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Cambodia’s New Look

Bliss Spa. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Photo: Christopher Wise

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, in 1994, I looked out the window of my descending plane and saw a landscape of rice paddies dotted with palm trees. It might have been, in a parallel universe, or perhaps just in a neighboring country like Thailand, a pastoral image, but for me it was synonymous with land mines, Agent Orange, genocide, death. My feelings were shaped in part by popular culture—movies such as The Killing Fields and Apocalypse Now and books like Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over and Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy. To say they told of a darkly mysterious place where terrible things had happened was only part of it; in 1994 the Khmer Rouge was still in control of large chunks of the country, even after the United Nations had sponsored a historic democratic election the previous year. I had come to Phnom Penh to write for a fledgling English-language newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, a decision whose logic had completely escaped me by the time the wheels hit tarmac. I swore that I would proceed through Phnom Penh with the utmost caution.

But by my second night I was at a party eating a piece of cake that I had just been told had an entire pound of pot baked into it, when someone rushed in yelling, “Coup! Coup! There’s a tank in the middle of downtown!” Because the party was filled with that strange breed of catastrophe addicts who have found their calling as journalists, everyone piled into the backs of pickup trucks and rushed off to look for the tank. I went, too, fretfully, like some eighth grader herded into a group activity he knows is wrong but is too spineless to resist.

We never found the tank.

To arrive in Phnom Penh today is to encounter a city teeming with energy and enterprise. There are skyscrapers, high-end hotels and restaurants, hip coffee shops, galleries, boutiques. The streets are thronging and chaotic but the overall mood is civilized. When I first came to this town, I was fascinated by the way women would ride sidesaddle on the back of motos, one foot on the footrest and the other with the ankle cocked gently upward so their flip-flops didn’t fall off. The modern bustle has removed only some of this charm.

For most of the past decade, until 2009, the country experienced an average of nearly 10 percent annual growth. The despotic prime minister, Hun Sen, has provided stability, which, as a local businessman whom I know remarked, “is the magic recipe for cheap labor for garment factories and two million pairs of feet each year wandering around Angkor.” He also said, “Ten percent growth in a country that didn’t have an economy a decade or more ago isn’t anything stunning.”

But I was stunned, mostly in a good way—Phnom Penh, once a lawless haven for adventurers, layabouts, and hedonists of all stripes for whom freedom was just another word for no real law enforcement, is now praised in similar terms but for different reasons by a new class of small-business owners who see the place as an opportunity.

“There are so many opportunities because they are not weighed down by traditional hierarchy,” said Yoshie Treiber, who runs La Clef de Sol, a fancy boutique specializing in housewares, bags, and dresses. It sits at the end of a quiet alley off hectic Sihanouk Boulevard. Originally from Japan, she spent five years in Cannes before moving to Phnom Penh. “Everything is new here. If you have guts, you can do anything in Phnom Penh.”

And yet, when I saw a friend who has lived here for 18 years, he said, “Phnom Penh isn’t as exciting as it used to be, but it’s nice that you can get good coffee and Wi-Fi is everywhere.” By this he meant that it no longer felt as if you had arrived at the drop-edge of the world.

Street Life

I was visiting toward the end of rainy season, which I knew about, and the start of the Pchum Ben holiday, which was news to me. Nuon So Thero, the Cambodia Daily’s general manager, picked me up at the airport. Thero was the first person I ever met in Cambodia, having rescued me as I sat bewildered and a bit frightened outside the locked doors of the newspaper, suitcase by my side, transfixed by the steep pitch of the Royal Palace roof across the street, the bright orange-yellow of its tiles glinting in the sun. Now, 17 years later, I saw his smiling, intelligent face, changed but unchanged, beaming from the waiting crowd. “It still has that fantastic smell!” I said as we loaded the car. Phnom Penh’s air has a sweet, smoky scent, as though someone were slowly roasting cardamom over a fire.

“I live here,” he said, “I never noticed it.” We drove to my hotel, and Thero pointed out the new parliament building and the new office of the prime minister, both radiating prosperity and redolent of something built by Mussolini. We arrived at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, my last recollection of which was as a ruin. “I know exactly where I am!” I exclaimed. “We’re right near the Youth Club.” The International Youth Club was a whitewashed bastion of francophone leisure, fragrant with a colonial prerogative that was only partially antique.

“Youth Club gone,” Thero said. “The American Embassy is there now.”

“They built the American Embassy on top of the Youth Club?” I said. “Oh, the French must have hated that.”

