When we arrived in the Cambodian capital I didn't know what to expect. It was my first time in Cambodia and I knew it was still recovering from its troubled past, with complex politics and slow economic growth, so I thought it'd be quite a difficult place to visit.
On the first day we jumped headfirst into its dark history with a visit to the Killing Fields of Choueng Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes. In the 1970s around 17,000 men, women and children were detained and tortured at S-21, a high school the Khmer Rouge took over, before being taken to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek outside the city. The Killing Fields audio guide was particularly upsetting, listening to survivor stories and a chilling account by an executioner as you walk around the mass graves where 9,000 bodies were exhumed in the 1980s, with bone fragments and bits of cloth still scattered around and the Memorial Stupa with thousands of skulls displayed. I felt nauseous going around it. Today, it's a peaceful, reflective place surrounded by orchard trees and a lake, but it's not an easy place to visit. Next we toured S-21 and left feeling even heavier: it's a harrowing but necessary experience to understand Cambodia's traumatic history.
To lighten the mood, we finished the day at the Royal Palace, built in the 19th century for the King of Cambodia with ornate Khmer architecture, large gilt gold doors, decorative roofs and spires. After jumping in a tuk-tuk back to our beautiful hotel Arunreas to freshen up, we went for drinks at Les Cocktails, an outdoor cocktail bar filled with groups of friends, young families and live Khmer music with not a tourist in sight.
The second day was a huge contrast to its sombre predecessor as we had a cycling tour booked with Grasshopper Adventures. We picked up hire bikes and our very own tourguide at Vicious Cycle and cycled along the riverfront, onto a ferry and across the Mekong river to Silk Island (Koh Dach). There aren't any bridges, so the island is almost entirely car-free. We travelled through fields, farms and quiet dirt roads passing banana trees, cows and waving school kids before stopping at a family-run silk farm for respite from the midday sun and some fresh fruit. We watched the different stages of production from the silk worm cocoons to the incredibly fine raw threads, the dyeing process and finally someone weaving an ornate, colourful silk scarf on a hand loom. I couldn't resist picking up some beautiful handmade souvenirs. We went onto a riverside restaurant in the middle of the peaceful countryside for fresh river fish for lunch, before cycling back into the capital. The rural, slow pace on Koh Dac couldn't be more different from the vibrant streets of Phnom Penh filled with noisy motorbikes, busy markets, monks in their colourful robes, street stalls and bustling crowds.
wearing Anthropologie Speckled Tunic Top
Back in the capital, we went on an excellent modern architecture tour by KA Tours - we went for the private New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s one - and discovered landmark buildings by Cambodia's most famous architect Vann Molyvann, built in the dynamic era after independence in 1953 using international styles with local traditions and materials. We visited the Institute of Foreign Languages, the 100 Houses Social Housing project and the National Sports Complex ("Olympic Stadium"), shown round by a friendly Cambodian architect passionate about celebrating this unique architectural period. We also visited The White Building, the crumbling, once-celebrated housing development by Lu Ban Hap, which still unbelievably houses 2,000 residents and visited the large art deco Central Market to check out the silver stalls, where I bought a little silver-plated bowl to store jewellery.
French influences are everywhere, from colonial architecture to cuisine: we had dinner at the elegant restaurant Topaz which mixes traditional French fine dining with local touches. After dinner - each night, in fact - we stopped for nightcaps at the buzzy micro-bars, speakeasies and hipster breweries of Bassac Lane. Another highlight was seeing a traditional dance performance at Cambodian Living Arts, an organisation which aims to aid the transformation and development of Cambodia through the arts. I went to sleep dreaming of mythical apsaras - the ancient celestial female spirits symbolic of Khmer culture - and rhythmic, chiming music. The next day we drove all the way up to Siem Reap, via Skuon to see the famous fried spider market and the 1,000 year old red Kompong Krei bridge. Cambodia is a challenging, unique country filled with contrasts, thought-provoking sites, wonderful architecture where old meets new, natural beauty where three rivers meet and a burgeoning nightlife and foodie scene. I loved it. Siem Reap up next...
wearing blue Petit Bateau T-Shirt