Can that phrase apply to a place? If so, I believe I’ve been there, a city surprisingly festive in appearance, yet deeply tragic underneath. Phnom Penh, Cambodia is not on the beaten path for most travelers. That is understandable, considering how remote it is, and how awful its recent history. In fact, Cambodia was once a rollicking success, possibly the world’s leading civilization. But that was a thousand years ago, and not much good has happened since.
I found myself in Phnom Penh on the fourth and final leg of an educational consulting trip taken by my wife, Katie, that included stops in Hong Kong, Borneo, Vietnam and Cambodia. Initially only contracted to speak at a conference in Borneo, I suggested, semi-facetiously, that she correspond with international schools in some other Asian countries. “After all, you’ll be in the neighborhood.” Faster than I could say “there’s no way I can sit on an airplane for eighteen hours,” she filled our three-week itinerary, and informed me my attendance was mandatory.
Not being an enthusiastic world traveler, I didn’t conduct research into our destinations. Admittedly, such ignorance prevented me from developing a sense of positive excitement and anticipation. But it also preserved the element of surprise. While our first three stops largely confirmed my uninformed pre-conceptions, namely: Hong Kong is BUSY; Borneo is TROPICAL; and Hanoi is GRIM; Phnom Penh was a shocker.
First, I thought Hanoi and Phnom Penh would have similar weather. After five days of grey drizzle in Hanoi, which I learned is the norm in November, I was delighted to land in brilliant sunshine and warmth in Cambodia. It turns out Phnom Penh is 660 miles south of Hanoi, roughly as far apart as Chapel Hill is from Chicago. So, yes, the weather can be much better.
Next, in further contrast with Hanoi, riding in a hotel van from the airport, I saw that Phnom Penh is a city of wide boulevards, tree-filled medians, and stunning, golden temples. Flashy flower gardens and statues surround public buildings like some cross between Caesars Palace and the Getty Museum. If you never drove more than a block off the main roads you would think you were in a highly prosperous country.
Our hotel was a gracious, French-run oasis with tropical plants around a courtyard swimming pool. Just outside its gate was an entrance to a Buddhist Temple, the golden spires of which soared into sight from the poolside tiki bar. Where was the Cambodia of Pol Pot, of war, of genocide?
Katie’s consulting took place on the day after our arrival. Since I was nursing the inevitable souvenir of Hanoi, a sinus infection, I chose not to venture out alone but to stay poolside. There, at the breakfast buffet, my UNC tee-shirt garnered attention. Not equating the initials with basketball, as would most Americans, an older gentleman with a European accent asked: “What agency are you with?”
“I’m just visiting with my wife,” I said.
“Oh, you’re not with the U.N. for Cambodia?” he said, indicating my shirt.
“No, no, that’s University of North Carolina,” I said.
He looked surprised. “In the States?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t see many of you folks over here,” he said. “I’m from Denmark. My colleagues are from Sweden, Germany, Holland and Austria,” he added, indicating a table full of earnestly chatting men and women.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“The genocide tribunal,” he said, as though it were common knowledge that one existed.
After I gathered a plate of fruit and toast, my friend invited me to sit at the end of their long table. “This gent’s an American,” he said, by way of introduction.
The people all looked at me with interest. Anticipating their curiosity, he explained: “He’s not with the U.N. He’s touring with his wife, from North Carolina, the basketball place.”
Thus introduced, I learned from the group that the European Union had funded a tribunal to examine the Cambodian genocide that took place in the 1970’s. Lawyers and judges had been rotating through Phnom Penh for several years, sifting evidence and, finally, bringing to trial several old colleagues of Pol Pot. His murderous regime had swept to power at the end of the Vietnam War, taking advantage of the chaos created partially by our bombing, and he had killed three to four million people, a quarter of the population, before being driven off, ironically, by the sworn enemy of Cambodians, the Vietnamese. They installed a puppet government in the early 1980’s that continues to rule to this day as a dictatorship, though Cambodia is, nominally, a democracy. (The foregoing is a VAST over-simplification; the subject commands volumes of books and treatises for those interested in learning more. Opponents of the regime have recently earned publicity, though Syria, Ukraine, winter weather and a disappearing airplane have kept coverage to a minimum).
