The Next Hot Spot: Cambodia

The Next Hot Spot: Cambodia

Anders Overgaard
Anders Overgaard
What do Le Cirque's former chef, an ancient temple complex, and a New York socialite have in common?They're all in Cambodia

Freckled and tan and thin as a gecko, Nan Kempner is slouching around the pool of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. "Isn't this delicious?" asks the best-dressed-list recidivist as she drags on a bummed cigarette. "Just delicious," Mrs. Thomas Kempner of New York and the gossip columns repeats herself. "Just being here and breaking all the rules."

What exactly are the rules?No smoking and no sun. Those, and a temple a day. Claude Lévi-Strauss was right when he predicted that the modern traveler would spend his leisure chasing the "vestiges of a vanished reality." But he didn't anticipate tourists like Mrs. Thomas Kempner and me.

It's not that we're jaded. We're just taking a pass on the ruins today. Mrs. Kempner is sitting out a World Monument Fund day trip to Angkor Thom; I'm nursing an allergy to force-fed awe with a cold chicken salad and an icy beer. If the customary reaction to the mythical worlds of Disney is a giddiness so severe as to induce vertigo, one typical response to the mythical world of Angkor Wat is a solemnity that can make your head ache. Yet it might surprise you to know that the charms of the two places are not so different.

Just five years after it first became accessible again, Angkor Wat—or, more correctly, Angkor (its largest temple is often confused with the temple complex itself)—already presents itself to a visitor as a well-groomed 77-square-mile temple city, efficiently organized, daunting in its apparent scale but easy to cover in three days. It is a place where a brand-new, Vietnamese-operated visitors' center resembles a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, where foreign hotel chains are furiously building new luxury lodgings, and where the horrors of Cambodia's recent past have been as deftly submerged as the subterranean tunnels that contain the workings of Disney World.

"A year left, maybe," says Sottha Khunn of how long Cambodia will stay unspoiled. We're dining at his mother's house in Siem Reap, Angkor's attendant town. The meal is a feast of many courses and many subtle flavors. Among those at the table is a famous American food critic. By now everyone knows that foodies are reliable bellwethers of the Next Big Thing, and this quixotic diva with wispy blond bangs is in Southeast Asia specifically to sniff out trend.

Khunn himself left Cambodia 27 years ago, first taking a variety of cooking gigs in Paris and eventually becoming the head chef at New York's Le Cirque 2000. As all chefs do, Khunn at last burned out. He came home to Cambodia on an extended visit. Although his family originated in Battambang, there is only a scattering of temples near that colonial city, hardly enough to lure any tourists, and Mrs. Khunn's house doubles as a B&B. In business terms, Angkor is the future of Cambodia.

THE KHUNNS' TWO-STORY HOUSE SITS IN A FENCED COMPOUND on the main road to the temple complex. There is a funerary stupa in the yard dedicated to Sottha's late father. The shrine resembles a Buddhist version of the saccharine Madonnas on the half shell not uncommon in Brooklyn, and you would never think twice about it if you didn't know that it was constructed in part as a response to that time in Cambodian history when religion was forbidden, when families were systematically decimated—a period just 25 years ago, which Khunn, when he refers to it, calls "garbage."

Almost all the land near the Khunns' house has been cleared for resorts, hotels, or restaurants. What isn't already under construction has been earmarked for some sort of tourist enterprise. The staggering rate of development over the past two years more than justifies the New York Times's recent assertion that Angkor "is on its way to becoming the prime tourist attraction in Southeast Asia." The reason is easy enough to understand. Unlike Pagan in Burma, or Indonesia's Borobudur, Siem Reap is almost laughably convenient. The roads are paved. There is, for the moment, no repressive military regime to ruffle the conscience.

