Cambodia has got a nasty past. The twisted communist regime, headed by Pol Pot, and administered by his Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975 and wanted to create a nation of peasants where wealth, status and education were irrelevant. People were forced to work in fields or on government-approved building projects, while schools and universities were closed and anyone deemed a threat, from people who spoke a foreign language to those wearing glasses were interrogated and then executed. The authorities were said to have bludgeoned the country "back to the stone age" and a protracted guerrilla war ended only in 1998. But now the nation is reaping the peace dividend and with its chequered history of violence, its crumbling French colonial buildings, saffron-robed monks, ancient temples and newly emergent gay scene, it is at once characterful, edgy and colourful.
"About being like Thailand, if that means go-go bars with sex shows, boys with numbers on their underwear waiting to be picked etc, I hope it does not go that way," said Martin Dishman, managing director of Siem Reap-based One Hotel and also the man behind local gay bar Linga.
"Siem Reap is still a small town and gays can be closeted here more so than in Phnom Penh, where I think things have changed quite a bit in terms of the numbers of gay people and their level of connection to a gay community," he told Fridae.
Like any exotic land slightly on the periphery, Cambodia attracts its fair share of visitors looking if not for enlightenment, then at least adventure. So even though I was an old Asia hand, I arrived in Phnom Penh with a bag of hopes but also weighed down by a little bit of trepidation. Though any lingering misgivings I had about visiting here were disabused as I sat in a bar on the capital's bustling riverfront downing a breakfast Beer Lao as a former Bangkok associate regaled me with how he had fled Thailand on trumped up drugs charges and ended up working for a non-governmental organisation here.
My erstwhile colleague sang the praises of a beautiful country - battered and bruised by conflict - that has found its smile again, likening it to Thailand of 20 years ago. Asked if he had learnt any Khmer, he said he could say "no", which is useful because of the amount of times tuk tuk or motorbike taxi drivers try to kidnap you for the sake of US$1 - nearly one-third of the country's 14 million people survive on only 50 cents a day or less.
In the evening I reconvened with my friend in the bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which was once a crabby gin den for sozzled journalists but has been fully refurbished and this French-built villa is now all whirring ceiling fans, comfy leather chairs and potted palms. Not that the clientele have had much of a makeover. On the veranda overlooking the Tonle Sap river red-faced Westerners entertained their lithe paramours.
In fact the scene brought to mind the book Off The Rails in Phnom Penh by Israeli author Amit Gilboa - whom was far from off the rails when I met him recently at a promotional evening for Israel at Singapore's Zouk nightclub - in which he chronicled the exploits of a motley group of expatriates who spend their days visiting brothels, eating marijuana-topped pizzas, shooting up heroin and letting off rockets at firing ranges. Later in the evening, as we careened through the dimly lit streets in a tuk tuk, beggars lurking in so many shadows, I did get a sense of a dark side.
The next day of my trip standing in the sweltering dust bowl dubbed the Killing Fields where the psychotic regime killed about 20,000 people during its bloody grip between 1975 and 1979 - 1.5 million were estimated to have been murdered overall - was a sobering reminder of how far this friendly, colourful country has come in 30 years and how far it has got to go.
Everyone over a certain age seems to have a war story to tell. Our taxi driver Chan Thou, for instance, talked of members of his family being taken away by the regime and him never having seen them again. His commentary as he drove us around the city was normally lighthearted and he talked excitedly of new apartment buildings and hotels going up all over the place but at the Killing Fields a melancholy quiet descended.
One of the main places where the Khmer Rouge tortured those who "threatened" the communist status quo was S-21, which in a horrible irony was a former school and is now a museum and one of the most grisly relics of the regime's abuses. The trip here felt like a punch to the stomach but it also felt as though it was owed to those that suffered. Walking around in an all-encompassing silence looking at the mugshots of those tortured - including women, children and the elderly - was shocking as they conveyed the fear of the hollowed-eyed victims, which were all diligently photographed by the Khmer Rouge. And the classrooms divided up into claustrophobic torture chambers told their own story.
Away from the horror, Sisowath Quay, a four-kilometre stretch along the Tonle Sap, is where locals and tourists come from sunset and beyond to unwind. It is a hive of activity from about 4pm onwards, with people either sitting and eating al fresco in the gardens opposite or strolling along the front. It is a great place to relax with a beer from one of the local vendors and watch as the city languidly promenades.
Also in the area is a smattering of gay nightlife, which emerged with the end of conflict around the turn of the millennium, evidence people are ready to have fun again. Blue Chilli Pub on Phnom Penh's Street 178, which runs right past the National Museum, is an enjoyable place after dark. They will also order in Western and Khmer food from the decent Ebony Aspara restaurant down the road on request, in fact I enjoyed the best cheeseburger in town here, along with one of the best views as the boys filed past later in the evening.
Away from the capital, my partner and I took a six-hour boat ride from Phnom Penh to the town of Siem Reap, which is next to Angkor and the site of the famous temples - you can go by bus but expect a slow and noisy 5-hour ride from the incessant honking of any and every driver on the road. The boat trip was one of the most exhilarating parts of the trip, watching the Tonle Sap unfolding like a vast glinting sea as it teemed with birdlife and fishing boats.
We visited the centrepiece of the 400-square kilometre temple complex - a UNESCO World Heritage site, Angkor Wat. Arriving before sunrise and waiting as the starry sky slowly lightened to reveal the splendour of the 12th century temple, framed by the famous five towers was almost a spiritual experience, if you could ignore the rest of the camera-toting mob. It contains a seemingly limitless amount of galleries, which have been painstakingly restored - through generously funded missions - to their true richness and majesty, yet without losing the aura of timelessness.
