Cambodia reborn

Kenneth Morgan discovers a land that has escaped its turbulent past and is on the brink of a resurge

Cambodia is an attractive country that is leaving behind the trauma of its history and creating something all its own. This was symbolised for me by the sight of a man sitting cross-legged outside the riverside art gallery in Siem Reap. He was busy fashioning a kind of mobile sculpture out of a pile of small rifles - the Cambodian version of turning swords into ploughshares.

The land has suffered grievously at the hands of foreign invasions over the years. After the Khmer empire folded in the 14th century, and the city of Angkor with its one million inhabitants wasted away (perhaps through the non-functioning of its canals), Cambodia fell prey to frequent incursions by neighbouring Thais. Relations between Cambodians and Thais are still frosty. Four years ago, a television actress, who stars in a kind of Thai Coronation Street, supposedly said that Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand - rather like the French claiming Westminster Abbey. There were attacks on the Thai embassy, even talk of war, before it was established that the slandered soap star had never said any such thing.

The colonising French established a protectorate in Cambodia in 1863 and built attractive quarters in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Napoleon III donated a somewhat incongruous French wing to the king's palace in Phnom Penh, just before his own downfall. But France did little to build up Cambodian infrastructure - less so than the British in India - and pillaged the country right up to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Sadly, no one was a more enthusiastic pillager than one of my erstwhile heroes, André Malraux, arrested after looting Banteay Srei temple and trying to ship four figurines illegally back to France, like latter-day Elgin Marbles. Let out before he'd served his full one-year sentence, Malraux cashed in by writing a bestselling novel, La Voie royale, about his dodgy past.

More recently, Cambodia was infiltrated by the Vietcong, South Vietnamese guerrillas backed by North Vietnam, during the Vietnam War and then had its own civil war when Prince Sihanouk was ousted in 1970, before being invaded by a united Vietnam in 1978. Further horror was inflicted in the Kissinger era by the Americans, who spent three years pouring bombs on to helpless Cambodian peasants, slaughtering far mers and buffaloes indiscriminately as they sought to bomb North Vietnamese sanctuaries. The schoolteacher father of a Cambodian we met in Phnom Penh had been blown up by a US B-52 bomber while walking to work. George W Bush's claim that Cambodia suffered the horrors of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge because the United States "walked away" from "finishing the job" in Vietnam is almost beneath contempt.

The worst torment of all, of course, was per petrated by Cambodia on itself. A possible two million of the country's then 16 million people were murdered by the Pol Pot regime. The three million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were driven out into the rice fields at just three days' notice. Memories remain very much alive - after all, Pol Pot died only in 1998. The Foreign Correspondents' Club on the waterfront in Phnom Penh still bears mementoes. Bullet-holes are visible in the fabric of the Angkor Wat temple, and many landmines remain. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school where only seven of 17,000 inmates survived, displays gallows, torture apparatus, photographs of the mute, staring faces of victims. Equally sombre is the Choeung Ek Memorial ("the Killing Fields"), 15 kilo metres south-west of Phnom Penh.

Though Cambodia has much from which to recover, it is manifestly doing so. My daughter and I found Phnom Penh a relaxed and civilised place along a busy waterfront. It is more fun than stolid Kuala Lumpur, or even Bangkok. The few traffic lights are scarcely needed, as cars drive very slowly and most traffic (apart from tourist "tuk-tuks" and the odd elephant) consists of motorised scooters and bicycles, ridden mainly by the overwhelmingly female factory-based labour force.

Urban life centres on riverside bars, cafes and eating houses (where the waitresses are not necessarily there to serve food). I recommend the Frog and Parrot bar, simply because it's run by another Welshman - offering, oddly enough, menus interleaved with the thoughts of Margaret Thatcher. The National Museum is a hymn to historic Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, many icons patched together after systematic smashing by the Khmer Rouge. Old splendours survive at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, in whose bar Somerset Maugham spent evenings meditating on women, whisky and white men's burdens.

For the moment, the future of the Cambodian economy rests less on a modernising Phnom Penh than on a vibrant past. The area comprising Angkor is huge, far greater than the city of Angkor Thom alone, let alone the great temple of Angkor Wat. The balmy early morning, with lowish humidity and few visitors, is the time to explore the galleries, terraces and shrines of the temple, its columns and capitals evocative of a Greek classicism of which the Khmers knew no thing. Similarly, the mighty statues of the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom; the Ta Phrom temple, kept upright by the roots of towering trees; the delicate sculptures of post-Malraux Banteay Srei, with everywhere subtle fusions of Hindu and Buddhist imagery (Cambodian culture is very Indian), violent collisions of gods and demons. Some of this is famous from films: the sci-fi cavortings of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, who spent a week shooting on location here, were received positively by Cambodians.

Now is the moment to visit Cambodia. Its Buddhist people are cheerful and courteous; its culture (notably the youthful "apsara" ballet) is captivating; its Khmer cuisine (based heavily on fish such as amok from regular flooding of the Tonle Sap great lake in the central plain) is memorable. The landscape is studded with incom parable archaeological sites. Angkor has yet to be polluted by commercialism: for me, it recalled the brooding majesty of Machu Picchu back in 1963. Cambodia's emergent society is unformed, unlike capitalistic Malaysia, now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence. But something new, and maybe better, is growing.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies