I sip my glass of champagne nervously, unsure of the protocol when meeting Cambodian royalty. But the princess quickly puts me at ease, her jewellery jangling musically as we shake hands. This gossipy lunch at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh is one of many surprising stops on my tour of the country. A graceful property among century-old trees dotted with toucans, this throwback to 1920s Indochina has hosted Jackie O, Charlie Chaplin and Barack Obama, among others.
Princess Norodom Chansita is Raffles’ ambassador — and she’s splendidly indiscreet about her extraordinary life. Having fled Cambodia with her family as an 11-year-old, she lived in exile in Beijing as a guest of Chairman Mao, then in Belgrade, Paris and, most incongruously, Muswell Hill. Her stories are intriguing and shocking by turn: she tells me about palace games of hide-and-seek, whatsapping with Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk the Queen Mother, who is 85 — and the loss of 40 per cent of her family during the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Fields understandably loom large in visitors’ perceptions of Cambodia, along with the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. But there is much more to it, and with the country having finally reopened to tourists there has never been a better time to see it. Slower-paced than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, this traumatised nation is full of enterprise and energy, continually rediscovering what it means to be Cambodian.