“I think they did,” Thero said. We headed off to dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Monivong Boulevard. Once there had been an outdoor noodle stand with plastic chairs and a fluorescent light hooked up to a generator. Now, even after midnight, the place was filled with well-appointed revelers. The menu was epic, a scroll of fine print. I had crab soup. Salt-and-pepper shrimp. The restaurant took credit cards.

I spent the next day wandering the streets on foot and by cyclo—a bicycle version of a gondola, but with no singing—a now mostly antiquated form of transportation in a town filled with motos, cars, and SUV’s.

On my first trip into Phnom Penh, cars had been scarce; they pushed through the bikes and motos like a bull gingerly parting a flock of sheep. Busy intersections were manned by traffic police in sharp military-style uniforms and white gloves. They stood on battered metal pedestals and performed a rather ornate and formal set of gestures that combined, either by osmosis or intent, elements of Khmer dance’s fluidity with the more rigid hand motion one associates with the word stop! The effect was a bit like vogueing.

But these were vestiges of an old order. The city now has stoplights that people obey; metal dividers down the center of the avenues ensure traffic is mostly two-way. Once it had been four, or six, or eight-way and composed largely of two-wheeled vehicles, slender as minnows. Turning left had required entering a dream state of faith in which you drifted slowly across the avenue into the oncoming traffic, hoping the force was with you, until you got to your turn.

News from Cambodia

I met my old friend Ek Madra, who used to be a moto driver but then got a job as a translator and then as a reporter for the Cambodia Daily, and later became an accomplished bureau chief for Reuters. He picked me up at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in his car. “Madra, I cannot believe what is going on in this city!” I shouted after we hugged. He whisked me off to the Sorya Restaurant, near the madness of the Central Market. Located in a space that was once a movie theater, its lighting was bright; the napkins were red linen; at least one person catered to our needs at all times, which I took to mean that Madra was now a big shot.

“This is a new Cambodia on old land,” he said. “I believe in human lucky.” The phrase contained a boosterism that did not sound like a journalist. It turned out Madra had recently started a business himself. His firm is called Ek Tha & Madra Associates and imports dried fish from Vietnam.

“But Madra, Ek Tha is a pseudonym you sometimes use. Your company is you and you.”

“Yes,” he said. “That way no one can steal from my family!” Madra, who had always been very dramatic, said, “People are going from war to wealth.”

Completely by chance I was in Cambodia at the same time as Chris Decherd, my old friend from the Cambodia Daily who now runs the Cambodia division of the Voice of America, in Washington, D.C. The VOA had recently stirred up a hornet’s nest with a report on the current Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) prosecution of Khmer Rouge leadership. Pol Pot died in 1998, but Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary—icons of a genocide—are elderly and alive. The tribunal was supposed to be a cathartic national event, a moment of reckoning, but the VOA suggested it was being undermined by Prime Minister Hun Sen. This provoked a blistering critique of the VOA by Hun Sen, a strongman whose critics have, on occasion, met untimely deaths. I had thought Chris was here to smooth ruffled feathers. But the VOA’s television news clips are in high demand in Cambodia. He was here to negotiate distribution deals. We had dinner at a restaurant called Malis, no pun intended. The chef, Luu Meng, served a feast of green mango and smoked fish, spicy scallops with mint leaves, beef carpaccio, and lemongrass chicken. Chris said he was waking early the next morning for a four-hour drive to Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, in the north and asked if I wanted to join him. “You can drive to Battambang?” I said, amazed.

“Sure,” he said. “You can drive anywhere now.”

Up at La Villa

I am staying at La Villa, one of several examples of French-colonial architecture in Battambang. It overlooks the river. I collapse in the afternoon and sleep through dinner, waking in darkness to the sound of pouring rain. Within that sound is something difficult to identify, a kind of music. I go to the window and realize it is a monk, chanting into the darkness of Pchum Ben. The river at night looks like a tiny Seine, dotted with elegant lamplights and arching bridges. A moto comes into view, moving slowly through the downpour on the far side of the river.

My room is an attic-like space with exposed beams, ceiling fans, and dark wood floors. There is a bare wooden desk with a gorgeous old standing lamp beside it, and a writing mat. The room, the rain, the chanting, it all suggests the intrigue of a Graham Greene novel, the ruined mansion of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Bogart in Casablanca—I watch the moto move through the rain on its mysterious errand.

A little while later the rain tapers off and I go for a long swim in the pool. The air is filled with the singsong voice of the chanting monk as the trees and plants around the pool reveal themselves in silhouette against the dawn. I swim back and forth in the pool of La Villa, wondering if Cambodia has exorcised the demons of the Khmer Rouge.

