A man with a 5ft tongue and an even longer phallus stands naked in the garden, exposed as an adulterer. Next to him, an eviscerated woman looms over a cooking pot filled with sinners who beg for mercy while they are slowly boiled to death. It’s an extraordinary vision of a Buddhist hell, a fever dream of modern sculpture within the grounds of the Wat Pnuw monastery, and just one example of the rich artistic and cultural heritage for which Battambang is widely known.
Languid and jungly, Cambodia’s second-largest city lies in the midst of vast paddy fields some 70 miles from the Thai border. The country’s rice bowl, it was the fertile land that first allowed the arts to flourish here centuries ago: a proliferation of food ensured free time for other pursuits beyond farming, including creative expression; wealth from the rice trade then funded that creativity and soon all the country’s greatest artists, musicians and singers hailed from Battambang.
That was until an estimated 90% were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s brutal, genocidal dictatorship that ruled from 1975 to 1979.
‘The artists were armed with open minds and popular voices that could hold truth to power,’ Osman Khawaja tells me. ‘That’s why the Khmer Rouge wanted them dead. We’re trying to do the opposite: we want to bring the arts back to life.’
Osman is executive director of Phare Ponle Selpak (‘Brightness of the Arts’), an NGO that provides free arts education for disadvantaged children. Founded by Cambodian refugees returning home after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, it began as a school for drawing and painting, before music, dance, theatre and circus skills were added to the curriculum.
Now, hundreds of students pass through the doors each year and hone their performance skills in Phare’s animal-free circus, a leading Battambang tourist attraction.
‘It’s as far from Siegfried and Roy as you can get,’ says Osman as he shows me around the big top during a lighting and sound check. ‘Cambodian circus has ancient roots; there are even 12th-century carvings on the Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat that show acrobatics, tightrope work and balancing acts.’
Osman tells me that the circus serves a wider purpose beyond unlocking the potential of its students – to get Cambodians to re-engage with the arts. ‘It’s a habit that was lost for decades because the Khmer Rouge not only killed the artists, they destroyed paintings, statues and many cultural treasures too,’ he says. ‘We hope that by bringing audiences to the circus, and reminding them of their heritage, it’s another important step towards Battambang becoming a leading cultural hub once more.’
Other venues have emerged here in recent years as part of the city’s artistic renaissance, including Romcheik 5 Artspace (Cambodia’s first modern art museum), and Kep Kao Sol, a gallery showcasing the work of Loeum Lorn, a former Phare student. Loeum is best known for his photographs of melting ice: abstract self-portraits inspired by the cold he felt living as a child refugee on the Thai-Cambodian border.
‘The close-up photographs reveal cracks and impurities trapped inside, which represent my inner trauma,’ he says. ‘As the ice melts, they are released, just like the way trauma can be healed through the artistic process. That’s why art is so important for both the creator and the viewer. It helps us process the past and move beyond it.’
As the heat fades in the late afternoon, I set off for Siem Reap, rolling past villages of stilted houses and roadside stalls selling fans of bananas and pyramids of aromatic durians. Three hours later I pull up by a small lake on the city’s outskirts where Bunyong Roeurn, a former monk, is waiting for me.
Bunyong leads the way to his simple homestay, the proceeds from which go towards running an on-site English and computer school. ‘Cambodia is a poor country, so it helps give the community a leg-up in life,’ he says. ‘It’s just a drop in the ocean, but a single drop can create many ripples of good karma.’
The following morning, a wedding band wakes us before dawn – drowning out the crowing cockerels with their equally tuneless melodies played on a drum, violin and cloy (bamboo flute), their songs said to bring fertility and harmony to the day’s happy couple.
We set out early, taking the opposite route to most tourists who start the day with sunrise at Angkor Wat; instead, we take an overgrown path to Ta Prohm, the most atmospheric of the ancient temples, where our only company is a strutting peacock – a symbol of prosperity in Khmer culture.
After it was completed in the late 12th century, some 80,000 people regularly maintained or attended the Buddhist temple, but now Ta Prohm lies quiet, slowly suffocating under a mantle of moss, the silvery roots of spung trees gripping, crippling and cracking its stonework.
‘The spungs are like Shiva [preserver and destroyer of the universe]. In some ways, they hold the buildings together, in others, they tear them apart,’ says Bunyong. ‘Ultimately, they remind us that life is impermanent; the only thing that’s permanent is change.’
Close to Ta Prohm, we head to a small, family-run restaurant to eat kuy teav, the traditional Cambodian breakfast soup consisting of rice noodles and beansprouts under layers of crispy garlic, beef and fresh herbs. ‘The most important flavour comes from the pig’s backbone I put in the broth,’ says Lok Socheat, the cook, who brings steaming bowls to the table that we share with a couple of saffron-robed monks.
Cheatok Lon and Phen Tep tell me they have travelled six miles to get here from their monastery in Siem Reap, having risen at 4am for two hours of meditation. ‘We come because the food is so good,’ says Phen, squeezing a dash of lime into the bowl, a final touch before slurping can commence. ‘Also, because it’s close to one of the most sacred, spiritual places in Cambodia: Angkor Wat.’
Construction of the Khmer Empire’s 400-acre temple complex, considered the very heart and soul of Cambodia, began in 1122. Six thousand elephants were used to carry stone from a quarry 30 miles away (more stone than used in the largest Egyptian pyramid), before an estimated half-million people toiled for 32 years to create the figurative heaven on earth, consisting of five immense towers with beehive-like crowns surrounded by an 2,620ft-long series of bas-reliefs and a vast moat.
The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat has transformed nearby Siem Reap from backwater to boom town, where millions of tourists now descend to revel in the restaurants and bars that sprawl around garish Pub Street in the heart of downtown.
