Cambodia: Khmer cool

Ethical fashion labels, conceptual art galleries and renegade chefs are the features of Cambodia's landscape, a country moving into an entrepreneurial age.

By Sarah Barrell
photographs by Luke Duggleby
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:08 BST

The monks are making eyes at me. Their furtive glances could be taken for curiosity but as I move around the statue-laden garden of Phnom Penh's National Museum, weaving around giant dragons' heads and solemn stone Buddhas, flashes of orange robes keep appearing  in my peripheral vision.

I'm definitely being followed. The boys catch up with me at the pond, where coy smiles are followed by questions: "Are you married?", "Would you like to live here in Cambodia?" and some decidedly irreligious smirking. I'm being chatted up by three teenage monks.

The fact I'm probably twice their age (something I silently high-five my vain self about) is probably the most surprising aspect of this encounter, because boys will be boys. And in Cambodia, a country where Buddhist monasteries fill the glaring gap in state provision for the poor, that's exactly what many of these novice monks are: just boys. Youngsters from impoverished villages are still today sent to wats (monasteries) for bed, board and basic education, just as they have been for centuries. And over the past few decades the need has been great. The massacres of the Khmer Rouge era all but wiped out a generation. Some 70% of the country's population is under 30, many of whom are orphans or from fragmented families.

As sobering as these facts are, what you feel travelling around Cambodia's cities and villages today is a real sense of optimism and energy. The economy is on the up, boosted by a boom in Chinese and South Korean investment, and while this influx of money hasn't trickled down the economic ladder much, it does seem to have infected the country with an entrepreneurial spirit and new-found swagger.

I escape the monks, nipping through the National Museum's enormous, carved wooden doors and into a neighbouring gallery.

Inside the IPARC Exhibition Hall, I find a collection of arresting photos by local artist Khvay Samnang.

Samnang's Human Nature exhibit focuses on Phnom Penh's White Building. The decrepit high-rise housing complex was a symbol of a confident new Cambodia when it first towered head and shoulders above the low-rise capital in the 1960s, after the country had gained independence from France. Each photograph features a different resident in their bedroom; faces hidden behind commedia dell'arte-style masks. It's simultaneously comic and creepy and, despite the masks, a very intimate portrait; a frank look at hammocks, hairbrushes and scattered clothing, painting a raw picture of what it's like to live in this now notorious block. The White Building has become something of a cause celebre among the city's artistic community, with filmmakers, bloggers and photographers focusing on the tower as it faces the threat of demolition.

Between independence in 1953 and when the Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975, Cambodia saw a flood of foreign investment and urban construction flourished. Today the city is dotted with dilapidated architecture from this optimistic era. I spend a morning hopping in and out of an air-conditioned taxi, spotting Le Corbusier-inspired edifices such as the National Sports Complex, before wilting and retreating back in to the car to ponder Cambodia's incredible ability to bounce back. Like the White Building, many of these 1960s creations were left to rot during the latter years of the Khmer Rouge, many now being razed to the ground to make way for the next wave of hopeful high rises. Sadly, in many cases, this has also meant displacing families or entire villages.

Changing times

It's a time of transition for Cambodia. I check into the 240, a boutique billet on the eponymous street flanked by independent stores, ethical fashion labels, artisan jewellers and even a specialist wine shop — a rare find in Asia. Over breakfast in the hotel's minimalist cafe, I meet an Australian academic who's observing the country's UN-backed war crimes tribunal. On trial, among others, are the four surviving leaders of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime: policy-makers who led what became a crazed communist revolution that killed more than 1.7 million Cambodians. A quarter of the population fell at the hands of these now aged, frail men, dying in rural labour camps while schools were abolished, religion outlawed and the countryside littered with landmines.

The interesting aspect of these historic trials, for the Antipodean academic at least, is the associated outreach programme. This has seen hundreds of Khmer Rouge survivors bussed into Phnom Penh from the provinces to witness the trials and visit Tuol Sleng (the notorious Khmer Rouge prison) and Choeung Ek (one of the Killing Fields sites, where mass executions of prisoners occurred), both now genocide museums. For many of these Cambodians, this is a brave act of reconciliation but I've been dreading visiting either of these sites. Choeung Ek has recently been overhauled to provide a more meaningful visitor experience but I can't help but feel a deep sense of unease at the potential for morbid voyeurism.

Girding myself, I hop into a taxi and head southeast out of the city. More than an hour later, I haven't travelled more than a mile. It's Saturday and the road running out to the beaches around Sihanoukville is gridlocked. There's much buzz in Cambodia currently about the country's roads being widened, improved and extended, with Chinese investors ploughing money into trans-Asian links between Cambodia and bordering countries. I'm quietly grateful this road isn't linking me to anywhere and decide fate has spoken. I give up on death camp tourism and head back into the city.

