Now is the time to explore Cambodia “without the crowds”
Within the city limits, Tuol Sleng is a concrete structure that was once a school, before becoming a prison and torture center, and now serves as a museum documenting the heartbreaking events that unfolded when the country was under control of Pol Pot. Millions of people have died in just a few years, from execution and starvation. There are displays with the photographs of thousands of victims, each with an ID badge hanging from their necks. It’s almost unbearable to watch.
On the outskirts of town is Choeung Ek, also known as Killing Fields. Here are the mass graves and memorials honoring the victims of the Khmer Rouge, a deeply moving site. Almost everyone over the age of 50 you meet in Cambodia will have devastating stories of how their family and friends have been affected by the regime.
At times like this, it feels like Cambodia must be one of the most optimistic places in the world, given the horrors its people have endured in living memory. They are tireless; their resilience has been tested repeatedly, most recently by Covid and its decimation of the tourism sector, on which so many people depend for their livelihoods. As Cambodia reopens, people here anxiously await to see how quickly visitors will return. The future may seem fragile, and at other times hopeful, which has been Cambodia’s scenario for as long as I can remember. The firm conviction here that tomorrow will be a better day can only rub off on all who visit. There may be an even greater reason to believe now, as the country writes the next chapter in its history.
Angkor and the gateway town of Siem Reap are now open to visitors and it is the best time of year to visit. For now, international flights only land in Phnom Penh (via Singapore). From there, visitors should continue overland via the road, which has been recently improved (and takes just over four hours). The Angkor Archaeological Park, which spans some 154 square kilometers, is home to hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries – some impressively restored, others in ruins.
The masterpiece is Angkor Wat, but there are dozens of temples throughout the region, flanked by reflecting pools and demarcated by a moat. There’s Banteay Srei with its intricate carvings of sultry celestial dancers, as well as the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, whose towers are carved with illuminated bodhisattva faces. Bayon bas-reliefs depict ordinary Khmer life rather than the Hindu mythology seen in most temples; it shows families preparing dinner, men getting drunk, a woman helping another give birth, and monkeys peering through the spokes of cart wheels.