The ugliest nicest place in the world

Nobody really knows what the famous faces of the Angkor temples in Cambodia represent, but I develop my own ideas while sharing a lakeside lunch with Mr. Di, my motorbike taxi driver for the day. I don't feel like buying overpriced food from the tourist restaurants lining Srah Srang, the reservoir to the east of the great ruined city of Angkor Thom, so I break out a bag of snacks and share it with him.

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I ask Mr. Di where he's from. Originally Phnom Penh, he says. He's got a falsetto voice – think Michael Jackson, or maybe the John Irving character Owen Meany, or Beck imitating Prince – with an unfaltering politeness and a smile that never seems to fade. But just listen to what he's saying.

“When the Khmer Rouge came to Phnom Penh, they told us, 'Everybody must leave',” he says. He was a teenager in 1975, when the capital fell to the Maoist rebels. “So we walked to the Siem Reap area for one month, with almost no food. Many people died. I worked in the fields for four years with almost no food. My father, my mother, my sister, they all died. It is only me. Only I lived.”

He tells me all this with the tone one might use when describing how to make a good curry.

By the time of Cambodia's civil war, 800 years had passed since the devout Buddhist emperor Jayavarman VII built his capital at Ankhor Thom. Giant faces, smiling as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa, grace each side of dozens of towers in the Bayon, the temple at the city's heart. There's no connection whatsoever with what Mr. Di has just told me, but I create one in my mind, a mechanism, perhaps, to make sense of the Cambodians' relentless cheerfulness.

Like Angkor, today's Cambodia is a place of multiple facades. Mostly happy, many silent, some utterly inscrutable and quite a few – far too many – that are hiding something too horrific for words.

ONCE A TEEMING METROPOLIS. Cambodia has many attractions, but it is blessed primarily with two things: the resilience of its people and Angkor, one of the world's archaeological wonders. I'm experiencing both today. On the back of Mr Di's motorbike, I zip around the sprawling ruins of the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. Near the site's entrance stands the best-preserved of the temples, Angkor Wat, and beyond, within the oft-photographed South Gate, the vast ruins of Angkor Thom, squared by walls and a moat three kilometres long on each side.

Angkor Thom boasted roughly a million inhabitants during its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries. By way of comparison, when Ibn Battuta visited Hangzhou, near present-day Shanghai, in the 14th century, he called it the largest city in the world; today's scholars say the Arab explorer was probably right, putting Hangzhou's population at 1.5 million tops (some say far fewer). Angkor Thom, therefore, ranked as a teeming global megalopolis of its time, something visitors who complain about today's crowds might do well to remember.

Excavators cleared away the overgrowth from Angkor's main ruins long ago, which is why tourists seeking lusher surroundings usually head to Ta Prohm, the only temple left in the state in which the French explorer Henri Mouhout found it in the 1800s. It's a memorial to an aesthetic more than anything else, and a curt sentence from a guidebook written by the Angkor historian Claude Jacques dissuades me from saying much else: “The trees that have grown intertwined among the ruins are especially responsible for Ta Prohm's atmosphere and have prompted more writers to descriptive excess than any other feature of Angkor.”

Suffice to say that if you've lifted your imagination of Angkor from Indiana Jones – “Throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip!” – then Ta Prohm is about as close as you'll get. Elsewhere, the ruins are more studiously preserved, for left to its own devices, the jungle would damage and eventually obliterate all trace of the ancient Khmer civilization.

There are those who would probably prefer it if memories of Cambodia's more recent past would suffer a similar fate, swallowed by the country's present growth. According to the historian David P Chandler, the regime of Pol Pot – whose “clique”, as today's museums describe it, ruled the country from 1974 to 1979 – killed 1.5 million people in its radical quest to rebuild the country as a rural utopia. Others put the number at two million or more, but in any case, Pol Pot and his followers enslaved the nation, killing roughly one in five Cambodians either via direct execution or through malnutrition, overwork and maltreatment.

When the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh after years of civil warfare, they ordered the entire population to clear out. Residents suffered the fate of Mr Di or, worse, were sent to work in the fields if they were lucky. “Class enemies”, including those wearing glasses or whose hands weren't sufficiently calloused, went to prison where Pol Pot's cadres often tortured and almost always executed them. Some have dubbed the four-year reign of terror an “auto-genocide”, since it was Cambodians, not foreigners, that perpetrated the mass killings. Among all the countries in the world where travel is relatively safe and easy, probably no other has experienced such profoundly maddening horror.

