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The Next Hot Spot: Cambodia

The development of Angkor is a good thing for Cambodia, if you believe that capital infusion and world attention, even that of tourists, will help stabilize the country's always shaky political structure. But this phase in Cambodia's evolution is not without ambiguities. Among other things, development spells doom for the melancholy provincial charms of Siem Reap, a dusty riverfront city where flying foxes roost in an enormous Dipterocarpus tree near the main square, where a member of the royal family is attempting to revive the famed Cambodian silk industry, and where the country's ailing King Sihanouk stays in a retreat resembling a country club in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

It will also, not coincidentally, mean an inevitable decline in the centrality of Phnom Penh, one of the last colonial capitals of Southeast Asia to retain its faded, slow-boat charm. Flying in from the maelstrom of Bangkok, one is struck by the hush, the domestic scale of the place, and the sense that you could probably find your way around with a map sketched by Somerset Maugham. The Neoclassical stucco villas Maugham described with colonial assurance are still standing. The awninged streetside cafés still look out over a river whose banks are unspoiled. (Though, as a recent brouhaha over the introduction of billboards suggests, that may change.) Many streets are still unpaved. Many cabbies still pedal their fares in bicycle taxis. Many of the wide boulevards are still lined with tamarind and red coral trees and the ubiquitous frangipani, promiscuously shedding its flowers in the dust.

THE REALIZATION THAT PHNOM PENH IS populated almost entirely by the young comes slowly. Few visitors will ever find the time to absorb the grotesque social disruptions that the late 20th century inflicted on this small city: the flood of rural refugees during the French colonial war in Indochina, bloating the population of 100,000 to six times that size; a second surge of rural arrivals fleeing Vietnam-era bombs that blew the country to smithereens; the ghost years following the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover, when the city's 2 million inhabitants were marched into the countryside to perform forced labor.

Today, about half of Cambodia's 11 million people are under the age of 15; it's their presence that infuses Phnom Penh with its hopeful adolescent buzz. It is true that there are fine monuments in the city, such as the restored National Museum, with its unparalleled collection of Khmer sculpture and craft. It is true that there are peculiar monuments in the city, such as the Cham Kar Mon Palace, with its silver-floored temple, boom boxes playing devotional music, and Buddhas wearing electrified halos that pulsate like disco lights. And it is true that there are grim monuments in the city, such as the infamous Khmer Rouge detention and torture center, now the Tuol Sleng Museum. The real draw is the opportunity to watch, however briefly, a city and a people reinvent itself.

But it's an opportunity most visitors are likely to miss. Already, since the Cambodian government decided in 1999 to institute an open-skies policy, daily flights to Siem Reap now bypass Phnom Penh en route from the more convenient hubs of Bangkok, Tokyo, and Singapore. Among the several dozen new hotels that have sprung up in Siem Reap over the last year is a luxurious Sofitel with long, cool corridors, three theme restaurants, 239 rooms, and a pool complex connected by a series of "aquaerobics" canals.

As it happens, this hotel abuts a community playing field adjacent to a pagoda called Wat Thmei. I mention this because it seems unlikely that, with Angkor six miles off, many visitors will bother with a detour here. At Wat Thmei, a Buddhist temple stands alongside a monastery. Outside the monastery is a stupa, painted white; a glass window in this structure reveals that the entire thing is filled with human bones.

DEAR TOURISTS, says a hopeful sign at the stupa's gate, THE COLLECTION OF BONES THAT YOU SEE IN THIS STUPA WERE BONES THAT HAVE BEEN COLLECTED FROM NEAR BY THE FIELD. THESE WERE FROM THE INNOCENT PEOPLE WHO DIED AT THE HANDS OF THE SAVAGE POL POT REGIME IN 1975-1979. WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO BUILD A DIGNIFIED AND PROPER MEMORIAL TO HONOR THESE PEOPLE. THE WORLD ONCE STOOD BY AND LET THEIR DEMENTED DICTATOR MURDERED 1,000,000 IN FOUR YEARS. NOW YOU CAN HELP PROVIDE COMFORT TO THEIR DEAR DEPARTED SOULS WITH A DONATION.

In fact, no one knows the actual number of Cambodians killed during this period, although it is generally agreed that 2 million would be no exaggeration. Some of the victims were relatives of Sottha Khunn's. The rest were relatives of virtually every other person you are likely to encounter in Cambodia, including someone I will call Madame Sarouen. I first met this woman in 1992, in the passenger seat of a white Toyota Land Cruiser belonging to UNTAC, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. A former college professor, Madame Sarouen was then working as a translator for some journalists reporting on Cambodia's first free elections.

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