By Michael Buerk
6th May 2011
Nature's been kind to Cambodia, but man hasn't. That's the fascination of the place - it's what makes it more than just another edgy tropical paradise on the backpacker trail.
In fact, this is the most compelling tourist destination in South-East Asia. You can go just to unwind.
The scenery is rich, the food - with its French colonial overtones - exotic. Park by the pool, order the beers and soak up the old Indochina, free of Thailand's rampant commercialism or Vietnam's frenetic crowds.
From glory to ruin: Angkor Wat reminds you of the feats humans can attain, and how quickly the jungle can claim it all back
But this would be missing the point. The history of Cambodia adds up to a short course in human futility.
Successive rulers have tried to impose their own ideas of earthly heaven, which have all ended in varying kinds of ruin. And it is all there; awful, in every sense.
Monuments to ancient grandeur and modern cruelty, both probably unequalled anywhere in the world.
I came away half-haunted by three faces. First, King Jayavarman's is carved over and over again in stone 15ft high, staring down on what he helped to create. In the 12th century, Angkor was the greatest city on Earth. A million people lived in it - at a time when London could only count 20,000.
Now, half overgrown by tropical forest, it is arguably the greatest wonder of the old world. It is the centre of a sprawl of vast temple cities, spreading across 80 square miles, monumental in their magnificence, many covered in acres of intricate allegorical carving.
Second, there is Chan Kim Srun, who stares at you from a black-and-white photograph in the former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre, her newborn baby in her arms and an unfathomable sadness in her eyes.
Her husband was high in the ranks of those mass murdering madmen before, in their paranoia, they turned on their own. You can tell she knows they're both about to be murdered.
They were taken to the killing fields the night that photograph was taken.
Dark history: Cambodia's stunning architecture is contrasted by its black history
And, third, Hun Sen, the current prime minister, a former Khmer Rouge commander before he ratted on them and was put into power by the Vietnamese, who brought the insanity to an end.
He's been in charge of Cambodia for a quarter of century, a former ultra-Maoist who now encourages capitalism so he and his cronies can rip it off.
He heads what is widel y acknowledged as one of the most corrupt governments in the world, a kleptocratic elite that has made itself fabulously wealthy through seizing public assets and illegal logging, leading to repeated complaints of corruption from the World Bank.
The U.S. ambassador publicly accused government officials of stealing $500 million a year. All this when one in three Cambodians live on less than $1 a day.
This is more than a holiday. It's an education. Start in Phnom Penh, an attractive riverside city, tatty but game after the years of war and extermination. They call it Lexus City these days because of all the gleaming 4x4s the officials buy with their graft money.
Fascinated foreign correspondent: Michael Buerk and his wife Christine
Stay, if you can, in Le Royal, the grandest of French colonial hotels, now done up by the Raffles Group. It has sweeping hardwood staircases, scents of cinnamon, oozing luxury and Jeeves-like service.
The ghosts of Somerset Maugham and Andre Malraux slink down the corridors in their silk dressing gowns.
Go for a drink in the Foreign Correspondents Club. I was the only real foreign correspondent they'd had in the place for years - it's now a lively gathering place for gap-year girls.
Eat at Friends - a non-profit Jamie Oliver-type place that teaches street youths catering skills; a good, cheap, philanthropic feed.
There's plenty to see here. The Royal Palace complex is a relatively modern masterpiece of distinctive Cambodian architecture. The Silver Pagoda within it has a floor made up of six tons of ill-fitting solid silver tiles.
But the real, and awful, fascination is the four-year nightmare rule of the Khmer Rouge at the end of the Seventies. They murdered a million people while a million more starved to death, one in five of the population.
The former school they used as an interrogation centre is now a museum. In its way, it's as chilling as Auschwitz.
The rough bedsteads with their iron shackles surrounded by bloodstains, the classrooms, crudely subdivided into cells like hutches, the children's climbing frame they turned into a gallows, are all still there.
Worst of all are the pictures. The Khmer Rouge photographed their victims just before they were taken off to be murdered. They look at you now, hundreds and hundreds of them, blank, bewildered, doomed.
Human bones and fragments of clothing are still coming out of the ground today. Above, clouds of yellow and white butterflies - the sacred colours of the country's two historic religions - dance in the afternoon sun.
It's a dreadful place, marked now by a stupa with 17 tiers of crushed skulls.
Recovering: Traditional dancers are once again becoming common after they were massacred by the Khmer Rouge
The glories of Cambodia are the magnificent temple cities, just north of the modern town of Siem Reap, itself a short flight from Phnom Penh. The most famous, and best preserved, is Angkor Wat, the world's largest and surely most impressive religious monument.
It is an entire Hindu universe (it became Buddhist in the 13th century) realised entirely in laterite and sandstone.
It's also huge - more than 500 acres - and fantastically rich in sculptural detail. More than half a mile of its walls are covered in narrative bas-reliefs. It is only one of numerous fabulous temple complexes.
Jayavarman's legacy, Angkor Thom, is even bigger in total area and, in places, even more intricately decorated.
But the centuries, and the jungle, have taken a greater toll - soaring tropical trees swell out and up through the ruins. This is a place to dwell on the futility of human ambition while you keep a sharp look out for Indiana Jones.
It is joint first on my list of 1,000 places to see before you die (only Machu Picchu and the Galapagos come close). Go there soon, before the planned international airport opens and the world's most impressive tourist site becomes one of the world's busiest.
The place to stay is the Hotel de la Paix, a well-run modern hotel in the centre of bustling Siem Reap.
The service and the food are exemplary and they lay on traditional Cambodian dancing with all its old grace and control - an art thankfully recovering after the royal dancers, like everyone with any skill, talent or education, were massacred by the Khmer Rouge.
One day, somebody will explain why the most horrible things tend to happen in the nicest places.
Cambodia is utterly beautiful, its people are charming, its heritage unequalled.
Yet, in the lifetime of a single generation, it's been carpet-bombed by the Cold War, partly wiped out by a clique who made an ideology of insanity, and systematically raped by crooks with blood on their hands.
Tourism isn't the best hope. It may be the only hope for Cambodia to have the future it surely deserves.
Seasons, 01244 202 000, www.seasons.co.uk, offers an 11-night trip through Cambodia and Laos, taking in Bangkok, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh from £3,175pp.
Price includes flights, transfers and B&B accommodation at the Metropolitan Bangkok, Raffles Le Royal Phnom Penh, Hotel de la Paix Siem Reap, Settha Palace Vientiane and The Hotel Luang Prabang.