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No trip would be com­plete with­out tak­ing in th­ese spe­cial sites


Es­tab­lished as the seat of Cam­bo­dia’s roy­alty in 1866, the Royal Palace is but a baby when com­pared to the coun­try’s many an­cient tem­ples. Yet with its pointed spires and crenel­lated ivory-coloured walls, it’s an ar­chi­tec­tural jewel. High­lights in­clude the Sil­ver Pagoda, which con­tains count­less jewelled trea­sures, a cast-iron pavil­ion orig­i­nally used at the open­ing of the Suez canal, and the throne hall, once the cen­tre of the royal court and still used for cer­e­monies to­day.


De­scribed as “a build­ing en­larged from Cam­bo­dian tem­ple pro­to­types seen on an­cient bas-re­liefs and rein­ter­preted through colo­nial eyes”, the Na­tional Mu­seum is much more than an at­trac­tive struc­ture. Its walls house one of the most ex­ten­sive col­lec­tions of an­cient Kh­mer art in the world. From mon­u­men­tal Hindu gods carved in stone to in­tri­cate bronze rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Bud­dha, the art­works on show en­com­pass a wide sweep of Cam­bo­dia’s cul­tural her­itage. By striv­ing to pre­serve this artis­tic legacy and to repa­tri­ate pieces looted dur­ing times of war, the mu­seum au­thor­i­ties are pre­serv­ing a sense of pride in the na­tion’s past.


With its pro­file of tiered tow­ers and mon­u­men­tal walk­ways, Angkor Wat stands as the apogee of Kh­mer art and civil­i­sa­tion. The re­li­gious struc­ture, the world’s largest, is steeped in sym­bol­ism. Walk over the en­clos­ing moat, across cause­ways and into suc­ces­sive lay­ers and com­pounds to reach a heav­enly in­ner sanc­tum – the whole be­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Mount Meru, the Hindu equiv­a­lent of Mount Olym­pus. Much more than a pic­turesque ruin, it em­bod­ies Cam­bo­dia, both an­cient and mod­ern, and has been revered from its con­struc­tion in the 12th cen­tury right up to the present day.


Angkor Wat may be the peak of Cam­bo­dia’s ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders, but Prasat Preah Vi­hear lit­er­ally sits on top of a moun­tain. Perched 525m up on the edge of the Dangkrek es­carp­ment, the tem­ple has been a cen­tre of pil­grim­age through­out the ages, and all of low­land Cam­bo­dia seems to un­fold be­neath its sand­stone struc­tures. From the north­ern end, the com­plex runs 800m to the cliff’s edge, tak­ing in a num­ber of stair­ways and at­mo­spheric pavil­ions. And with a new road from Siem Reap now in place, it can be eas­ily added to your itin­er­ary.


Al­though Cam­bo­dia is rel­a­tively peace­ful to­day, the vi­o­lence of the Kh­mer Rouge years has left an in­deli­ble mark on the King­dom. The mur­ders of those con­sid­ered en­e­mies were car­ried out across the coun­try, with the sites of the Tuol Sleng Geno­cide Mu­seum and Choe­ung Ek killing fields in Ph­nom Penh amongst the best pre­served and cu­rated. The for­mer served as an in­ter­ro­ga­tion cen­tre; the lat­ter as a place of ex­e­cu­tion. Both are un­flinch­ing re­minders of a time when ul­tra-Maoist dogma su­per­seded com­mon moral­ity and Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety turned on it­self. Vis­it­ing the sites is a grim ex­pe­ri­ence, but they are none­the­less re­ward­ing for those pre­pared to look deeper into the dark side of hu­man­ity and to bet­ter un­der­stand mod­ern Cam­bo­dia.

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