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Phnom Penh Now

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

The Hungry Ghost festival, in the fall, is one of the most important holidays in the Cambodian calendar. People leave food and drink at their local pagodas to feed the spirits of their deceased relatives. If there is not enough food or water, the spirits will curse those still alive. "Most of the spirits belong to people who died under the Khmer Rouge," Chhang said. "When people remember starvation, they get very emotional, more so than when they recall torture or even murder. That is why this festival is such an emotional occasion."

He smiled again. And then he told me something even more chilling. On festival days, he said, Phnom Penh is half empty, almost like it was in the 1970’s. The majority of people return to their native villages. The citizens who lived in Phnom Penh before the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge are almost all dead.

When his project is finished, Chhang may go back to the United States. Phnom Penh, to him, no longer feels like home.

Unlike the Chinese Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge did not actually destroy many buildings. Far more have been pulled down by developers in recent years than by the revolutionaries of the 1970’s. Some of the most interesting architecture in Phnom Penh, apart from several fine colonial buildings, was built in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a kind of tropical-Modernist style known as New Khmer Architecture. The clean, unadorned lines of Bauhaus-type design were adapted to the Southeast Asian heat. Vann Molyvann’s National Theater, for example, is a masterpiece of this era—an airy gem in concrete and brick. It caught fire, alas, in 1994, but there has been no effort to rebuild, and developers are poised to tear it down. The new Cambodian elite is more interested in copying the grandiose style of contemporary China: big shiny buildings done up with lots of glass and marble, sometimes topped with quasi-traditional roofs.

I was told about Molyvann by a remarkable couple, John Shapiro and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who live in a village just outside the city. He is an American; she is Cambodian, and a classical dancer. Up to 90 percent of the country’s classical dancers died in the 1970’s, since the Khmer Rouge associated their art with the ancien régime. Sophiline was one of the few survivors. Across the road from the Shapiros’ house is an open-air theater with a backdrop in the shape of an Angkor temple. It was built by the former culture minister, a man of great refinement, who evaded the Khmer Rouge by posing as a cowherd.

Sophiline studied in both Cambodia and the United States after the Khmer Rouge fell from power but returned with her husband to help keep her art alive. We watched her put about two dozen young women in classical costumes through their paces, adopting dance poses that reminded me of both Khmer sculptures and Thai boxers—balanced on one knee, for example, while lifting the other ankle, and similar impossibly graceful movements. They were rehearsing a Cambodian dance, but it had been inspired by Mozart’s The Magic Flute. While his wife was rehearsing, I asked John about the state of traditional culture. It had been liveliest in the 1980’s, he said, when people were thirsting for a return to beauty and tradition. Dancers would perform in villages, where some people mistook them for divine apparitions, having "never seen anything so beautiful before." On some nights, unknown to the dancers, rogue Khmer Rouge soldiers would come down from their mountain hideouts intending to kill the intruders but become so entranced by the performances that they abandoned their missions.

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