Cambodia’s heritage is one of heart-breaking extremes, reflecting both mankinds’ greatest aspirations and, for a brief period during the 1970’s, the utter depths of depravity which would shockingly lead to the murder of a quarter of the population and destroy almost all of the country’s historic buildings.

Fortunately, near the town of Siem Reap, and escaping this destruction, the architecturally kaleidoscopic intricacy of Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century during the golden age of the Khmer culture, and now regarded as one of the wonders of the World, is but one of a vast layout of over 70 remaining great Hindu structures that comprise the wonderful legacy of the Khmer Empire.


The earliest buildings, now known as the Roluos Group date back to the late 9th century, centred around the Bakong temple. The vast reservoir of East Baray was also created at this time.

It was during the golden age of the Khmer civilisation that the arrival of Buddhism becomes evident in the architecture, notably at Angkor Thom in the remarkable carved faces of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara at its inner Bayon temple. The great building continued until 1327 when the culture fell into a perplexing obscurity, though the cause is unknown the period is consistent with the ‘Black Death’ that took its toll on cultures all over the globe during this time. Evidence gathered from ancient tree rings also suggest a prolonged period of drought.


Paradoxically, it was the French, who whilst taking away Cambodian freedom, rediscovered the country’s ancient heritage by unearthing the lost empire in the jungle, when it colonised Cambodia from 1863. French colonial structures pervade Cambodia, but a great many were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and many of those that remain are in a dilapidated condition. Mercifully, perhaps because it stood as symbol of former Cambodian greatness, Angkor was spared this frenzy of destruction.

The Agent of that destruction was the takeover in 1975 of the country by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who, as part of their grand plan and return the entire population to peasant slavery, abolishing all notions of friendship or family ties, completely evacuated and dynamited entire cities, with particular attention paid to capitalist, colonial and religious buildings, including Phnom Penh’s Notre Dame Cathedral.

Nevertheless some culturally significant buildings did survive, such as the magnificent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh and some of the splendid temples at Oudong.

Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is an educational memorial to the orgy of death and torture upon which the regime gorged, and is a must for any traveller interested in understanding the complex realities of the true nature of humanity, politics and history.