One business putting that huge influx of visitors to positive use is Little Red Fox Espresso, which co-founder David Armstrong runs with ethical entrepreneurship in mind.
‘Many Cambodians get caught in the cycle of debt repayment by opening a coffee cart,’ he tells me. ‘But here our team go through a proper apprenticeship: learning management skills, costing, how to buy local and the true value of a dollar, so that one day they can go on to open a small, successful business of their own. That’s not just good for them, but for the whole Cambodian economy.’
The coffee shop is a member of Collective for Good: a select group of tourist-related businesses committed to environmental, social and economic good practices. ‘It’s a tough process to get accepted, to make sure the greenwashing companies don’t get in,’ David says. ‘A simple QR code then allows travellers to see who the members are and make more informed decisions about who they spend their money with. It means you can make a difference to the lives of many people, not just a few.’
Located across the Siem Reap River is another member of the collective: the stylish Treeline Urban Resort where, under general manager Joni Aker, the hotel has taken a forensic look at its environmental footprint and now goes to great lengths to mitigate its impact by planting trees, composting food waste and heating water with solar energy.
The hotel also supports a wide variety of community initiatives: they employ a local curator to oversee a grants-and-mentorship programme that promotes Cambodian artists (whose work is then exhibited for sale at the hotel), while the interior design includes wide use of handicrafts from a Tonlé Sap Lake project that turns water hyacinths into basketware to both control the invasive species and give new earning opportunities to the women of the lake’s floating villages.
Key though, has been eliminating single-use plastic, a challenging undertaking in a country where tourism produces 4.6 million plastic bottles every month with little recycling. ‘We wanted to go way beyond removing water bottles from the rooms,’ says Joni. ‘We wanted to lose plastic from the supply chain altogether.’
Joni and the Treeline team undertook training from Plastic Free Southeast Asia (who support businesses in their efforts to become leaders in sustainable tourism), a process that also involved educating and incentivising the hotel’s providers of fresh food and clean laundry.
‘We’re not 100% perfect, of course,’ says Joni. ‘But we’re getting there. The ambition is to inspire people to think more – not only about where they stay, but how they visit and where they eat – whether it’s supporting the local food cart or more fine-dining options like Lum Orng [Siem Reap’s first farm-to-table restaurant] and Chamrey Tree.’
(In the latter, chef Ung Thun finds recipes that were lost during the Khmer Rouge’s rule and reinvents them.) ‘Then, hopefully, we have a chance of leaving the world in a better shape than how we found it.’
I leave Siem Reap on a hot, humid morning, and drive east across a landscape of rainforests and waterfalls that simmers in the insistent heat, the skies darkening then detonating with thunder and rainstorms before turning to bright blue again, a cycle that continues for over 300 miles.
After nine hours at the wheel, I arrive in Sen Monoram, home to the animist Bunong, the largest of the country’s ethnic minorities. Traditionally, the Bunong have used elephants for logging and transportation; now they are actively involved in their rehabilitation: letting the retired elephants wander free, while fees from visitors (who pay to walk with them) go towards supporting the local community and helping keep the animals safe from poachers.
I meet up with my guide Cham Rong, a dandyish cowboy figure who wears a feather
in his hat and smokes banana leaf roll-ups. In the company of two mahouts and their pachyderm charges Princess and Krahprom, we wander off together into the Lean Trok forest, which buzzes, hisses and whirs with its orchestra of insects.
We stroll for hours, following the elephants who amble at will, taking their dust baths, yanking and uprooting banana palms, sugar canes and forest foliage to get their ‘125kg a day’. It’s a meditative process: us watching them watching us, pondering what is passing through their minds. ‘When they are lonely or sick, they cry,’ says Cham. ‘They can be naughty too. They play hide-and-seek among the mango trees. They are complex and emotional, just like human beings.’
While Princess and Krahprom bathe with their mahouts in the Otey River, Cham and I eat fresh fish with a traditional stew of banana flower, aubergine, pumpkin and sao mao leaf, ingeniously cooked over charcoals inside a bamboo stick. On the side, we enjoyed a nip of ‘jar wine’: a rice-based hooch infused with appetising starfruit, honeycomb and medicinal herbs, and the less palatable porcupine stomach, larvae and chicken blood.
‘Jar wine is believed to get rid of bad spirits,’ says Cham as we clink glasses and slug back the firewater. ‘It brings good fortune, health and happiness too.’ They seem like fitting final words as my journey comes to an end, across a country I’ve witnessed going to great lengths to overcome its own bad spirits and secure a brighter, happier future.
Need to know
Getting there: Siem Reap is served by flights from the capital, Phnom Penh, as well as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Best time to go: Hot and humid year-round, November to May sees temperatures dip and the lowest rainfall but also the biggest crowds at Angkor Wat. The start and end of the wet season (May–June and Oct–Nov) bring clear skies between downpours and relatively crowd-free temples.
Currency: Cambodian riel
Time zone: GMT +7
Food: Rice is the staple, traditionally eaten with most meals. Aromatic amok (fish steamed in a banana leaf) is considered the national dish, its mild curry flavours come from its kroeung (paste) made with lemongrass, turmeric, galangal and lime leaves.
Where to stay: Treeline Urban Resort (treelinehotels.com) for a stylish, sustainable stay in the heart of Siem Reap. Homestay.com is a great resource for more economical options, overnighting with Cambodian families.
How to do it: A trip to Cambodia is easy to organise independently. Bunyong Roeurn can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and +855 77 370 818.
Must-pack item: A durable, reusable water bottle to make the most of Cambodia’s refill stations (see refilltheworld.com).
Why go: Beyond the extraordinary monuments of the Khmer Empire, it’s their modern-day descendants, the Cambodians themselves, that leave a lasting impression.