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One City, Two Worlds

Phnom Penh's sights--some amusing, some wrenching--presage a brighter future eclipsing a dark past

March 26, 2000|ANDREW BENDER | Andrew Bender is a free-lance writer based in Santa Monica. He has lived in Asia and travels there often

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — This city never was one of those places I had dreamed of visiting. Images of killing fields and poverty always lingered, and the fabled temples of Angkor, the country's main draw, were 190 miles away.

But my American friend Victoria was living there, and I was going to Angkor anyway, so I took the plunge. I'm glad I did.

What I found in Cambodia's capital was a study in contrasts. Shoppers browse for lush silks near former houses of torture. Elegant hotels abut squalor. Lively nightspots operate near old war zones. Phnom Penh turned out to be the most interesting--and moving--destination on my Southeast Asia trip earlier this year.

The 15-minute drive from tiny Pochentong Airport didn't bode well. I paid the official taxi fare into town ($7), and my driver needled me as we bumped along past millions of motor scooters on prodigiously potholed streets: "Your hotel full. I take you different hotel?" ("No.") "You want lady?" ("No.") "You need driver?" ("Uhhh, no. Thank you.")

When Victoria called to say she would pick me up with her own driver, I was grateful. But she showed up carrying a bicycle helmet, and I gulped as I realized she rode around town on the back of a motor scooter. "Come on!" she said enthusiastically. "Let's find you a moto too!"

Her attitude typified the optimism that has gained tenuous hold here since the death of former dictator Pol Pot in 1998 and the subsequent demise of his Khmer Rouge regime. After six centuries of invasion and occupation by foreigners, not to mention the corruption and unspeakable genocide of the 1970s, Cambodia seems to have turned a corner. Citizens have begun to travel again, Victoria said, and political freedom seems to be gaining.

But make no mistake: Cambodia is still struggling. The average monthly income is $50, and most people are subsistence farmers.

The roads are evidence of decades of neglect. Phnom Penh's streets are pocked with rivulets that are yards long and infinitely deep. You often see vehicles veering into the path of oncoming traffic, particularly when turning left or crossing wooden bridges with slats missing. From above, traffic must look like DNA replicating.

I needn't have worried about motos, though. In the hands of capable drivers, or "moto dops," they can be fun. (Mine was called "Smiley," and by charging $1 per hour, he certainly was.) Scooters outnumber other vehicles 10 to 1. They usually carry individuals or couples, but don't be surprised to see an entire family aboard, the mother sitting sidesaddle with an open pot of soup in her lap.

We started out at the National Museum, a tall-roofed, deep red terra-cotta structure filled with treasures from the Khmer temples of Angkor to the northwest. Many of these splendid sculpted Buddhas, Sivas and apsaras (female celestial dancers) are originals from the 9th through 14th centuries, stored here to prevent looting; the ones at Angkor are replicas.

Amid these masterpieces, Victoria laid down Cambodian history: Around the 9th century, Angkor-based rulers of the Khmers (an ethnic group dating to about the 3rd century) collected taxes from locals and from conquered peoples in what are now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. These funds went to build elaborate temple-cities throughout the region, based first on Hinduism and later Buddhism, the most shining examples of which were in the capital. After the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, the capital moved to more defensible Phnom Penh and the empire never regained its former glory. Weak kings went on to rule under Thai-, Vietnamese- or French-controlled regimes before the region fell under Japanese control during World War II.

The greatest devastation, however, was home-grown, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. That guerrilla regime ruled from 1975 to 1979, when Cambodia slipped into a miasma of genocide, militarism, illiteracy and economic stagnation. Estimates on the deaths vary, but one research center says the Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million of 7.9 million people in Cambodia at the time.

In tribute to those who suffered, our next stop was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the local killing fields. To get there, we rode about nine miles out of town through 90-degree heat on mostly dirt roads.

The approach to Choeung Ek is bucolic. Oxen graze and children skip over flat plains. Inside, though, thick grass fills dozens of deep pits, former mass graves from which 8,985 bodies were disinterred in 1980. About 8,000 human skulls lie in a tall stupa in the center, with femurs and other bones stacked on shelf after shelf.

These victims were the wealthy, intellectuals or any man, woman or child suspected of opposing Pol Pot's vision for a peasant-dominated agrarian society. Victoria explained that as economic conditions declined in the late '70s, bullets were in short supply and "they just brought people out here and beat them." Plaques on trees bear out the deaths; one shows where children were beaten.

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