This country remains marked by the painful memory of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge years. But from the energetic Phnom Penh to the remote temples of the north, from the insect markets to the fabulous Angkor, it is also full of countless treasures.
Often, the visit of Cambodia is done in a few days, after a trip to Vietnam or Laos. However, the wealth of the millennial heritage of this small country encircled in the Indochinese peninsula (1), the contrasting beauty of its landscapes, its grandiose and painful history, the creative vitality of its artists are worth a real journey.
Phnom Penh is a beautiful introduction. Located at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers, the capital that is changing, it retains a provincial charm. Was it not called the time of the French protectorate the “pearl of Asia”? Its checkerboard layout makes it easy to find one’s way around and to stroll on foot or in tuk-tuk. We begin with the Royal Palace, the residence of the current king Sihamoni, who deploys his Khmer roofs and gilding in a vast complex including the silver pagoda. It owes its name to its floor consisting of more than 5,000 silver slabs of one kilo each. A luminous Emerald Buddha in baccarat sits in the center not far from a gold Buddha encrusted with diamonds. Near, the National Museum designed by the French historian Georges Groslier houses one of the most beautiful collections of Khmer sculptures. We then stroll along the aisles of the Psar Thmei market, built in the 1930s by another Frenchman, Jean Desbois. On his stalls, jewels, fabrics, local food …
It is nice to sit at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) open on the Mekong, which still rumors rumors of correspondents during the Vietnam War. Then, in the evening, wander the busy streets and taste the cuisine of the small restaurants located on the sidewalks in front of the Lux, art deco cinema dating from 1938. Phnom Penh is also the scene of a tragic story. The fate of all Cambodia shifted on April 17, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered the capital, ordering 2 million people to go to the countryside to create a new agrarian society. It was the beginning of a regime of terror that destroyed, in four years, a third of the Cambodian people.
It is a place of memory that one must visit, the Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng, the largest detention center and torture of the country led by Douch. The visit of the buildings of this old school, surrounded by a pretty garden, is trying but essential to better understand how much the Cambodian people have suffered and how much the wound remains open. An audio guide in French, remarkably designed, explains with chilling sobriety, the advent of Democratic Kampuchea and its murderous madness until the trials of former leaders still in progress. But, how can one not also think of the genocide when one crosses in the countryside smiling men and women, hands joined at the level of the heart, gesture hated and banished by the Khmer Rouge who preferred the manly handshake to the Chinese .
After Phnom Penh, Angkor is a second step. However, before discovering the grandiose stone city, a detour to the north will uncover other less well-known but equally impressive millennial temples. The National 6, little frequented, is lined by traditional houses on stilts. Rice paddies where water buffaloes graze take over the bunches of araquiers and tamarinds, offering incomparable shades of green. Along the way, those who are faint of heart will stop at Skun market to watch, if not taste crickets, silk worms, grasshoppers or migales … to the delight Cambodians. It is around the peaceful town of Kampong Thom, along the Sen River, that stands the expansive Sambor Prei Kuk. It dates from the beginning of the VII th century. A hundred brick temples are scattered in the forest. Children with charming smiles sell Krama , brightly colored scarves worn by all rural people. Leaving the national 6 to 64, the visitor leads to imposing site of Prasat Preah Vihear temple-mountain dedicated to the Indian god Shiva (2). Perched 600 meters, this masterpiece of Khmer architecture – classified in 2017 by UNESCO – overlooks the Thai border. A series of shrines connected by several pavements and monumental staircases extends over … 800 meters long. Returning to Siem Reap, two stops are still needed. At Koh Ker, capital of the Angkorian empire X e century, two red brick pyramids, the prasat Krahom and prasat Thom emerge from the green of the forest. The climb is arduous, the view spectacular. Nearby, Beng Melea, dedicated to Vishnu, made famous by filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud who shot two brothers in 2004. The cheese that surround the stones date back 300 years.
Gate temples of the kingdom of Angkor, Siem Reap is now expanding, like Phnom Penh. Three days are needed to fully understand the disappeared civilization of Angkor. First metropolis of Southeast Asia, it has shone for six centuries, from the beginning of the IX th century XIV th century, counting in its heyday up to 1 million people.
From this glorious time, there remains the imposing Angkor Wat, flanked by its five towers shaped like a lotus, symbol of the nation, for its excessiveness; the citadel of the women of Banteay Srei, all of pink sandstone dressed, for its exquisite refinement; the fortified city of Angkor Thom, surrounded by gigantic moats, for its gods and giant demons; the Baphuon for his extraordinary Buddha who melts into the wall of which he marries the whole length; the Bayon, for its 216 faces with a mysterious smile … But, the shadow of its “discoverer”, the French botanist Henri Mouhot still hovers over this city engulfed in intertwined roots and stones for an eternal embrace …