The development of Angkor is a good thing for Cambodia, if you believe that capital infusion and world attention, even that of tourists, will help stabilize the country's always shaky political structure. But this phase in Cambodia's evolution is not without ambiguities. Among other things, development spells doom for the melancholy provincial charms of Siem Reap, a dusty riverfront city where flying foxes roost in an enormous Dipterocarpus tree near the main square, where a member of the royal family is attempting to revive the famed Cambodian silk industry, and where the country's ailing King Sihanouk stays in a retreat resembling a country club in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

It will also, not coincidentally, mean an inevitable decline in the centrality of Phnom Penh, one of the last colonial capitals of Southeast Asia to retain its faded, slow-boat charm. Flying in from the maelstrom of Bangkok, one is struck by the hush, the domestic scale of the place, and the sense that you could probably find your way around with a map sketched by Somerset Maugham. The Neoclassical stucco villas Maugham described with colonial assurance are still standing. The awninged streetside cafés still look out over a river whose banks are unspoiled. (Though, as a recent brouhaha over the introduction of billboards suggests, that may change.) Many streets are still unpaved. Many cabbies still pedal their fares in bicycle taxis. Many of the wide boulevards are still lined with tamarind and red coral trees and the ubiquitous frangipani, promiscuously shedding its flowers in the dust.

THE REALIZATION THAT PHNOM PENH IS populated almost entirely by the young comes slowly. Few visitors will ever find the time to absorb the grotesque social disruptions that the late 20th century inflicted on this small city: the flood of rural refugees during the French colonial war in Indochina, bloating the population of 100,000 to six times that size; a second surge of rural arrivals fleeing Vietnam-era bombs that blew the country to smithereens; the ghost years following the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover, when the city's 2 million inhabitants were marched into the countryside to perform forced labor.

Today, about half of Cambodia's 11 million people are under the age of 15; it's their presence that infuses Phnom Penh with its hopeful adolescent buzz. It is true that there are fine monuments in the city, such as the restored National Museum, with its unparalleled collection of Khmer sculpture and craft. It is true that there are peculiar monuments in the city, such as the Cham Kar Mon Palace, with its silver-floored temple, boom boxes playing devotional music, and Buddhas wearing electrified halos that pulsate like disco lights. And it is true that there are grim monuments in the city, such as the infamous Khmer Rouge detention and torture center, now the Tuol Sleng Museum. The real draw is the opportunity to watch, however briefly, a city and a people reinvent itself.

But it's an opportunity most visitors are likely to miss. Already, since the Cambodian government decided in 1999 to institute an open-skies policy, daily flights to Siem Reap now bypass Phnom Penh en route from the more convenient hubs of Bangkok, Tokyo, and Singapore. Among the several dozen new hotels that have sprung up in Siem Reap over the last year is a luxurious Sofitel with long, cool corridors, three theme restaurants, 239 rooms, and a pool complex connected by a series of "aquaerobics" canals.

As it happens, this hotel abuts a community playing field adjacent to a pagoda called Wat Thmei. I mention this because it seems unlikely that, with Angkor six miles off, many visitors will bother with a detour here. At Wat Thmei, a Buddhist temple stands alongside a monastery. Outside the monastery is a stupa, painted white; a glass window in this structure reveals that the entire thing is filled with human bones.


In fact, no one knows the actual number of Cambodians killed during this period, although it is generally agreed that 2 million would be no exaggeration. Some of the victims were relatives of Sottha Khunn's. The rest were relatives of virtually every other person you are likely to encounter in Cambodia, including someone I will call Madame Sarouen. I first met this woman in 1992, in the passenger seat of a white Toyota Land Cruiser belonging to UNTAC, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. A former college professor, Madame Sarouen was then working as a translator for some journalists reporting on Cambodia's first free elections.

A FEW OF US HAD HITCHED A RIDE in a Doctors without Borders plane headed for Battambang, with the hope of going on by car to Angkor Wat. Although the roads were iffy and certain temples were said to still be mined, we had been told that the political situation was momentarily stable enough for tourism. It turned out that this was an overly optimistic view. Khmer Rouge forces were still active in the northwestern provinces, staging rogue raids on villages and blowing up bridges, including, as it happened, the one linking Battambang province with Siem Reap.