At dusk, the entire population of Phnom Penh seems to have decamped from road to river. A welcome cool breeze rolls in off the city's Mekong tributary, Tonlé Sap, bringing a heady perfume of jasmine and fish. In the glare of neon from the waterfront bars, skinny jeans-clad couples stroll arm-in-arm adeptly fidgeting one-handed with cell phones. The boardwalk is lined with dance troupes and al fresco aerobic classes. I pause to watch 20 septuagenarians join an instructor in some spirited star jumps. "We used to worry about surviving," says a young father standing next to me. "Now we worry about getting fat!"

I find a supermodel-thin crowd at Chinese House, an art-gallery-cum-bar-restaurant set in an old colonial-style oriental villa on Sisowath Quay. Here, I drink an inspired sake rojito (plum and rice wine with cranberry juice) accompanied by the manager of Cambodia's new Plantation Hotel, Adi Jaya. Balinese-born, Adi has spent the past two decades working in hotels across Southeast Asia, everywhere from Laos to Singapore, recently making Cambodia home. "I feel like we're at such an exciting time for Cambodia right now," he says. "The young people here have really energised me. It's been amazing to see the changes in the past five years. When it came to hiring for the new hotel, I met so many smart local interviewees."

While several of the NGOs in Cambodia have been accused of corruption and paying lip-service to the country's complex social issues, the best have offered programmes to make penniless youngsters employable, teaching foreign languages and basic business skills — something the state school system is largely failing to do. Adi takes me on a hard-hat tour of the Plantation, which has bags of cement around its swimming pool where, in a few days, paying guests will be lounging. The sense of excitement about this new opening is palpable among the staff. For many, this will be their first hospitality job and I suspect it will be a stellar addition to their CVs.

French owner Alexis de Suremain has rescued and seamlessly merged a group of 1930s and 1960s buildings, working with local architects ASMA to create a 70-room resort-like hotel that's classy, confident and very much part of the new Khmer aesthetic. Cool, lantern-lit hallways lead to tranquil rooms, where whites and natural woods contrast with colourful splashes of 1960s-style furniture and simple Cambodian fabrics. Most rooms overlook leafy tropical gardens and a pool with swim-up cabins. The Red Bar, complete with sun terrace and a ruby-hue 12m pool, is open to the public and looks set to be the city's next voguish cocktail spot.

There's no lack of artistic initiative in this country. I spend the following morning at a rehearsal of the CLA (Cambodian Living Arts). Founded in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era, the CLA aims to revitalise the traditional arts lost during the decades of revolution. It teaches kids everything from Khmer opera to dance. Visitors can pay to attend select rehearsals and I watch a fantastically animated extract from an opera about Buddha's life, performed by teens with hipster hair cuts and Dengue Fever T-shirts, Cambodia's beloved rock band.

By the river

In Siem Reap, the city of Angkor temples 200 miles north of Phnom Penh, dengue fever is at large. Unfortunately it's the mosquito-borne illness, not the band, and mothers wait with babies outside the children's hospital, the queue for treatment stretching through the gardens onto the street. Financed by Swiss doctor Beat Richner, the hospital is one of many NGO-funded medical centres assisting the city's booming, some say unsustainable, population. NGOs are ever present in Siem Reap and very much part of the tourism experience, with hotel foyers displaying the products of numerous projects, everything from local art to fair-trade crafts, clothes and coffee. In my hotel, the Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa, leaflets are laid out on the reception desk, dedicated to helping tourists decide which of the numerous NGO projects to support with their custom or donations.

AboutAsia, the tour operator I'm travelling with, has a sister organisation AboutAsia Schools (AAS), a charity supporting the education of Cambodian children, supplying teachers, uniforms and school books. Inspired by the projects they see in Siem Reap, many clients return to Cambodia to take a volunteer holiday with AAS. Conservation society Sam Veasna is another organisation the operator works closely with, taking tours to some of the country's biodiverse hotspots, including guided kayaking trips to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. This protected stretch of Tonlé Sap, an hour from Siem Reap, is one of Southeast Asia's key breeding grounds for endangered water birds.

I take a tour by motorboat, passing houses set on 10-metre stilts or lashed to pontoons to move with the changing water levels. The gilded gables of temples rise above the palms, while below, school kids paddle home in dugouts, and teens race painted boats shaped like sharp arrows. I don't spot the region's burgeoning number of rare white-shouldered ibis but I do have a great lunch in a local village house at Kompong Khleang — freshly caught salted catfish and mango pickles. Food in Cambodia is universally superb — from hawker stalls to the growing ranks of smart restaurants, ingredients are fresh, presentation is refined and flavours rich with coconut, lime and coriander.

