Persevering in Phnom Penh
The cyclo driver smiled hard as he slipped a note into my hand. Painfully scratched onto a dirty scrap of paper, its misspelled English words formed a recycled request for $50. This would be used to buy his own cyclo, he explained, instead of renting one. He could have his own business. But I was not sure what to do. It was my first day in Cambodia and the ride through the city had thrown me off.
It is hard to find your balance in Phnom Penh. Once known as the colonial "Pearl of Indochina," Cambodias capital was famed for its graceful architecture, fine cuisine, and easygoing pace of life.
Only 25 years ago, the city was forcefully evacuated by the Khmer Rouge, who for four merciless years, systematically destroyed Cambodias culture, commerce, and civil society - some would say spirit - and killed at least a million people
in the process.
The Phnom Penhois were targeted in particular, as educated elites, and the city was devastated. It is only slowly being rebuilt. The government has welcomed foreign investment, but recurring political instability and corruption have discouraged it.
Nevertheless, many of the citys crumbling colonial villas, long commandeered by intrepid vegetation, are being restored by real estate speculators. And the growing expatriate community has helped reinvigorate the once-lively outdoor café scene, which now thrives again along the Tonlé Sap riverbank on the tree-lined Sisowath Quay.
Along the Quay, I spotted Italian, Turkish, American, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, a Mexican fast food joint, and pizza parlors offering "happy" marijuana toppings.
Amid these, the Foreign Correspondents Club rises three floors to a continental restaurant and bar. Lounging in a deep, dark wood chair on the FCCs wrap-around verandah, the damp heat whirring above my head, I felt the thrill of the dangerous years imbedded in its ochre walls.
Cambodia has now entered a new era of peace and stability, but the population lacks health services, education, and productive skills and the country lacks basic infrastructure. Even in the capital, electricity is unreliable, telephones are expensive, most roads are unpaved, and public transportation is virtually non-existent.
On that first day, my cyclo driver had not been able to read a map and we had no common language, so I let him take me on his own tour of the city. After circling Wat Phnom, the citys only hill, topped with a good-luck shrine and teeming with street life, we headed to Psar Thmei, the mustard-yellow, art deco mosque-like central market where you can buy fresh produce, glittering jewelry (much of it fake), ersatz designer items, and textiles, including the ubiquitous Khmer checked krama.
Leaving the blur and bustle of the market, we followed a group of saffron-robed monks wafting down noisy Norodom Boulevard. These are common apparitions in Phnom Penh, but not as common as landmine victims. Cambodia has one of the highest proportions of amputees in the world.
Although the Khmer Rouge have been the worst offenders, landmines were indiscriminately planted by all factions participating in the recent civil wars, including the Sihanoukists.
We stopped in front of the iconic Royal Palace, which is closed to the public (King Sihanouk and Queen Monique still live there, when they are in the country), then tried the Silver Pagoda, which was closed that day.
I had more luck at the nearby National Museum, a traditional, winged terracotta building full of Khmer Hindu and Buddhist sculpture and other relics from the long-gone once powerful Angkor empire.From the apex of Cambodian history, we descended swiftly to the nadir.
After the museum, I didnt realize until we arrived that we had headed straight for Toul Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge S21 interrogation center.
On a dirt road in a prosperous neighborhood, Toul Sleng looks from a distance like the school it originally was. Flowers bloom in the courtyard and I saw a teenager kicking soccer ball around.
As we got closer, the barbed wire fencing struck me as odd, but I still didnt know where we were. It all looked so ordinary. Inside was a different matter.
I had not intended to go to Toul Sleng, but as we were there, and I appeared to be the only visitor so far that day, I went in.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, banishing the Khmer Rouge to northwestern provinces (where they managed to maintain powerbases until the mid-1990s), troops found six prisoners left behind in Toul Sleng, shackled to wire bed frames, two still alive. Photographs were taken which now adorn the walls of each torture chamber.
More than 20,000 men, women, and children perished at Toul Sleng. In orderly, Nazi-like fashion, the Khmer Rouge recorded "confessions" and photographed their victims, sometimes before and after.
Some of these "portraits" line one large room. Another displays a series of naïve paintings depicting various, primitive methods of torture and the instruments used by the Khmer Rouge.
As I left the building, the atmosphere constricted with sadness; it was eerily palpable, only heightened by the mundanity of the setting. I mimed the cyclo driver to take me away fast.
Each year, increasing numbers of tourists are visiting Cambodia. One of Phnom Penhs biggest draws is sex tourism, including child prostitution, which has proliferated and contributed to one of the worst AIDS epidemics in Asia.
This September, the government vowed to curb the industry with "No sex with children, no sex industry" signs posted in hotels, nightclubs, and guesthouses and plans to expel foreign sex-crime suspects.
Like its other ministries, however, the Cambodian ministry of tourism lacks the funds and expertise needed to take charge of its own industry. Most visitors skip Phnom Penh altogether, lured by the great twelfth-century temple of Angkor Wat and surrounding temple ruins, located near the town of Siem Reap. Many come through Thailand.
Bangkok Air now has direct flights to Siem Reap and Thai travel agents perversely promote one-day excursions to Angkor as part of an "Amazing Thailand" campaign. Thailand and Cambodia have battled for centuries over control of Angkor; tourism may provide new impetus.
But the Thais are not the only ones poised to profit from Cambodias undeveloped potential. Ariston, a Malaysian resort company which already owns one casino in Phnom Penh, is planning to build another, bigger one: the $100 million Nexus Naga Hotel, which will also include a hotel and conference complex.
It is hoped that the new venture will bring more foreign revenue into the city, although how much of it will actually get to the Cambodian people is difficult to measure.
I never did see the rickshaw driver again. If I had, I would have given him the $50. It might have helped him start his own business; rental fees eat away at profits. And, at least the money would have gone to a Cambodian.
To get to Angkor Wat from Phnom Penh, you can go by express boat up the Tonle Sap, which takes about five hours and costs $25; or take a bus or taxi. Air Cambodge offers many daily flights at different times of day. These cost about $100 roundtrip. Or you can fly to Bangkok then take Bangkok Air to Siem Reap for about $150 roundtrip, and the cost of a new visa upon arrival.
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