Angkor Thom sculptures. Siem Reap province, Cambodia

Cambodia

Khmer culture, sizzling street food, steamy jungle and white-sand beaches

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Cambodia is a small country with a big history. Now a modest player on the world stage, this was once the seat of one of Asia’s most magnificent early civilizations, the mighty Khmer empire of Angkor, whose legendary temples continue to provide a touchstone of national identity – as well as attracting millions of visitors every year. Away from the temples, much of the country remains refreshingly untouristed and, in many places, largely unexplored.

Cambodia’s sleepy towns and cities are a delight, with their faded colonial architecture and old-fashioned charm, while in the countryside a host of memorable landscapes await, from the mighty Mekong River and great Tonle Sap lake to the remote forested highlands of Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri and the Cardamom Mountains. Down south, in complete contrast, the coast serves up a beguiling cocktail of party-lifestyle hedonism, idyllic beaches and magical islands.

Much of Cambodia’s appeal derives from its slightly anachronistic, faintly time-warped character. Compared to the far more populous and economically developed countries of Thailand and Vietnam that hem it in on either side, Cambodia remains an essentially rural society, and something of a regional backwater. The country’s provincial hinterlands appear to have changed little in generations, offering a refreshing throwback to an older and simpler era (from the outside at least), with beautiful stilted wooden houses set amid a patchwork of rice paddies and sugar palms. And although living standards for most of the population are basic in the extreme, Cambodians as a whole remain among Asia’s most friendly and welcoming people.

It’s perhaps this warmth and hospitality which most impresses many visitors to Cambodia – and which is all the more astonishing given the country’s tragic recent past. For many, Cambodia remains synonymous with the bloody excesses of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, whose delusional leaders succeeded in killing or causing the deaths of perhaps two million or more of their fellow citizens – around twenty percent of the population. Not until 1998 were the Khmer Rouge driven from their final strongholds, and even now many of their former cadres occupy positions of power and responsibility, not least premier Hun Sen, the nation’s leader since 1985. Unsurprisingly, emotional scars from this period run deep and through every layer of Cambodian society – the memory of a nightmare from which the country is only slowly and painfully awakening.

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