Visiting Cambodia after a 10-year break
On the move: crossing the border from budget to luxury
The first time I visited Phnom Penh was in 2006. I was backpacking from India to China on a budget of US$20 a day and arrived in the city by boat, sailing all the way along the Tonlé Sap to the heart of the Cambodian capital.
Then it was little more than a pit stop between the temples of Angkor and the southern beaches of Sihanoukville. I regrouped with some American and British travellers I had met in Bangkok and we stayed at a wooden guesthouse on a large inner-city lake called Boeung Kak. The rooms were baking hot, riddled with mosquitoes and came with a crime warning, but it was also beautiful and exciting: new people, searing sunsets from the deck, nightly documentary screenings and a competition to see who could count the highest in Khmer. The pressures of work and responsibility were in another universe, and every day was an exercise in new possibility. Visits to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, the largest, most-notorious Khmer Rouge torture and detention centre, on the outskirts of town, were perhaps the best lesson anyone could ever have in not feeling sorry for yourself.
When places have been life-changing, as Cambodia was for me, you sometimes resist going back. I don’t want the memory or the effect of places to be diluted by less-meaningful experiences or the sight of loved landscapes and people having been ruined by tourism. Yet Asia, like so much of the world, is changing so fast that some cities are effectively a different place after 10 years. And I had secretly always wanted to stay in the grand hotels of the golden age of travel.
This time, I arrive at a new terminal at Phnom Penh International Airport. My immigration officer was just as unfriendly as they were when I crossed the Aranyaprathet-Poipet land border more than a decade ago. My hotel is the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, opened in 1929, and my room is in the renovated heritage wing. It’s a feast of tiled floors, high ceilings, roll-top baths and old-fashioned light switches. Even better, it’s cold, dark, quiet at night and mosquito-free.
The city is still relatively sleepy for a capital, and its museums, palaces and temples are easy to get around. Boeung Kak is sadly no more; controversially, the entire lake has been filled with sand and is being redeveloped. On the old waterfront, the entire facade of the city’s oldest hotel has been ruined by a KFC. Yet most of the wholesale redevelopment is taking place in the south-west of the city, and in the old centre, colonial buildings continue to decay, but surprisingly given the lack of protection, many are still there. Old shophouses are reminiscent of Hanoi; in between, boutique hotels, chic little local restaurants and home-grown coffee shops are blossoming. Best of all, now, it’s not just for tourists. I have the luxury of bespoke guided tours, eating in restaurants instead of markets and tipping. Freed from the compulsion of endless haggling, I feel like I’m taking more in. Cambodia has changed, but probably only as much as I have.
Next week: a return to Siem Reap