I was walking with tour guide Suon Chhavirak across a hilly field framed by orchid trees, just 5 miles south of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. The verdant beauty created a chilling contrast to what came next, when Suon pointed to the ground, dotted with the human bones, teeth and clothing that still surface after rain storms.
“My father was killed here,” he said softly, as we took in the ghastly Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of more than 300 killing fields where the Pol Pot regime massacred between 1 and 3 million Cambodians (out of a population of 8 million) between 1975 and 1979. “We just want to know why,” he said. “Why?”
Four decades after the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign, the fault lines suffused nearly every exchange I had while touring Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The country’s trauma is profound, and so is its magnificence. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the astoundingly fresh, fragrant cuisine and ubiquitous lotus flowers. It’s easy too to be overcome by the 9th- to 14th-century Hindu and Buddhist stone temples of Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site spanning 150 square miles, including the temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. (Even though it’s technically incorrect, the whole area is colloquially known to many as Angkor Wat.)
I explored Cambodia with deeply knowledgeable tour operator About Asia Travel, which offers four-star hotel accommodations with itineraries starting at $150 a day. Visitors can access many of the temples on their own, but a well-run tour is particularly helpful, and About Asia proved invaluable at providing important context and circumventing crowds (2.2 million people visited last year). If you do go independently, a day pass costs $37, and you should arrive at sunrise, take a break for lunch and return at sunset.
Our three days in and around Angkor Wat included not only the well-known temples Ta Prohm (a location for the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) and Bayon, with its staggeringly expressive, 8-foot-tall carved Buddha faces, but also remote sites accessible only with a guide. We ended one day with a sunset gondola ride down the lily pad-filled Angkor Thom moat, our guide expertly slicing lime into our gin and tonics. At the once mine-ridden Koh Ker temple complex, 75 miles northeast of Siem Reap, I marveled at 10th-century sandstone elephant statues and watched a local woman dig for tarantulas, while my guide translated her plan to deep fry them with lemongrass.
As with many other Asian countries, Cambodia is relatively affordable — once you purchase a plane ticket. Room rates at Siem Reap’s best hotels — Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, the Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor — start at about $200 in low season. But Siem Riep is no longer a sleepy treasure: residents fear that the recent grand opening of the nearly 800-room Sokha Siem Reap Resort & Convention Center is a harbinger of aggressive development.
Fortunately, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, completed in 1932, recalls a more gilded age. An original cage elevator and enormous pool — 60 feet wide and 115 feet long — suggest a classic grand tour.
A 10-minute drive north, I visited Theam’s House Ateliers and Gallery, run by artist Lim Muy Theam, who fled Cambodia with his family at age 9 and studied art and design in Paris before returning home. Committed to preserving artisan techniques banned by the Khmer Rouge, Lim employs locals to create vibrant lacquer tableware and elephants in every imaginable color ($29 to $42). Two aqua baby elephants and their silvery mother now grace my Manhattan apartment, singular souvenirs from an exceptional place.
Siem Reap is also home to NGOs devoted to helping local young people while providing excellent experiences for visitors. Phare Circus, which trains acrobats, produces socially conscious, entirely engaging circus performances for all ages. Tree Alliance runs the restaurant Marum, where former street children cook and serve some of the city’s best rice paper rolls, chive dumplings and classic Khmer pork salad and fish soups, with dishes averaging $6 apiece.
Siem Reap’s central attraction may be its distant past, but for a better sense of Cambodia’s recent history, head 200 miles south to the bustling capital city of Phnom Penh. Then join Khmer Architecture Tours. Led by architects and architecture students, the tours provide a compelling survey of the city’s jumble of old and new buildings, set in historical context ($15 a tour). Perched on bicycle-powered rickshaws called cyclos, architecture student Virak Ellin-Rouen guided us beyond the French colonial Hotel Manolis, through the courtyard of a contemporary Chinese private school, and alongside a 1905 French Catholic church-turned-squatters’ residence, where families have carved out homes under the nave. If the cyclo felt a bit like hurtling through the city in a tin can with wheels, it also provided singular views of Phnom Penh’s eclectic urban life: monkeys traipsing along phone lines; three boys crammed on a single Vespa; bars with names like “Same Same But Different.”
Raffles Hotel Le Royal, where President Obama stayed during the 2012 Asean Summit, made an ideal respite from the city’s bustle. The calm was particularly welcome after my visit to Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a harrowing site essential to understanding Cambodia’s recent history. While there, I met 87 year-old Chum Mey, one of only a few survivors of the 12,000 men, women and children imprisoned in Tuol Sleng. Several days a week, Chum sits just feet away from the stifling cell where he was chained and tortured. Speaking to visitors, Chum bears witness with extraordinary courage, a living testament to his country’s complex and fascinating past.