In fact each of the sites have their own unique appeal, the huge Hindu-Buddhist temple complex as a whole charting the rise and fall of an empire and steeped in the myth and mystery of a period that stretches right back to the ninth century. However as hotelier Martin Dishman said the area does have "sustainability issues", visitor numbers having hit almost 1 million per year and projected to rise to 3 million by 2010.
"I think the problems are manageable and we are working to find solutions for a general management plan for not only the sites but for Siem Reap itself," said UNESCO programme specialist Philippe Delanghe at a recent meeting of 225 scientists, experts and conservationists involved in the restoration and preservation of the ancient Angkor sites.
So if you are travelling to Cambodia expect an adventure as its very lack of infrastructure betrays the fact the country has been war torn for the last few decades. A trip here is a bumpy ride both metaphorically and literally, bearing in mind the potholed roads. The nation still feels very much off the beaten track but in this increasingly globalised world that is what gives it a certain uniqueness and charm.
Robin Newbold is a London-based writer who was formerly based in Bangkok and Singapore and his debut gay novel Vacuum-Packed is available now at Amazon.com.
For more on economically, environmentally and socially sustainable tourism in Cambodia visit the World Bank's www.mpdf.org and for hotel and bar listings, see page 2 of this article.
Foreign Correspondents Club: 363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh (855 23 210 142), www.fcccambodia.com
The Foreign Correspondents Club is good value for money at US$60 per night, with a sizable designer room, which includes a balcony overlooking Sisowath Quay and a hangover-busting fried breakfast each morning in the establishment's famous lounge. There are only seven rooms here so early booking is essential but the FCC is extending this branch and building another hotel further up the street. There is a stunning sister hotel in Siem Reap - the FCC Angkor.
Bougainvillier Hotel: 277 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh (855 23 220 528) www.bougainvillierhotel.com
Billed as "gay friendly", the well established Bougainvillier Hotel is ideally located on the riverfront at Sisowath Quay and is within walking distance of the Royal Palace and National Museum. Rates from US$81 for a double room.
Blue Chilli Pub: Street 178, Phnom Penh (855 12 566 353) www.bluechillipub.net
Blue Chilli Pub is nearby the city's National Museum and is a fun place after dark. It is an atmospherically lit, intimate bar which while home to locals and expatriates soon makes newcomers feel welcome.
Salt Lounge: Street 136, Phnom Penh (855 12 289 905) www.thesaltlounge.com
Just a short walk from the bright lights and the more straight-orientated action of Sisowath Quay is the funky Salt Lounge. It is brighter and brasher than Blue Chilli and feels more like a club than a bar with its loud dance music but attracts a good mix of young locals, expats and tourists looking to make new friends.
Green Flame: Street 154, Phnom Penh (855 618 468)
Green Flame is the city's newest gay bar and feels like it has not quite established itself, since it was not busy when Fridae visited but it's a homey kind of place with a friendly Vietnamese owner and pleasant outdoor seating for a more chilled vibe.
Heart of Darkness: Street 51, Phnom Penh
The infamous Heart of Darkness just around the corner from Green Flame on Street 51 may have been the place to be about 10 years ago but a Phnom Penh expat associate assures us it is "so over" and has become a sleazy, commercial scene for gay and straight alike. Shootouts have occurred here between local gangsters in the past, so probably not the best place for a quiet drink either.
Golden Banana: Siem Reap (855 12 654 638) www.golden-banana.com
There is the wonderfully named and gay-owned Golden Banana. The boutique hotel offers comfortable Asian-style apartments for about US$50 per night. There is also more basic bed and breakfast accommodation next door and all guests get to use the relaxing swimming pool and bar area. While a surprising number of straight couples stay here, most of the staff seem away with the fairies and are certainly very friendly.
FCC Angkor: Pokambor Avenue, Siem Reap (855 23 992 284) www.fcccambodia.com
Phnom Penh's Foreign Correspondents Club was behind the development of the stunning FCC Angkor, which is situated in a majestically restored former French consulate building. Prices start at US$90 per night in low season.
The One Hotel Angkor: The Passage, Old Market, Siem Reap (855 12 755 311) www.theonehotelangkor.com
The gay friendly, upmarket One Hotel has also bucked the trend of the town's role call of faceless properties and has been praised by the likes of Britain's style bible Wallpaper for its "contemporary tropical design", which features among other things a rooftop hot tub. From US$250 per night. Managing director Martin Dishman is also behind the nearby Linga bar (see Bars/clubs). If there's no room available after all there's only ONE room in the house, visitors can checkout its sister property next door, the three-room Hotel Be (rates from US$95) (www.hotelbeangkor.com) which is one of two Cambodian hotels on the Conde Nast Traveller's 2008 Hot List.
Viroth's Hotel: No 246, Wat Bo Street, Siem Reap (855 63 761 720) www.viroth-hotel.com
This contemporary, nature inspired 7-room boutique hotel is the other Cambodian hotel on the Conde Nast Traveller's 2008 Hot List. Amenities include a saltwater pool (although it's within sight of the check-in desk), rooftop jacuzzi and spa. Rates from US$60. Its owners also run the Viroth's restaurant down the street which is thought to be one of the best restaurants in the city.
With Blue Chilli Siem Reap's (a branch of the Phnom Penh favourite) closure last month, Linga has become the sole gay bar in the city. This cool, comfortable lounge-type bar is situated down on the same alley (they often don't give street's names in Cambodia) as One Hotel and Hotel Be - a short walk from the Old Market.
Linga: Old Market, Siem Reap (855 12 246 912) www.lingabar.com