“You must all be so depressed, studying such an awful subject,” I said to the assembly.
“Oh, no,” said a woman. “This is a wonderful posting.”
“It’s got the best cuisine,” said a man.
“Much better than Rwanda,” said another.
“I’ll say,” agreed the woman. “That place was brutal.”
It occurred to me that she did not mean “brutal” in the sense of murderous, but “brutal” in the sense that there was nowhere decent to eat.
Further discussion revealed that genocide study and “bringing to justice” is a growth industry, and a wonderful way to top off a career, with various tribunals having been established by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Hague for recent history’s worst depredations. In addition to Cambodia, these include Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and Kurdistan. Doubtless, European lawyers and judges will be packing for Syria in several years. I am NOT suggesting these horrors should be ignored or efforts to hold perpetrators accountable are not worthwhile; however, some participants clearly view the assignments as plum career opportunities and speak as expertly on the hospitality prospects of the various holocausts as on the legal responsibilities involved.
Back to sightseeing: We had an additional day to spend in Phnom Penh before traveling to see the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. “What are the best things in town to visit?” I asked the concierge.
“The most popular tourist site is the ‘killing fields,’” said the young Frenchman. “You can see thousands of skulls and skeletons.”
Not sure how to respond to that, I asked: “How long a trip is that?”
“Just in the suburbs, about an hour by tuk-tuk,” he said, referring to the local transportation mode, a sort of taxi with two seats attached to the rear of a soot and noise-belching motorbike.
I knew the “killing fields” were a critical part of Cambodian history, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but we had just spent several days in Hanoi, where we dutifully visited the POW prison and several war museums, and I was hoping for something less horrifying. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “You can take a tuk-tuk tour around the royal section of town and the museums.”
“That sounds great,” I said, relieved to have a non-genocidal option.
The next morning, we hopped on one of the many tuk-tuks waiting outside the hotel. For the equivalent of $10, we could travel for the whole day with a driver who would double as a guide, language-skills allowing. Once we adjusted or, more accurately, capitulated to the quirks of tuk-tuk travel, we were struck again by the beauty of Phnom Penh’s avenues. Green and beautiful, and relatively free of traffic, the city is built alongside the massive Mekong River. The strikingly broad (picture the width of the Hudson times three) artery rolls along languidly, supporting colorful boats and several optimistically low-slung bridges. The river is doubtless a hazard during storms but posed no threat during our visit.
“There, palace,” said our driver, in halting English, pointing towards a complex of massive buildings looming ahead. “There silver pagoda.”
Indeed, around 1906, with French assistance, Cambodia’s king constructed a palace covered in jewels and an adjoining pagoda covered in solid silver, including the floor! Both the palace and pagoda have survived the various wars; even the most depraved of Cambodia’s despots have deemed it useful to keep the king in place, usually as a puppet, though sometimes as a prisoner.
Our driver dropped us off at the entrance. We strolled the beautiful gardens and hallways of the palace and were allowed to look into the pagoda, though walking on the silver floor is forbidden. I urge readers to google the stunning palace complex; it would take infinite verbiage to describe, whereas pictures are instantaneous for your benefit and mine. Though the sky was sparkling, there were few other visitors and virtually no locals.
When we emerged, it was lunchtime. Several vendors offered roasted snacks that consisted of something between “you don’t want to know” and “you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Those aren’t birds, are they?” I asked one vendor sitting behind a pyramid of bite-sized morsels that appeared to have beaks.
“Sparrows very good,” he said.
Noting another vender turning a large rotisserie over a flame, I whispered to Katie: “That looks like a dog.”
“That is a dog,” she confirmed.
