As an optimistic young generation strives to move on from decades of genocide and civil war, a new swath of this this bewitching Southeast Asian kingdom is opening up. Charles Graeber, who first traveled to Cambodia in the 1990s, discovers a new side of the south.
This, believe it or not, was the job: to check out intriguing new luxury hotels in a country I had not been back to in some 15 years. The country was Cambodia, and the only catch was — well, there wasn’t a catch.
I first went to Cambodia in 1996, at the invitation of an old friend and fellow journalist. He was writing for a newspaper named the Cambodia Daily. He insisted I come see this place. I did. My two-week visit stretched into a life-altering year, then longer.
The country captured me, charmed and confused me. It has that effect on people, it draws them in. I abandoned my plans, canceled medical school, dropped out of a relationship with a wonderful girl, and wrote half of a juvenile novel about expat life, about the streams of bats that blackened the skies at sunset and the conflict of feeling so happy and free in a country savaged by genocide and war.
I got a motorcycle, a rented room, a new love, and a new sense of purpose. It was a thrilling time. My friend had been right: there really was no more interesting or important place. Cambodia was on the cusp, emerging from the nightmare of the cultural cleansing carried out by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge; between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 1.7 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population, had been killed by starvation, overwork, or outright murder. But the intervening years had pushed the Khmer Rouge into hiding, and after another decade of civil war, the country seemed to finally be ready for peace — a democracy, even. And perhaps, we all dreamed, we might somehow help it along.
In the late 1990s, the little ruined riverside capital of Phnom Penh had a fledgling free press and fragile peace held together by an elderly king and blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers. The countryside was rough and raw and unspeakably beautiful. It wasn’t just the crumbling French-colonial villas and floating villages and miles of pristine coastline, or the ancient spires of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat, rising like a prayer from the jungle. It was the people. It sounds like a cliché, and it’s certainly a generalization, but the Cambodians I met were good people, pure-hearted somehow. Perhaps, because they were survivors, they considered themselves lucky. Those who visited, people like myself, quickly realized how much we had taken for granted, and how much we had to learn.
Cambodia has undergone a staggering transformation since then. In 2012, the elderly king, Norodom Sihanouk, died, and these days the UN peacekeepers have been supplanted by Chinese investors. The country didn’t turn into a democracy, exactly, as the ruling party gradually removed opposition voices from the streets and the newspapers, and even the ballot. But the majority of the country has experienced a novel degree of stability, and with it a swell of development. Over half the population is under 25 years old, too young to remember when their country was a destination mostly for journalists, backpackers, and fugitives. Now Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
That said, those temples, and perhaps Phnom Penh, are all most visitors ever see of Cambodia. But now a new generation of high-end properties has begun drawing visitors beyond the usual circuit. The coastal islands and jungle mountains in the south and west have been largely inaccessible to visitors for decades. This was a Cambodia I’d never seen. Did I want to? my editor asked.
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