Although we did not make it far on that journey, the drive was beautiful. Low clouds hung above the horizon and a thin line of pale light bisected earth and sky. The entire landscape was phosphorescent with intensely varied, liquid greens. If we hadn't known better, it would have been easy to be lulled into thinking of the unaltered vistas of rice paddies, water lilies, kapok trees, and sugar palms as serene.

You could look out the car window and forget that shallowly buried in the paddies, the ditches, the cart paths were millions of explosives. There were Russian Mon-50's, Bulgarian POMZ-2's, American-made Claymores, Vietnamese 82-B antipersonnel mines, trip-wire fragmentation mines, and all manner of pineapple mines. The disk-shaped mines just beneath the surface were in some cases so small that they resembled toys. Between 1975 and the years when the late Princess Diana became a global poster girl for mine abatement, anywhere from 4 million to 10 million explosives were planted throughout Cambodia. This accounted, Madame Sarouen explained, for the many maimed people one saw, and still sees, along the roads.

"The detonating pin is often small," we were told by our driver on that journey. "It can trigger the blast and the booster and then, bang, have one leg lost."

Although I cannot recall what kept her amused, I remember keenly that Madame Sarouen giggled often, the sound pitched girlishly high. And I remember my surprise that, given her history, she could summon laughter at all. When the journalists in the car found themselves discussing the genocidal period that people in Cambodia call "Pol Pot time," Madame Sarouen remarked unemphatically that the Khmer Rouge decimated her family. Of five children, she said, "I have one son left." He was her youngest. The two had survived the years of starvation and forced labor by eating "water greens, a little fish" and what she referred to as rice dust. By that she meant chaff shared with the communal pigs.

My conversation with Madame Sarouen came to mind one morning on the way to Angkor Wat. After breakfast, my traveling companion and I headed by car for the delicately carved temple of Banteay Srei. We passed a boy on a beautiful white pony, trotting past the collossal 12th-century demon heads on the causeway to Angkor Thom. We passed handlers at the gate strapping bells onto caparisoned tourist elephants. We passed international archaeological work crews framing crumbling temples with spidery bamboo scaffolds and small villages of tidy stilt houses built with foreign subsidies. We crossed a newly constructed plank bridge paid for with Australian dollars and watched a female construction crew laying by hand a new road underwritten by the Japanese.

"I FINALLY FIGURED OUT THE THING with the flowers," my companion remarked of a mystery involving the lotus flower arrangements throughout the Hotel Grand D'Angkor. The flower petals seemed so unnaturally stylized as to be a kind of origami. And they were. "They have three full-time workers on staff," my friend said, "folding lotus flower petals all day."

As we drove along, I searched for ways to accomodate the bewildering essence of a place where the devastating proof of recent holocaust coexists with a heartbreaking and nearly ineffable cultural delicacy. There is always a sense in Cambodia of truth as unstable commodity, a fact you can feel in conversations with, say, a guide whom logic suggests could only have survived the Khmer Rouge by way of collaboration, and equally in the stories the famous old temples seem to tell.

Except in outline, so little is known about the ancient Khmer that a traveler is always left in a state of imaginative suspense. It is true that inscriptions tell stories of kingly lineages; that reliefs speak with hectic elegance of war and trade and daily life; that such statuary as hasn't been carted off by looters relates a complex syncretic history of Buddhism and Hinduism compressed and overlaid as densely as geological strata. It's also true that it's the fundamental business of temples to invoke the greater mysteries.

That, at any rate, is how we felt one morning creeping along the corridors of Preah Khan, where long halls radiate from the central sanctuary of a religious teaching complex in a king of spooky enfilade. The architectural sorcery employed to build these chambers can induce a trippy feeling of being caught in a monastic fun house. Ceilings are lowered. Walls close in. Vision dims and you lose your companion...who suddenly appears out of nowhere, her figure framed in a doorway and outlined in an outrageously stagy halo of jungle light.

