and flock to the markets every morning to buy fresh ingredients for that day’s meals.
A supposedly six but more realistically eight hour bus journey north of Phnom Penh is Siem Reap, a town that has boomed thanks to the busload of tourists flocking to explore Angkor Wat.
The vast complex of temples built in the 12th century is dubbed the eighth Wonder of the World, and after setting our alarm for 4am to watch the sky wake up behind the silhouette of the giant domes, plunging the sky into oranges, pinks and reds, it’s easy to see why. This was a moment that will forever be etched into my memory.
Stretching over more than 400 square kilometres, Angkor Archaeological Park, the set of Tomb Raider, is home to a series of incredibly impressive temple cities.
A seven-day pass gives you plenty of temple-trekking time to explore the many lesser known ruins that are scattered across the sprawling park. But with just a one-day ticket, the main Angkor Wat site and nearby Bayon Temple with its 37, four-sided stone structures with carved smiling faces on each side, were all we had time for.
So with so many things still to see, as we jumped on a bus heading for the border to tourist-trampled Thailand, we vowed to return to the country that like the most delicious drug always leaves you wanting more.