History Lesson

In Battambang I go to school. First to an empty high school, where a conference on education is under way, and later to a place where everyone has more or less run away to join the circus. In the morning I hear the nation’s most renowned psychiatrist talk to secondary-school teachers. The title of the workshop is “How History Teachers Who Were Victims of the Khmer Rouge Teach the Khmer Rouge History to Students Who Are the Children of the Khmer Rouge Perpetrators.”

One teacher stands to say she had told her students of her suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and they had laughed. “I could forgive the Khmer Rouge but not those students who laughed,” she says.

Dr. Ka Sunbaunat, dressed in white linen, is an unlikely apostle of the talking cure. “You have to teach the Khmer Rouge history,” he says to his audience of teachers. “You have to get comfortable with it. Otherwise there is no catharsis.”

That afternoon I visit Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an arts school that functions partly as a shelter for street kids; it is run by ethnic Khmers who were refugees at the Site 2 camp on the Thai border in the late eighties and received drawing lessons from a French teacher. On its small campus at the edge of town there is an outpouring of activity: drawing, painting, video animation, music. PPS is responsible for turning Battambang into something of a hotbed for artistic talent in Cambodia, producing artists such as Srey Bandol, whose intricate pencil drawings of Angkor’s temples subtly reconfigure the landscape, making it feel like it’s an old master painting from Europe.

Its centerpiece, both architecturally and as a business, is its circus, which puts on regular performances in Battambang and tours in Asia and Europe. I spend almost an hour watching kids of different ages fly through the air, twisting and spinning (and sometimes crashing) to the cheers of their peers. Standing amid such energy and laughter, with rhythmic music coming from the building nearby, where kids are jamming on ancient Khmer instruments, I remember a remark by a UN official in 1997: “I don’t think there is a good outlook for this generation. The hope is for the Cambodians not yet born.” Fifteen years later I am watching that future generation. They fly spinning through the air and, most of the time, land on their feet.

Water World

I had intended to take a boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, but the torrential rains have flooded the docks. I take a taxi instead. It’s a pleasant drive that arcs around the northern tip of the Tonle Sap. We skirt those areas once held by the Khmer Rouge. Anlong Veng, Pailin. The violence connoted by those names is mocked by the landscape outside the window. I love rice paddies. I love their green. I love the strange, weaving effect of so many tiny strands making a dense, textured whole, a kind of luscious rug. I love the mystery of their always being submerged.

All of Siem Reap, it turns out, is submerged in water at the moment. But the temples are open, and I rush to Angkor Wat and submit to its scale, which is both monumental and oddly soothing. One approaches on what must surely be both the world’s largest and most primitive runway—a runway to the gods—and enters its terraces of astonishingly detailed bas-reliefs of sex and death, monkeys and men, which spill across endless walls. Leaving Angkor I encounter actual monkeys who have wandered in from the jungle, and brought snacks in the form of coconut, which they leisurely eat while ogling tourists.

I first glimpsed Angkor through an airplane window during my visit in 1994. Siem Reap was then composed of just a few guesthouses and you could, if you went at the right time, wander nearly alone through the temples. It wasn’t entirely safe; not long after my visit an adventurous tourist was killed by suspected Khmer Rouge on the periphery of the temple complex. On the ground the temples feel monumental, but from above I saw them as a tiny arc of civilization in an ocean of jungle. A mysterious force had willed Khmer civilization to such heights that it could build these temples and then, with equal mystery, had laid them low and in ruins. There they sat silently for hundreds of years while the jungle encroached like the sea.

Ta Prohm, a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from Angkor Wat, is where this feeling of discovering a modern-day Atlantis is most explicit. It’s a landscape from myth. Enormous trees have grown over the buildings and carvings like a forest that descended from the sky. Their giant roots drip down over the structures like candle wax or the tentacles of a huge squid. Beautiful figures carved in stone live within a tangle of vines and roots, which seem to imprison them. The natural and the man-made conspire to make a beautiful kind of hybrid art, and yet there is also the suggestion of strangling, choking, entwining. It feels like a metaphor for the unbelievable complications of telling stories about Cambodia, past and present, a superstitious place where epic horror has unfolded against a landscape of dreamy gentleness.

Going Green

The changes in Siem Reap are as striking as those in Phnom Penh. It has justifiably become an international tourist destination, an item on the bucket list of every collector of the ancient and monumental. Legions of brand-new hotels line the main road, almost Soviet in scale. Because of the rains, I had decided to stay at Sojourn Boutique Villas, a gorgeous oasis just outside of town that strikes a balance between the escapism of a full-service resort and a kind of cultural tourism that encompasses the temples and also Treak, a nearby rural village from which Sojourn hires most of its wonderful local staff.