"I was wondering where you were," Belle said.

I was wondering who you were, I thought and decided not to remark.

RIDDLES ARE AT THE CORE OF ANGKOR WAT, vagrant narratives that engender contradictory meanings and then sputter out. That's probably the real beauty of the place. It is, to adopt an orientalist cliché, inscrutable. Its meanings are plural and nearly always subject to interpretation and it does not seem entirely accidental that this is also the case with Cambodia itself, where memory has often been sacrificed to survival and where even the most mundane personal biography can take on the blurred complexity of a palimpsest.

Angkor is not, of course, one ruin but the scattered remains of a complex of state and religious structures erected and toppled, carved and effaced, gods apotheosized, disfavored, carved over and restored. It is a city constructed over five centuries and abandoned for the ensuing seven. Everyone has seen the pictures of walls wreathed in the tentacular roots of strangler figs; of giant ficus trees hacked back to leave behind their own shadowy inscriptions; of tumbled lintels, rubbled stairs, stucco reliefs grown leprous during centuries of tropical rainfall. The place is as much the jungle's invention as man's.

The purest and earliest of the temples at Angkor are stylistically Hindu. The later ones are Buddhist and more generally opulent. A Bollywood cast of demons and demigods adorns the reliefs at the main temple, Angkor Wat, where certain of the more outrageous plot points of the Mahabaratta are carved. A novelistic frieze encircling the perimeter of the Bayon, a royal enclosure, depicts daily life in detail so fantastically specific that it incorporates the rats in the fan palms, howdah decoration, drunks laying bets on cock fights, and women giving birth. Each of the temple sites has its own beauties, its own specific immanence, its archaeo-historical story. Assembling them into a single continuous narrative is so perplexing I prefer to focus on one.

My favorite among the structures at Angkor is not Angkor Wat itself, and not the Terrace of the Leper King, nor the sublimely spooky monastic complex Preah Khan, the enormous temple mountain of the Bapuon, or the tree-strangled Ta Proh. It's a small group of buildings isolated in a broad dry plain.

Legend has it that Preah Rup was a crematorium and that its builder kings were accidentally slain by "the gardener of the sweet cucumber." As is so often the case—to quote Michael Freeman, whose architectural guidebook Ancient Angkor is a model of clairty and observation—"the temple's modern name is misleading and irrelevant."' Preah Rup, explains Freeman, means "turning the body," a reference, as every guide will tell you, to cremation rites. The presence of a stone cistern in the complex prompted the legend of a kingly burial, although no one can say with much historial certainty where the sweet cucumber gardener comes in.

The original name of the complex was Rajendrabhadresvara. It was a state temple situated in the middle of a baray or reservoir. Enclosed by a laterite wall and a series of stone platforms is a pyramidal 10th-century temple particularly lovely in its desuetude. Built of laterite, brick and sandstone, it is galleried and stands behind two brick libraries. Its weathered precincts are ornamented with blind doors, enormous sandstone elephants, ancient goddesses and temple dancers in stucco, their features but not their beauty abraded by a thousand years of wind and rain.

Sitting alone at the pinnacle of Preah Rup one cool spring morning, I took in the long view toward the spires of Angkor Wat across a long expanse of flat fields. Wind soughed through the high grass and flittered the gray leaves of the kapok trees. Indulging in a luxury unknown during the temple's busy heyday as the religious center of a major city, I had the place all to myself. This heady feeling lasted for nearly a half hour. Then a belching tour bus filled with Japanese tourists pulled up.



A number of airlines run scheduled flights from the United States to Phnom Penh, though not directly; most route through Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Hong Kong. Travelers wanting to see Angkor may choose to bypass the capital and fly directly to Siem Reap; Bangkok Airways operates flights from Bangkok, and Silk Air has nonstop service from Singapore.


