Since the decline of the Khmer kingdom 500 years ago, Cambodia hasn’t had the easiest ride. Thai and Vietnamese kings have fought over it, French imperialists have ruled it, the American military spilled over its borders during the Vietnam War, and Pol Pot decimated it.
Over 30 years on and life has finally changed for the better. This is quite some achievement, a testament to the country’s resilient inhabitants, who prefer to look to a positive future than to linger in the past. Borders have opened, tourists are pouring in, and you can stand on the streets of Siem Reap and listen to the daily cacophony of men with hammers building hotels. It is a perfect metaphor of 21st-century Cambodia; here is a country that is forging itself anew, fuelled by a positive determination to make the most of its myriad opportunities.
Although tourism is still in its infancy, those who make the journey discover one of the great wonders of the world at Angkor, the single biggest religious monument on our planet. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site (and how could it be anything else?), this 12th-century temple complex stretches 85km in one direction and 50km in the other. Over 500 temples, many still in the grip of impenetrable jungle, reveal an advanced culture to rival any other of the era. But there’s more to Cambodia than Angkor, and clever tourists are starting to spread their wings, south to the beaches of Sihanoukville, west to languid Kep, east to the Mekong at Kratie, inland to the Tatai River, and down to pulsating Phnom Penh, a capital city in the midst of reinventing itself.