FIRST, a tour of the bare-brick cells and torture chambers of S-21 prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Straight after that, a buffet brunch at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, with oysters, lobster, wagyu beef tartar and espresso martinis. This is luxury travel in 21st-century Cambodia, where every visiting pleasure-seeker pays a kind of psychic tourist tax by looking at the country’s livid war wounds.
Only the most wilfully oblivious would skip the now-customary excursion to Cheong Ek killing field, just outside Phnom Penh. The centerpiece is a towering stupa of skulls dug up from mass graves around this former orchard, arranged by age and labelled according to the murder weapon used on each victim – bayonet, bamboo stick, oxcart handle, and so on.
Then it’s back to the hotel for an evening swim, a traditional Khmer massage and a Femme Fatale cocktail at the Elephant Bar. Mixing cognac, champagne and crème de fraise des bois, that drink was created by master bartender Ngiam Tong Boon (inventor of the Singapore Sling) for Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967.
Fifty years on, her glass is preserved in the adjoining gallery, and still supposedly imprinted with her lipstick. But female staff will admit to refreshing this with their own from time to time, and it’s borderline impossible to believe that such a fragile artefact survived the slaughter that followed.
Next year will also mark half a century since the Khmer Rouge first crept out of the jungle, under Pol Pot’s annihilating vision for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. By the early 1970s, his black-clad farmer-army was launching artillery strikes against this very hotel, which was then called Le Phnom and serving as a Red Cross neutral zone, draped in white flags and wrapped in razor wire. There was a blood-splashed ad hoc surgery in a bungalow out back, while the ground floor became a bunker for journalists like Jon Swain, Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran (as dramatised in Roland Joffe’s film The Killing Fields).
When the Khmer Rouge seized and emptied the capital, Battalion 310 occupied the hotel for the three years, eight months and 20 days of their apocalyptic dominion. And when the monarchy was finally restored, after another decade-plus of vicious factional infighting, Raffles also returned their property to its original, colonial glamour.
Today’s guest is inclined to feel a bit conflicted. To stay at Le Royal is to indulge a certain nostalgia for a bygone Cambodia, the golden age of French Indochina, “the lazy charm of the pre-war days”, as Jon Swain wrote in his memoir River Of Time. But every local we meet has a superseding personal story about the long, ongoing fallout from that period.
Bou Meng, for example, who painted flattering portraits of Pol Pot while interned at S-21. Now an old man signing copies of his autobiography outside the prison museum, he tells us that this is how he survived that execution centre where almost 20,000 did not – including his wife. Our itinerary also includes a home-cooked meal with a local family.
Over dinner at their house on the far side of the Mekong, patriarch Hoev Mengleang recounts his “retirement” from a job driving payroll trucks down land-mined jungle backroads circa 1989; his subsequent escape from Cambodia on a crowded boat; his years in exile at a chaotic Indonesian refuge known as “Snake Island”.
And en route north to Siem Reap, our guide Oun Chan Sotha (or “Sita”) tries to unpack the confusion of his youth, when his older brother was forcibly conscripted into the government army, and ended up losing a leg in a minefield that he himself helped to plant near the Thai border.
“So, he’s only half a human being but we love him,” says Sita, joking with that jaw-dropping matter-of-factness that seems fairly common to older Cambodians.
We stay at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, another luxurious resort originally designed by Ernest Hebrard and his team of French colonial planners in the mid-1920s. It’s a little more Art Deco than Le Royal, with more expansive gardens, where Angelina Jolie recently presented a screening of her new film First They Killed My Father – adapted from the memoir by Loung Ung, a former child labourer under the Khmer Rouge.
Their cadres occupied this hotel too, as well as the nearby temples of Angkor Wat itself. Talking us through the chambers and cloisters of that ancient city, interpreting the carvings on bas reliefs – the cosmic battles between gods and demons – Sita also points out the bullet holes from much more recent fighting. So the Khmer Rouge intrude on your imagination even here, forcing you to picture those genocidal, anti-historical culture-haters despoiling the remains of an older, grander civilisation with a much wider embrace of the universe. But Sita says that Pol Pot too is fading into myth, and younger generations are starting to doubt their elders on the subject, thinking the Khmer Rouge a scare story.
Storytelling may be one solution, as presented at the Phare Cambodian Circus. On a hot night, under an imported Swiss big top, we watch their signature show Sokha, based on the real-life sufferings of author and founder Khuon Det. It’s enacted by young dancers and acrobats all rescued from dire situations – abuse, abandonment, poverty, trafficking – and trained up as world-class physical performers at Det’s circus school.
The core principle is art as therapy, and a means of making something beautiful from the ugliest experiences in the world. The Khmer Rouge are here too, represented on stage by black-clad dancers in death’s head masks. But they are overwhelmed by colour, hope and an ultra-disciplined physical approximation of joy. The power of their performance is enhanced by a recurring, redeeming thought that might yet sustain the modern, troubled, tourist-friendly Cambodia: Pol Pot would absolutely hate it.