Hotel Le Royal 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, off Monivong Blvd.; 855-23/981-888;; doubles from $290. A tree-shaded courtyard pool, commodious baths, and a palpable feeling of colonial Indochina. The 1929 building was recently renovated by the Raffles Group; serene as it now appears, one would never guess at its tumultuous past during the Khmer Rouge invasion.

National Museum 13th St., between 178th and 184th Sts. Great Khmer sculpture from the pre-Angkor period forward. The haunting, many-gabled structure was designed in 1917 by French architect George Groslier in Khmer style.

Wat Phnom Norodom Blvd. at 96th St. Built by a wealthy Khmer woman in 1373, the pagoda pales in comparison to its evocative setting; most people come for the vendors who release pairs of small, finchlike birds to ensure good fortune.

Royal Palace Samdech Sothearos Blvd. The main attraction of this complex is the famed Silver Pagoda, whose atmosphere is part sanctuary, part cabinet of curiosity. The floors are silver- tiled, the walls gilded, the Buddhas abundant. Seated serenely above the other statues is the Emerald Buddha, actually made of crystal cast by Baccarat.

Tuol Sleng Museum 113th St., close to 350th St. On April 17, 1975, the classrooms of this former suburban high school became the Khmer Rouge's main torture and interrogation center, known as Security Prison 21. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were fastidious record keepers: more than 20,000 victims were numbered and photographed. The pictures now cover the walls.

Psar Tuol Tom Pong Corner of 163rd and 440th Sts., south of Mao Tse Tung Blvd. This market sells all kinds of silver objects—fruits, boxes, shells—as sculptural as they are simple, and they're among the best in Southeast Asia. Other souvenirs include good fake antiques.

Psar Thmei At the corner of Charles de Gaulle Blvd. and 67th St. The city's domed central market also sells jewelry and antiques but is noted for its great selection of food stalls.



Grand Hotel d'Angkor 1 Charles de Gaulle Blvd., Khum Svay Dang Kum; 855-63/963-888, fax 855-63/963-168;; doubles from $360. Has a small gym, a large pool, and the Amrita spa, where treatments run to hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, and facials but not, alas, the locally available and ultravigorous Thai massage.

Sofitel Royal Angkor Charles de Gaulle Blvd., Khum Svay Dang Kum; 800/763-6585 or 855-63/964-600, fax 855-63/964-610; doubles from $280. Immaculate if hotel-generic rooms; the closest to the temple complex.

Dining prospects are somewhat dim in Siem Reap. While the food at the posh Restaurant Le Grand at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor (dinner for two $44, closed on Saturdays) is a delicious blend of Continental and Khmer cuisine, the room is a bit sepulchral. It's better to try the small local restaurants a short walk from the hotel. These have fine Khmer cuisine, as well as adequate selections of French wine and, of course, icy Cambodian beer. In a lapse of imagination, most of these places have names that are some variation of "Bayon"—there's Bayon 1, Bayon 2, and Bayon 3. Then there is the New Bayon, the only one that lacks a traditional Cambodian song-and-dance floor show. That alone makes it the obvious choice.

The Central Market should satisfy anyone's souvenir requirements. Look for Cambodian silver, in the form of animal-shaped boxes or shells. Ask if the silver you're buying is sterling—or, in local parlance, 95 percent—and not plate. Avoid buying antiquities: if they're fake, you've been ripped off; if they're real, you're supporting a thriving illegal trade in Cambodia's looted heritage.


Taxis to Angkor can be hired at the airport for $20 a day, or through most hotels (the Grand Hotel d'Angkor charges $25). A surcharge of $10 a day is applied for travel to the farthest temple, Banteay Srei. Official guides can be hired through hotels at a daily fee of $25. They are particularly useful if time is short and you have ambitions to see the entire complex—a completely plausible plan—in three days.

Entrance fees for the Angkor complex are $20 per person for one day, $60 for four to seven days. Photo ID's are issued; it helps to bring two passport-sized photos from home, as they're not easily obtained in Siem Reap.

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