That afternoon, Sokheurm, a man who speaks with such calm, soothing attentiveness that I couldn’t help but feel I was in the care of a reassuring and talented therapist, arranged an in-room massage, a cooking lesson, and a visit to Banteay Srei, where I spent a morning obsessing over the fanatical detail of more temple carvings. But the activity that most intrigued me was helping plant rice in the nearby village. Which is how I came to be standing shin-deep in a rice paddy, bent forward and pushing with my thumb a clutch of rice stalks into the mud. We had walked for a long time along ridges separating the paddies, which stretched out across a perfectly flat landscape to mountains in the distance, interrupted only by shacks on stilts and the occasional palm tree. The people whose plot I helped plant made me lunch, which included a bowl of vegetables and rice with prahoc, a Cambodian delicacy involving fermented fish.

“This is heaven,” I said to Anthony Jaensch, Sojourn’s owner, and then without thinking added, “I could live here.” He waited a few moments before diplomatically pointing out that I might start to miss certain amenities, like electricity.

To the Sea

I arrive at Knai Bang Chatt at night. The wind is very strong. The air is warm. I can hear the waves rushing ashore in a continuous tumbling hiss. I want to go right to the sea for a swim but the sea is very rocky, I am told. And it is dark. “Perhaps you should swim in the pool.” And so as I had done in Battambang, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, I inaugurate my time in Kep, this seaside resort area built by the French in 1908, with another long session in the pool. I feel a bit like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Spalding Gray’s famous monologue was “Swimming to Cambodia”; mine seems to be swimming through it.

Gray was something of a pioneer in using a national horror as the setting for self-exploration and neurotic comedy. For a number of years in the mid-nineties young travelers flocked to Cambodia in the spirit of mountain climbers, except instead of proving themselves on the face of the Eiger, they flitted through the lawless world of Cambodia waiting to see if gravity would assert itself. For this group, traveling in the country was a form of playing with fire. Some of them got burned. Perhaps the most sensational example unfolded here on Vine Mountain in 1994. Three young travelers were kidnapped off a train. In part because they were French, English, and Australian and, in part, because it was a protracted baroque drama, it was a media sensation. They never came down from the mountain.

I have breakfast at a long wood table, sampling Khmer and Western food, and then set off by tuk-tuk to the Vine Retreat. The name alone amazes me, just as I am amazed to learn that a new private island resort, Song Saa, has been developed just down the coast. The mountain had once been controlled by the Khmer Rouge and festered with land mines. But the Khmer Rouge has gone. The land mines have been cleared. And the lodge, nestled among mango and jackfruit trees, with a spectacular view, is surrounded by a Kampot pepper farm. I find a few young people kicking back around the pool. Later, over lunch, in what feels like the fire tower of a national park, a man from the north of England who specializes in training plastic surgeons on the latest Botox techniques extols the virtues of Cambodia. “As soon as I am here, the pedal is off. I’m home.”

“Home? But this is a very exotic place,” I say.

“Yes, but as soon as I am here, all the cares slip away.”

And this is true of the lodge and the coast and much of the country—it lulls you. On the way down the mountain I pause at the train tracks. After the international scandal of the hostages—about which new reports are emerging to this day—the train was shut down. I see a new line is being put in.

Time Travel

My flight leaves late on Friday night and so I have one last evening in Phnom Penh. I have my last supper at the Chinese House, an old villa overlooking the river. Getting there is joyous mayhem. My tuk-tuk lurches through traffic along the quay, which is throbbing with colored lights, food vendors, and many groups of people partaking in what seems to be a cross between an exercise class and an outdoor dance party. I arrive to find a dimly lit building with gigantic doors that looks closed. Then two men pull the doors open to reveal a bar lit in hues of silvery blue; upstairs is a giant, modish room festooned with Chinese lanterns, where the restaurant, Tepui, serves excellent South American food.

I rush back to the hotel, then the airport, passing by the Olympic Stadium on my way. Mobs of people used to play basketball, volleyball, and soccer on its perimeter, me among them, but now it is being renovated and there is a fence around it. I am looking for the giant Seiko clock that used to adorn the side of the building. The clock had been permanently stopped at around four in the afternoon. But it seems it has been removed as part of the renovation, which is fitting. In the country of Year Zero, time is moving again.

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