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Phnom Penh Now

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

As at many of these atrocity sites, tourists go in giggling, or chatting about last night’s barhopping adventures. They take souvenir photos of each other. And so on. But by the end of their time there, silence prevails. Even the unimaginable can be difficult to bear. I was certainly not in the mood for visiting a shooting range or a massage parlor. So I went to the Russian Market and bought myself a plain, beautiful bowl with an earthy light-green glaze. It was probably not more than a few hundred years old, if that—not a rare find in this ancient land. But it expressed a human sensibility far removed from bloodlust or fanaticism. In its simplicity it offered comfort.

Even though the Khmer Rouge left most of the buildings in Phnom Penh intact, there were other places that were destroyed in a kind of class rage. There is a seaside resort, a few hours’ drive from the capital, very close to the Vietnamese border, called Krong Kep. From the early 1900’s through the 1960’s it was where the Phnom Penh elite, including the royal family, built their holiday retreats, often in interesting modern designs. The main attractions are the empty beach, the beautiful sunsets, and, above all, the juicy crabs plucked straight from bamboo traps in the surf and prepared for picnic lunches. Kep was not left untouched by the Khmer Rouge—who maintained control of the resort town well into the 1990’s—after they had wrecked the holiday homes.

I decided I wanted to see this place. So Vessna drove me out there one morning, past the textile factories, through many villages, past emerald-green rice fields dotted with white bullocks, past temples and spirit shrines, past a river where farmers bathed their horses, until we reached the hills beyond which lay the Gulf of Thailand. "Khmer Rouge," said Vessna, pointing at the densely wooded hills, "Khmer Rouge were all around here."

There is a pretty hotel in the hills overlooking the sea called the Veranda Natural Resort, where you can stay in a thatched-roof villa. Nearer the coast, once you enter Kep, you see the concrete shells of Bauhaus and Art Deco houses. Some are more ruined than others, but altogether they leave the impression of a Modernist ghost town—except that the ruins are all inhabited. Inside the shells live peasant families, with tethered goats, people cooking food, and children sleeping in the shade. A small urban enclave has been reclaimed by rural Cambodia. But reflecting on this sight, as I ate my lunch of fresh grilled crab (for a few U.S. dollars) at one of the little restaurants built on the beach, I did not find it depressing. The image was no longer one of violence, but of human survival and renewal. I thought of Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias, the French traveler. He was right: countries don’t die, they keep on being reborn.

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