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wp-image-1289″ src=”http://www.wanderingsavage.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/thumb2-150.jpg” alt=”” hspace=”30″ vspace=”50″ width=”144″ height=”150″ align=”left” />STILL UNEXPLORED. Not long ago, only the adventurous, or perhaps foolhardy, would venture into Cambodia. Visiting in the late 1990s for a story in Outside magazine, the writer Patrick Symmes describes a “basket case nation … unexpectedly emerging from its grave”, where backpackers had only just begun probing places outside the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap axis. “But all the joys of adventure travel in Cambodia are of the queasy, that-can't-really-be-true kind,” he writes. “Travel here straddles the smudged line between the blackly ridiculous and the revoltingly tragic.”

Today, the land is still relatively unexplored, especially compared with its wildly popular neighbor, Thailand, yet any visitor to Cambodia is spoiled for choice. One can spend US$75 a night at Amansara, Siem Reap's poshest resort, or at little as $4 at a local guest house. For those eager to go beyond Angkor, tour operators offer luxury cruises and laid-back river trips past the traditional stilt houses of the Mekong and Sangker rivers and the Tonle Sap inland sea, while the Cardamom Mountains, a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the south-west until the late 1990s, is now a refuge for tigers, Asian turtles, Malayan sun bears and the site of rural eco-tourism ventures.

Today more remote jungle temples are easily accessible, such as Koh Ker, in the forests of the north, now reachable as a day trip from Siem Reap via a new road (although as ever in Cambodia, travelers are still warned to stick to the main tracks because of the danger of unexploded landmines). For those coming from Thailand, Cambodia also offers visa-free travel to the cliff-side temple of Prasat Preah Vihear – that is, when the two armies aren't shooting at one another over the disputed site, as they sometimes do.

In other words, you could spend weeks here getting the south-east Asian paradise treatment. Yet even now, it remains hard to escape the feeling that you're encroaching on the lingering traces of someone else's nightmare.

It's a cliché about travel that people, wherever you go, are warm-hearted and generous, but sadly, that's not always the case. In Cambodia, even those ignorant of history would likely be taken aback by the daily kindnesses. After my offer of snacks on the lakeside, Mr Di insists on taking me to a roadside cafe and buying me nom krob knohr, a gnocchi-like dessert made with mung beans and eggs. This is a man who, when he's not working at an orphanage, makes $10 a day taxiing tourists such as me around on the back of his bike.

KILLERS AND VICTIMS. In Phnom Penh, memorials to Khmer Rouge victims stand at the killing fields of Choeung Ek, a site of mass executions about 15km south-west of the city, and at Tuol Sleng prison, a former schoolhouse. At both places, signposts attempt to spell out the horror of what took place here. At the killing fields, a one-armed man, probably a victim of the Khmer Rouge himself, sweeps leaves beneath a tree labelled “killing tree against which executioners beat children”. In the prison, the rules for prisoners are posted and translated into English. Rule number six: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” Breaking any of the rules, it notes, will result in further shocks or lashes with electric wire.

Perhaps nothing chills the gut more, not even Choeung Ek's ceremonial stupa filled with human skulls, than row upon row of mute faces of unidentified prisoners staring out from the walls of Tuol Sleng's ground floor. Hooded captives were taken here, their hoods pulled off, their faces photographed; young cadres then systematically tortured them in the rooms upstairs. As many as 20,000 people entered Tuol Sleng. Roughly a dozen or fewer survived. This is not a place that inspires much cognitive activity, for there's little to be said, or even thought, in response. The mind simply goes blank.

Upstairs, Cambodian photographer Heng Sinith has a thought-provoking exhibition of portraits – not of the victims, but of rank-and-file Tuol Sleng workers. “I want to meet a most ferocious monster who will reveal his experience to me,” he writes in the accompanying text. “I want to make photographic records about the lives of those perpetrators; I want them to reveal the truth about their hunger to kill people. I do not want to show the history of their murders, but their lives as spouses and villagers. So far, few perpetrators have been brave enough to show their faces.”

Recruited in their teens, the ex-cadres now live ordinary lives in the countryside. Beside each pair of photographs, then and now, are quotes from interviews in which they, too, describe themselves as victims. One, now 45, recalls seeing his own uncle among the prisoners slated for death at Tuol Sleng. Fearing for the lives of himself and the rest of his family, “I waved at him to tell him not to say anything.” As with so many other Cambodian faces, silence was the man's final testimony.

This article originally appeared in The National.

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