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Phnom Penh Now

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

Although they’re not quite as raunchy (at least not openly so) as some of the entertainment areas in Bangkok, Phnom Penh also has plenty of places that offer massages, ranging from a pedestrian foot-massage to a more exotic menu. Poverty has boosted a sex industry that was at its height in the 1990’s, when the city teemed with UN officials trying to bring some security to a still-fragile society. But even now, as a young British entrepreneur put it to me with brutal frankness, "most people come here to get laid." As he spoke, I spotted a motorized rickshaw with an advertisement written on the back, trumpeting what are presumably the city’s three chief attractions: royal palace, killing fields, shooting range. Sex, mass murder, and gun sport, a winning combination.

Many of the bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh bear French colonial–sounding names like Le Deauville or La Croisette, but also more Anglo-Saxon ones like the Hope & Anchor and the Jungle Bar. Instead of men in white linen suits and pith helmets, the typical foreign clientele in these places nowadays adopts a style that might be called Lonely Planet chic: women in Tibetan ankle bracelets and men in ponytails and Indian shirts. The most popular hangout in the evenings is the Sisowath Quay, on the Tonle Sap River, near the National Museum and the Royal Palace (built in 1917 and 1866, respectively, along the same "traditional" lines—with elegant spires, golden roofs, and eaves held up by mythical figures—that were favored at the time by French administrators). One of the more pleasant places to eat on the Quay is the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), a lovely colonial-style building that is neither a club nor a place to find many foreign correspondents. But the service is friendly and the food, Western with a smattering of more local fare, is excellent.

While the tourists sip their drinks at the FCC and other waterfront bars, Cambodians sit in the grass by the river, fanning themselves, loosening their shirts—anything to feel the river breeze as the humid heat stubbornly refuses to relent, even in the late fall. Families picnic in the gloaming. Couples kiss and cuddle in the shadows. Others have their fortunes told by dubious-looking characters installed in front of a shrine enveloped by clouds of sweet incense. Teenagers drink beer and soft drinks and casually toss the empty cans into the lazy river current.

A typical Southeast Asian city, then. And yet, there is a melancholy about the place that still speaks of recent horrors. Phnom Penh is a city of survivors. Everyone has a story. A journalist I spoke to over a cup of coffee told me about his family’s forced evacuation, when they were stuck in his father’s car on Monivong Boulevard in a sea of human traffic. A young boy at the time, he would never forget the sight of a terrified woman on foot, who offered all of her money and jewelry to his father if only he would let her into the car. The car soon had to be abandoned anyway, and money would be useless in the slave labor camps. He remembers the bloodstained clothes that came back on the empty trucks that had taken away fellow citizens in the morning. Only dumb luck stopped his family from sharing their fate.

I had an introduction to Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects documentary evidence of the Khmer Rouge years, not just for the historical record, but to help surviving victims seek legal redress. Chhang is a handsome man who, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, studied in the United States and worked for the city of Dallas. I met him in his office, which used to be part of a grand family house, whose owners never returned from the carnage. There are many such houses, now used as offices or restaurants. We talked about the difficulties in getting reliable witnesses; some were too frightened to speak, others wanted compensation. Most of the perpetrators, prison guards and the like, were very poor.

Chhang and his family survived because they were helped by their maid, a poor village woman whom Chhang had treated brattishly as a child, but who loyally shielded her former employers after she had joined the Khmer Rouge. Chhang smiled as he told me this story. I asked him, Did many people still speak of the past?He replied that children born since the 1970’s often resented it when their parents told them about their suffering: "They feel that it is used to pick on them." And yet the subject cannot be avoided.

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