Kingdom of Cambodia

The Cambodian Government touts its country as the Kingdom of Wonder, a slogan that is more appropriate than perhaps it intended. You wonder what to expect on a visit to Cambodia and when you leave, you wonder exactly what you've experienced.

It confronts and confounds, disturbs and excites. A thinking tourist will surely experience every colour of the emotional rainbow. In many places, like the floating villages, there's barely a pot of food and in others, such as the Royal Palace, much more than a pot of gold.

The buzzing capital city, Phnom Penh, is an immediate assault on the senses. The roads are semi-organised chaos (we saw a motorbike accident within our first few hundred metres of travel) and the streets are teeming with people.

Shops and stalls are right on the roadside and they're sectioned into quirky little enclaves - motorcycle tyres on one block, denim jeans on another; for hats you can cross the Chruoy Changvar Bridge. Otherwise you can go to the striking "yellow market" in an enormous domed Art Deco building frequented by the locals.

The food market here is a fascinating highlight and the selection of jewellery as well as clothes, homewares, electronics - even an unreleased iPhone 5 - is mind-boggling.

Phnom Penh is a curious combination of traditional architecture (like the ornate Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda) and French, with a bit of Art Deco thrown in, reflecting its past. And you can't get away from Cambodia's past. From the early ninth century, the Khmer Empire was a South-East Asian superpower.

In the 19th century it was colonised by the French. It became independent in the 1950s but the Vietnam War crossed its borders, giving rise to the notorious Pol Pot's Mao-inspired Khmer Rouge.

The legacy of Pot's vision for an agrarian utopia is that about 80 per cent of people live in the countryside without power or running water under long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been recently criticised for allegedly squandering international aid.

In Phnom Penh, the National Museum's collection of Khmer art is stunning, but being a tourist draw has made it a magnet for beggars. Outside there's a vivid example of the poverty in Cambodia as a young mother begs while she and her tiny baby share sips from a raw egg. Nearby is Mith Samlanh, or Friends, a restaurant helping keep kids off the street. The food in Cambodia is full of fresh flavours, fish and fruit with only mild chilli and plenty of lime.

The muddy Mekong River remains the heart of Phnom Penh. People flock to its banks to dine, drink, socialise, dance, play sport, fish and bathe. Boatloads of tourists cruise to the intersection of four rivers known as Chattomukh (four faces).

The faces, though, that a visitor will recall long after a visit to Phnom Penh are those of the hundreds of victims on display at Pol Pot's secret prison Tuol Sleng.

What was once a school full of happy children became a classroom of unspeakable terror. The manner in which the brutal torture and murder of its victims is displayed could almost be described as gratuitous if it weren't such a deliberately confronting reminder of a shameful period of history many young Cambodians refuse to believe even happened.

Likewise with the Killing Fields, a 20km journey out of the city where hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered and tossed into pits. The stupa full of skulls arranged in age order - "female Kampuchean from 15-20 years old" - is not nearly as confronting as what at first glance appears to be a pretty grassed area but is actually full of deep depressions that are mass graves.

Even now, clothing pokes up through the dirt, so too pieces of bone; the chilling result of recent rain. Inside the museum are photographs of victims, including those of Australian David Lloyd Scott.

The 300km drive north to the country's other main centre of Siem Reap (literally Siamese Defeat) is a white-knuckle ride but gives a look at everyday Cambodian life.

The countryside is dotted with rice paddies and stilted homes, skinny white cows and mud-stained water buffalo. Along the way, the town of Skun is famous for deep-fried spiders (I flatly refused to eat one but apparently they actually do taste like chicken).

The ornate stone 12th century Kampong Kdei bridge, too, is worth visiting. Like many places popular with tourists, you face an onslaught of wily, persistent young salespeople and desperate beggars.

Just outside Siem Reap is a floating village, where hundreds of poor families, often Vietnamese refugees, live on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake. Travellers can pay to go on one of the clunky boats and ogle this reluctant tourist attraction.

I thought it felt like "peasant porn" and was uncomfortable, though undeniably fascinating. At a stop along the way, women plead for money and children wearing docile serpents around their necks pose for photos with gawping foreigners who often refuse to hand over a few thousand riel (50 cents) for their time.

But the real attractions of Siem Reap, known as the gateway to Angkor, the seat of the Khmer Empire, are the temples. Spread across 300sqkm, there are hundreds, from Ta Prohm, where Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider was filmed among the webs of silk cotton tree roots, to the 12th century Preah Khan and the splendour of Angkor Wat.

It truly has to be seen to be believed, though I have to concede that the only downside of these magnificent structures is that the sheer number of tourists leaves you longing to experience them alone, in quiet meditation.

Cambodia is exhilarating and devastating, beautiful and challenging, poor yet thriving. It's a country that honours its history but is still coming to terms with its past, and which is still realising the extent of its tourism potential. Don't be left wondering how incredible it is.

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