When the inveterate 19th-century French traveler Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias first saw Phnom Penh, he declared it to be unlike any other place he had ever been: the red-tiled roofs; the white and gold-leafed temple domes; the Phnom pagoda, constructed by a wealthy woman named Penh as a tomb for her husband; the houses on stilts; and the boats bobbing up and down at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac, and Tonle Sap rivers. What a splendid port this inland city might be, he wrote, for the entire Mekong Delta, from Siam to Indochina.
But it was only a dream. Many centuries ago, he continued, Cambodia had been the seat of one of the greatest civilizations in human history. Now the region seemed dead, a desolate, impoverished place "ravaged by war and piracy." Yet there was hope, for "a country does not simply die; its inhabitants renew themselves, and the eternally fertile land will give up its treasures to those who know how to possess them."
So the traveler observed in 1885, when Cambodia was ruled by the French. He might as well have been describing the same place in 1985, when the Khmer Rouge, after committing genocide on its own people, were still terrorizing the areas near the borders of Thailand, and Phnom Penh had barely been repopulated after being reduced to a ghost town in 1975. At that time, all the city dwellers were forced to march to remote country areas, where they were made slave laborers, and around 2 million people, more than 20 percent of the entire population, were murdered or left to die of starvation. One of the few remaining functioning buildings in the city during the terrible years between 1975 and 1979 was a school that had been turned into a torture center, whose name, Tuol Sleng, still makes Cambodians shiver. Of the approximately 14,000 known inmates, fewer than 12 survived.
Since I have a morbid curiosity about such things, I tried to find traces of the city’s recent past as soon as I arrived by plane from Bangkok. The old French colonial–era Hotel Le Royal, where I put up, is on the corner of Monivong Boulevard, along which the Khmer Rouge soldiers, in raggedy black uniforms, mostly peasants and many of them teenagers, entered the city with their mouths agape. The buildings, the stores: they had never seen such urban splendor. A 10-minute walk from the hotel is the wall of the former French Embassy, where more than 800 petrified foreigners were holed up for a month before they were allowed to leave the country. I stared at the spot where French diplomats, forced to hand over the Cambodians who had sought refuge there, did so knowing that they would probably be killed. I tried to imagine the terror that had once hung over this place. But of course it is unimaginable. Monivong Boulevard is now crowded with young people on scooters and motorbikes and lined with hotels and fine restaurants—French, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian. The French Embassy is just an embassy again, and Hotel Le Royal, restored by Raffles International, is one of the most elegant places to stay in Southeast Asia. The city’s population now stands at close to 1.39 million.
On the surface, then, all looks normal in Phnom Penh. At the Russian Market you can buy almost anything, from 12th-century ceramics (if you’re very lucky) to a bowl of noodles with chiles and frog’s legs. A five-minute taxi ride away from the Russian Market is another, the Central Market. One of the architectural sights of the city, Central Market has a beautiful 1935 Art Deco dome in what’s known as "colonial yellow," vaguely modeled after one of the temples near Angkor Wat. Inside, a hive of traders peddles jewelry, clothes, flowers, tropical fruits, vegetables, electronic goods, and more. And the National Museum, next to the Royal Palace, has been restored to a better-kept treasure trove of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures than its shabbier Thai counterpart in Bangkok. Some of the finest freestanding Khmer sculptures from Angkor Wat can be seen there, as well as an eight-armed Vishnu from the seventh century and a ninth-century statue of Shiva, the Destroyer of Evil.