Sitting on floor cushions at Cuisine Wat Damnak, later that night, I eat a stellar six-course tasting menu devised by French chef Joannès Rivière. A Siem Reap resident of seven years and former chef at the stylish Hotel de la Paix, Joannès conjures delicate, flower-dressed fish dishes so beautifully presented I take numerous photos of each. Among my co-diners in this traditional timbered Khmer house is a honeymoon couple from Shanghai. "You can go to the Maldives," says one when I ask why they chose Cambodia for their big trip. "But we wanted somewhere memorable, unusual."

In fact, Siem Reap is Cambodia's honey-pot, where tourism grew up around the sprawling ruins of Angkor-era temples, palaces and walled cities. Even during the darkest Khmer Rouge days, a trickle of hardy tourists made it into these jungle-shrouded temples and today the vast UNESCO-listed complex sees 4,000 visitors a day — 1.6 million in 2011. While undeniably atmospheric, it's a challenging place to get your head around, spread over 400sq km with sites spanning six centuries and see-sawing between Buddhist and Hindu faiths. The 11th-century Angkor Wat, with its instantly recognisable corn-cob domes, is just one of numerous ruins that are as diverse in shape and size as the 30-odd kings who built them.

To help me form a picture of what was one of Southeast Asia's great civilisations I take a tour with Professor Roland Fletcher. This lively Asian archaeology expert from the University of Sydney is an annual Scholar in Residence at Siem Reap's Amansara hotel, an exclusive compound set in the 1960s villa of Cambodia's independence-era king, Norodom Sihanouk. A two-day tour with him animates the ruins, putting them in historical context and bringing the blood, guts and infighting of these ancient royal families vividly to life.

Over sunset drinks at West Baray, a vast Angkor reservoir that Fletcher calls 'the largest single engineering project in the pre-industrial world', we discuss Cambodian resilience. West Baray was key to a complex system of irrigation that fed Angkor's sprawling capitals. Its failure, he believes, eventually led to the decline of the Khmer Empire. But Khmer culture has always had a way of bouncing back, then and now. "Amansara is the perfect example of where Cambodia was in the heydays of the 1960s and it shows how capable it is of regeneration," says Fletcher. "This country can offer it all: adventure tourism in the north, coastal retreats and sleek, edgy city experiences." I get the sense not many people challenge this forthright professor but in this case, he couldn't be more right.


Getting there

There are flights from the UK to Cambodia via a range of Southeast Asian hubs. Singapore Airlines has good connections from Heathrow and Manchester to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap via Singapore.

Vietnam Airlines flies from Gatwick via Hanoi to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 

Average flight time: 12h55m.

Getting around

Fly with Cambodia Angkor Air between Siem Reap and the coastal hub of Sihanoukville, where new hotels are appearing in the revamped  resorts of Kep and Kampot, the gateway to Cambodia's small archipelago.

The carrier also flies between Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn.

Road travel within Cambodia is time consuming. Buses from major centres are cheap and plentiful but road journeys, through mountains and on rural roads, can be plagued with delays.

Foreign investment is currently funding the restoration of disused rail links between the main hubs and onwards to Thailand and Vietnam.

When to go

November-February is cool enough to tour the temples but hot enough to hit the beach. March-May brings humid weather, with daytime temperatures averaging 35C. The wet season (June-October) sees the country's infrastructure under pressure from storms.

Where to stay

Siem Reap: Suites at Amansara from $1,352 (£856) per night, including meals and excursions. Professor Roland Fletcher will next be in residence in December 2012.

Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa: Rooms from $120 (£76) per night including breakfast.

Phnom Penh: Rooms at Hotel 240 from $45 (£29) a night including breakfast.

The Plantation: Rooms from $85 (£54).

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra: Rooms from £112 a night, room only.

Places mentioned

Chinese House:

Sam Veasna:

Cuisine Wat Damnak:

Need to know

Visas: Obtainable on arrival in Cambodia for $20 (£13).

Currency: Cambodian riel (KHR). £1 = 6,423.

International dial code: 00 855.

Time difference: GMT +7.

More info

The Rough Guide to Cambodia (2011). RRP: £13.99.

How to do it

ABOUTAsia Travel offers a week's stay in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh from £625 per person, which includes a visa, transfers, a four-star hotel with breakfast, guided tours of Angkor and entry fees. A two-week tour of the same two cities, including three days at a four-star hotel on the coast, a driver and transfers costs from around £1,000 per person. For both trips, international flights are not included.

Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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