History is a big part of Cambodia's identity. From the vast ancient site of Angkor, the capital of an empire that once controlled most of Southeast Asia, twice the size of Manhattan, and hidden from the world behind thick jungle until missionaries discovered it in 1860; to the horrors and atrocities Pol Pot inflicted on his own people during the brutal four year Khmer Rouge regime, as recent as the 1970's; and, everything in between.
Cambodia's past can very much be felt today. I came across people, my parents’ age, with missing limbs – a reminder of the country's recent conflicts and the land mines used in them. Old, gnarly trees grow stubbornly sideways, breaking through pavements, making the place feel like it's been there forever.
But the thing that struck me the most were the people. Always warm and smiling, pleased you want to visit their country, proud of their identity – however scarred that may be – and willing to share all that they have, even if that’s not much.
Part of the culture Cambodians are so keen for the rest of the world to experience is the cuisine. Often seen as the dowdy sibling to those from its neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, I don't think many people know much, if anything, about Khmer / Cambodian cuisine; I certainly didn't. And what better way to get a firm grasp of the basics than by listening to someone who knows what they're talking about, and having a go yourself.
I took part in a truly fantastic Royal Khmer Cooking Class at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap. Even though it was my own fair hands that rustled up each of the five courses (under the guidance and supervision of Chef Ming Tin), they were all entirely excellent. I'm under no illusion – that was mostly thanks to the teacher and produce, rather than the student.
The class began at 10am with a couple of the hotel’s chefs driving us to, and guiding us around, the local wet market, to provide a glimpse into the daily lives of Cambodians and the comestible wares they trade. Don't worry, the hotel doesn't purchase its ingredients from here. Probably a good thing; there were a lot of flies. The most I’ve ever seen in any market.
Incidentally, the markets of Cambodia were some of the most aromatic I came across during my travels around Asia. Garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, chillies, great piles of just-made curry pastes, all mingling and cooking in the unrelenting sun. It makes you damn hungry.