Though we had managed to try street food in Hong Kong and even Borneo, this was beyond our level of ambition. We chose to eat the nuts and crackers we had in our pockets and wait for a real meal at dinner at a French restaurant near our hotel.
After our snack, we asked the driver what else we might see. I noted that he, like most Cambodians, was extremely short of stature. At six-feet, I could have been a candidate for center of the national basketball team, if there were one. Nutrition or genetics, or a combination, have made for a diminutive population. I censored a speculation about the food.
“What about a neighborhood, where people live?” I asked. “We haven’t seen anything but the main streets.”
He shook his head slowly. “Not nice to see.”
“We won’t mind,” said Katie. “We’d like to see something interesting.”
Our driver shrugged. “I will drive you through apartment streets on the way to Central School. That will be interesting for you.”
“That sounds good,” I said, thinking we would see the local high school.
The driver was correct about the residential areas. The several blocks we saw were not “nice” but they were “interesting.” Within one block of the main boulevard we encountered rows of four-five story, deteriorating tenements, moldy and laundry-covered. A riot of wires hung between buildings. Sewage and garbage filled the gutters and there was a cacophony of screaming babies, squealing generators and shouting adults. Riding in our tuk-tuk like colonial pashas, we received mostly blank stares and some hostile ones. It was as though we were looking at animals caged in a zoo. Our driver sped up. “Not safe here,” he said. “Let’s go to the school.”
Katie and I nodded immediate agreement, and we found ourselves back to clean, leafy peace after just a few hundred yards. Not too far from the palace area we arrived at the Central School. What our driver had not made clear was that the Central High School of Phnom Penh had become the central PRISON during Pol Pot’s regime, and was now a tourist site. (“attraction” seems an inappropriate word to describe it). Behind walls and a high, green fence was a two-story plaster building central to the recent history of Phnom Penh — basically, the local version of the “killing fields.” In fact, as we learned during our tour of the building, the Central Prison was, for thousands of victims, a final, miserable stop on the way to the killing fields.
Information boards at the school explained that during Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975-1979, educated people were killed, people who wore glasses were killed, and even merely literate people were killed as being, presumably, able to read. People who spoke back to Pol Pot’s troops, the Khmer Rouge, were killed and people who even established eye contact were killed. Not to favorably compare Hitler to anyone, but he definitely had a plan — Pol Pot and his followers never articulated any purpose or rationale for their indiscriminate slaughter.
Our guide at the school/prison was an older woman who spoke excellent English. She explained that Pol Pot, like Hitler, recognized that such bare essentials as clothing were necessary for his soldiers. Therefore, people with sewing and related skills were able to delay their slaughter for weeks or months at the former school facility. They spent their days working as slaves amidst terror and murder where even uttering a word was the basis for torture or death.
There is no furniture at the school, just classrooms filled with black and white, numbered photographs of those who were imprisoned there, taped to the walls from floor to ceiling. Again, in eerie similarity to Nazi practices, the Khmer Rouge kept close count of their victims. When the Vietnamese liberated the facility, a stunning total of seven survivors were present from 25,000 who had come through the gates. One of those survivors was still alive when we visited in 2011 and came to the school each day to lead tours.
We were speechless during our sun-splashed ride back to the hotel. Dinner was at an elegant restaurant a block from our hotel, professionally served amidst French-inspired opulence. We were still numb from the afternoon sights, I recall. But we were able to look forward to the next day’s journey out-of-town to the temples at Angkor Wat, at least until our waiter told us to make certain we returned to our hotel before ten.
“What happens at ten?” I asked.
“That’s when the shooting begins,” he said.
“What shooting?” skeptical of this new twist.
“Gangs, government thugs, criminals, all sorts of stuff happens here after ten. Tourists should not be out,” he said.
“You’re serious?” I said.
“Yes, unfortunately. Phnom Penh may look quiet,” he said, “but all is not as it seems.”
That, I think, is a tremendous understatement.