After the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, a nation and its people respectfully move on. Ian Buruma finds new stories and ancient beauty in the city and beyond.

By Ian Buruma
April 01, 2009
Bobby Fisher Phnom Penh Now
Bobby Fisher

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.

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.

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.

Now that people have television, however, and DVD’s, and karaoke, it is a lot harder to hold on to tradition. To make a living, dancers have to perform in hotels for the tourists, or at official functions for rich politicians, where they are little more than exotic ornaments, part of the opulent décor, like the faux-classical roofs on the flashy postmodern skyscrapers. On some occasions they are not even required to dance, just to pose with trays of party favors. "The problem," John said, "is no longer how to recover from the past, but how to recover from the present."

It is an all-too-common story, of course. The same thing has happened in many parts of the world. Traditional culture is for the poor, who know nothing else, or for the cultivated rich, but it is not to the taste of the newly prosperous. That even those working in textile factories or selling souvenirs to tourists can afford a pirated DVD with the latest movie starring Brad Pitt is progress of a kind. It would be patronizing to deplore such access to the wider world. But I am filled with great admiration for Sophiline and her dancers, struggling against the odds.

I asked our driver, a rather dour man named Vessna, what he thought of the classical dancers. He was born in a village but had moved to the city with his wife, who worked in one of the textile factories along the road to the international airport. He liked the dances well enough, he said, but he preferred more modern entertainments, such as television and MTV. Vessna was a man of few words. He had learned English in the 1990’s in order to drive UN personnel around town. When he did speak, he came to the point quickly.

We drove to Tuol Sleng, the former torture prison, now a museum. Vessna had been there countless times but never wanted to go inside. It is located in a posh neighborhood, in what had once been a good high school. Outside the prison, still fortified with barbed wire fences, are several guesthouses and cafés with that Lonely Planet vibe: Eric Clapton songs, fresh fruit juices, silks in time-honored designs. I saw expensive-looking houses behind gold-painted gates. "Government officials," Vessna said. Then, after a short pause: "Many were in the Khmer Rouge before."

The architecture of Tuol Sleng is sober but not unpleasant, an example of the Modernist optimism of the 1960’s: four three-story white concrete buildings with balconies, set around a spacious garden with palm trees, plants, and an exercise bar. The old schoolrooms are bare, with brown-and-white checkered floors. Some of the rooms on the third floor were divided into tiny brick cells, not high enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down in. Inside the bare schoolrooms are steel bed frames, rusted around the edges, and enough bolts for shackling several people at a time by their feet. Various instruments of torture are exhibited in these cells: pliers, whips, manacles, hammers, water tanks. On the walls are photographs of corpses, some barely recognizable as human. There are also paintings by the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, showing scenes of torture and killings. These were painted from memory. After being tortured to the brink of death, he was put to work on portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. His artistic skills were the only reason he survived.

Despite all the photos and grisly exhibits, the mind is unable to conceive what it must have been like to have been a prisoner in Tuol Sleng, being forced to make detailed confessions that corresponded with the paranoid visions of the jailers before being killed. The most haunting images are not the torture pictures, but those of the victims’ faces, like passport photographs from hell. Most of the people put before the camera, and subsequently killed, had themselves been in the Khmer Rouge and fallen victim to one of the periodic purges. Many were young, a few of them children, like the vicious guards who were barely 15. Most look numb with terror. Some Khmer Rouge peasant cadres, who had been suddenly accused of spying for the CIA, just look bewildered. And others smile, perhaps to ingratiate themselves, to buy time, or perhaps as a vestigial reflex, smiling for the camera.

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.

Getting There There are no direct flights to the Phnom Penh International Airport from the United States. Your best bet is to fly on Thai Airways via Bangkok or on Singapore Airlines via Singapore. Visas are required; obtain them at a local consulate or the airport—and bring a passport-size photo.

When to Go The best time to visit is from November to February, when Phnom Penh has temperatures between 80 degrees and 95 degrees.

Where to Stay

Beach House Kep Beach, Krong Kep; 855-12/240-090; thebeach; doubles from $30.

Raffles Hotel Le Royal The French restaurant here is as fine as the restored hotel. 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, off Monivong Blvd.; 855-23/981-888;; doubles from $320.

Veranda Natural Resort A peaceful coastal hideaway with thatched-roof villas. Kep Mountain Hillside Rd., Krong Kep; 855-92/948-093;; doubles from $20.

Where to Eat

Foreign Correspondents’ Club 363 Sisowath Quay; 855-23/724-014; dinner for two $27.

Le Nouveau Pho de Paris A reliable choice for Sino-Vietnamese food. 26 Monivong Blvd.; 855-23/723-076; dinner for two $16.

Romdeng Restaurant This Cambodian restaurant has excellent local cuisine. It’s staffed by former street kids and is run as a charity. 21 St. 278; 855-92/219-565; dinner for two $20.

What to Do

Central Market Corner of Sts. 67 and 136.

Documentation Center of Cambodia 66 Sihanouk Blvd.; 855-23/211-875;

National Museum Corner of Sts. 178 and 13; 855-23/211-753.

National Theater Sisowath Quay and Sihanouk Blvd.

Royal Palace Samdech Sothearos Blvd., between Sts. 184 and 240.

Russian Market Corner of Sts. 163 and 444, south of Mao Tse Toung Blvd.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Corner of Sts. 113 and 350; 855-23/216-045.

Wat Phnom (Phnom pagoda) The ancient tomb, atop the only hill in town. Corner of St. 96 and Norodom Blvd.