Eyes wide open
Phnom Penh & Siem Reap, Cambodia

It’s the Genocide Museum that finally breaks me. S24 is where those accused of treachery were imprisoned before execution. It looks like a school or a particularly depressing council block. Grey boxes stacked geometrically round a balding square of grass. Most prisoners were kept in horrendous, dark brick boxes, barely large enough to contain one person lying flat.

Special prisoners, often ex-Khmer government officials, were kept in bigger rooms shackled by the ankle to a bare bed with a small metal box as a toilet. They were tortured here till they named someone as a spy. Then that person and their whole family were killed. The air feels heavy, suffused with its horrible secrets. I feel dizzy and nauseous.

I wonder about all the pointless and elaborate administration at play here. Was there a genuine belief that they were spies? Was the regime really that paranoid? Or was it all just a cynical attempt to add a layer of authenticity to their regime? It’s all so needlessly cruel.

Regimes thrive on paranoia; the ‘us versus them’ mentality it engenders makes soldiers crueller, makes them hate much harder, torture more terribly; all supposedly to prove their loyalty. That’s how dictators make people do this stuff: keep them terrified, create a Panopticon in which you are constantly at risk of being frowned upon. Then you become the prisoner.

At the end of the tour, we walk into a room full of paintings by a man called Vannat – one of only seven people who miraculously survived the camp – depicting everything that went on here. The paintings are absolutely shocking, the action presented so starkly, almost diagrammatic. A woman is strapped naked to a table. One man squats over her tearing at her breast with a pair of pliers. Another soldier stands by, holding a huge squirming centipede in tweezers. The last painting shows a soldier smashing a baby against a tree – the tree – while its mother is brutally dragged away.

I have to walk out of the room, taking deep breaths and turning the corner, I run straight into another survivor – a tiny old man with no teeth, selling a book about his experience here, which he’ll sign for you.

Afterwards, we have a decadent brunch of flambéed lobster and champagne and I think I’m ok. I go sit by the pool of the hotel. They print out an Irish Times for me, so I can read about ghost estates in Navan, and suddenly without warning, I burst into inconsolable tears.

The next day, we drive nine hours to Siem Reap with our new guide, Sita, a dwarfish, animated man with a sly sense of humour and a stable of weird phrases. “We stop at Spider Town, to use happy room!” he yells over his shoulder. Happy room means toilet.

“Spider Town?” I ask. He bursts out laughing, “Sorry, wrong name, wrong name,” he says, waving his hands, “it’s called Tarantula Town.”

Sure enough Tarantula Town is a small roadside market boasting a ‘Love-craftian’ array of bug-eyed horrors – crickets, water beetles and stuffed frogs – glistening piles of spiny legs and armoured torsos and bulging eyeballs. Cheap protein sold by the can. And in case you were wondering, yes I did. They taste like nuts.

Sita is right to bring us to the Happy Room here. If you were to eschew his advice in Siem Reap and wander off into the forest to relieve yourself, you could lose a limb. Two million tonnes of unexploded ordnance still lies buried in these towns and mines still kill three people a month. Metal detectors can’t pick up anti-tank mines so most of them are still out there. Sita’s brother lost a leg fighting the Khmer Rouge. Though Sita assures me his brother still found a wife. “He lose the leg fighting for her country, so she look at him she sees two legs.”

Siem Reap is heaving with temples, but the big two are the sprawling Angkor Wat, the largest religious temple in the world, and Angkor Thom, the ‘Jungle Temple’, made famous by the Tomb Raider film which effectively launched the tourist industry here.

As we approach Angkor Thom via Sita’s secret route, he yells at me to be careful of mines. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that, so I just pray he’s being dramatic. We thread between bullet-riddled columns under the eyes of ancient Hindu demons. The constant (unfounded) fear of death by unexploded landmine is worth it, because when the foliage falls away we are afforded a rare unobstructed view of the spectacular ancient temple.

If you’ve ever wondered what our cities will look like after the human race wipes itself out, Angkor Thom is your best clue. A thousand years ago this was the capital of the Khmer empire, a fortified city for priests, military and royalty. Now nature has reclaimed it. Every structure exists in symbiosis with enormous, ancient trees growing under, around and through it – simultaneously erupting through walls and holding them together. Vines spill over arched stone doorways. Enormous stone Buddhas split apart as green shoots wriggle through the cracks.

Sita is an enrapturing, animated guide. Tell a Cambodian you like something – a bridge, a temple – they will always say thank you. It sounds like a small thing, but that doesn’t happen when you tell a Brit you like Buckingham Palace or praise the Grand Canyon to an American. They may recognise the beauty of the monument, but won’t feel the same personal pride. It’s a difference of ownership.

“Through here is a statue of Garuda, the animal form of Shiva,” he says, leading me through collapsing corridors, up uneven steps. “Along here are carvings of the ancient way of life, see them practicing with swords and shields? And through here…” he points to a dark, mysterious doorway. “Look through to the other side. I only discovered this three years ago.” I lean in, peering into the darkness. “There’s a tree that looks like a human butt.”

Some famous places crumble beneath the weight of expectation. Angkor Wat doesn’t. You can read about it and look at pictures, but when you see it for yourself you will be struck silent. A 400-acre city rising in layers toward a central mountain-temple; earthy colours; barnacled and filigreed with elaborate flourishes on every surface.

A bas-relief sculpture runs the entire length of one level depicting an epic battle between gods and demons. I imagine children back then poring over it, relishing the crazy tale like a 12th-century version of Star Wars.

Like the pyramids of Egypt, all sorts of ancient cosmic mathematics are baked into this structure. It aligns along an axis with the temples at Giza and Machu Picchu. Why? We don’t know. Some of the more out-there historians, the controversial Graham Hancock in particular, claim the temple is a representation of the constellation Draco and is evidence of advanced, even alien wisdom.

I don’t buy that. But this is a place of great and undeniable power. A measure of any great historic site is whether you can tune out the noise; ignore the sunburnt tourists balling at each other, milling about with selfie-sticks, and have a moment of peace. I find a quiet corner and do just that. I sit and breathe the same air King Suryavarman II breathed a thousand years ago in this stunning, monolithic palace.

Being here in Siem Reap, I conclude that Cambodia is worth the lows. Because they aren’t really lows so much stress-tests for empathy. You will be better for knowing them. You will emerge hopeful, maybe kinder, certainly grateful. That’s what happened for the Cambodians.

Zack’s journey through Cambodia was courtesy of Inspiring Travel Company, who offer a six-night ‘Essential Cambodia’ trip with three nights each, fully guided, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Excursions aside, Inspiring Travel Company will help you get local, with cooking classes, dinner with a local family and traditional Khmer massage.

Photography by Alfio Manciagli

Get out there

Do…

… travel with a local guide. This way you’ll get a first-hand experience of what it was really like to live under the Khmer Rouge.

… take the time to digest what happened in this otherwise beautiful country. It’s overwhelming but eye-opening.

… rise early to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It’s not so much a best-kept secret anymore, but nevertheless still amazing.

Don’t…

… forget to explore the modern cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. While your journey here will inevitably be filled with history lessons, today’s Cambodian cities hold a number of amazing, contemporary delights and act as a beacon of hope for a Cambodia of the future.

… feel like you need to see the complex of Angkor all at once. Firstly, it is impossible – at time of press, new parts of the city are being discovered – so leave some for the following day or another trip.