From the back of our rickety green cyclos, we watch Phnom Penh whiz by at an unrelenting pace. Through a series of barely perceptible hand gestures and facial contortions to signal turning and passing our drivers manage, miraculously, to avoid colliding with the stream of oncoming cars, buses and motorbikes. We arrive at our destination, the Royal Palace, eyes wide with a mixture of excitement and terror.
Our band of travellers, out on a shore excursion from our Pandaw cruise along the Mekong from Cambodia to Vietnam, gathers on the yellow tiled courtyard before the palace. A sea of cooing pigeons swarms around our feet, as a trio of monks wrapped in saffron-coloured robes glides by. Our Cambodian guide tells us this palace, built between 1886 and 1919, is still the official residence of Cambodia’s King Sihamoni. Who, he adds, is often speculated to be gay, being the style-conscious bachelor and former ballet instructor that he is.
Whatever his sexual preferences, King Sihamoni certainly does have fabulous taste, or at least his gardeners do. We enter the palace and wander through manicured gardens filled with elegant topiary, clipped hedges and fanned banana palms, sweeping towards the palace buildings with their canary yellow Khmer roofs and ornate gilding. Since this is still a residence, we can’t explore all areas but we can enter the Throne Hall. Topped by a 59-metre golden tower this is the king’s ‘audience hall’, used for coronations, royal weddings and other diplomatic shindigs.
Walking inside the gilded hall is like entering Aladdin’s cave, with three royal thrones, glass chandeliers, the golden busts of Cambodian kings and queens, and intricate ceiling frescoes adorning the vast space. We’re told that many of the items once displayed here were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, but I’m overwhelmed by how much still remains. A feeling only intensified once we’re inside the Silver Pagoda. Here we learn of the 5,329 handcrafted silver tiles hidden beneath the rugs under our feet, and ogle the collection of 1,650 precious objects including emerald, silver and gold jewellery, headdresses and statues, including a life-sized gold Buddha encrusted with 2,086 diamonds.
It’s difficult to reconcile these extreme expressions of wealth and luxury with the sight of the beggars crouched by the roadside, as we zip by on our cyclos to our next stop, the National Museum. This dusty red, single-storey Khmer-style building, whose galleries surround a courtyard garden, is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. Inside are more than 5,000 objects including Angkor-period statues of kings and Hindu gods in sandstone and bronze, decorated pottery and other artefacts, some dating as far back as the 4th century. Each object is a reminder of the extraordinary beauty and creativity that existed during the Khmer civilisation. And, having survived the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to erase history, is also a reminder of Cambodia’s ability to preserve that beauty through the destruction.
After an hour of weaving through the museum the humidity, heat and cultural overload gets too much, and a group of us escape down the road to Frangipani rooftop café. It’s cooler up above the chaos, where we eat our fish amok curry, sip iced lemongrass tea and gaze over the rooftops, marvelling at how quickly this transforming city has risen from its ashes, to now be home to these sorts of hip cafes, as well as the bustling bars, chic hotels and boutiques we’ve seen lining the streets.
It’s those ashes, however, that are kicked up for us as we head outside the city to Choeung Ek, one of around 400 killing fields where some 17,000 people were killed during Pol Pot’s brutal genocide, which killed around 1.5 million. At first the fields appear innocent, like a park that might be used for soccer matches. Until our guide starts pointing out the areas where victims were heaped, one on top of the other, before being buried in mass graves. Or the tree where travelers hang friendship bands to honour the children killed there. Or the central glass tower holding the neatly stacked skulls of 8,000 victims.
I leave with tears dipping off my chin. And the thought that even though having this sort of harrowing experience seems to run contrary to the idea of what a holiday should be, it is an essential part of understanding this country. Of coming to terms with both its troubled past, and how hard it has worked to step from the shadows of the Pol Pot regime to get here, to this new day.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur from every capital city for about $1100 return. See malaysiaairlines.com.NEED TO KNOW
Wendy Wu Tours offers a range of Pandaw River Cruise itineraries. The ‘Classic Mekong’ cruise aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw travels from Siem Reap to Saigon (and the reverse) over eight days, from $3,755 per person twin share. See wendywutours.com.au.