Cambodia: Out of the Shadows (2007)

The National Museum in Phnom Penh is a dusty red stone building, whose high-ceilinged galleries surround a courtyard filled with shrubs and trees. Many of the objects it contains are exquisite - prehistoric jars decorated with hypnotic geometric patterns, Angkor period statues of kings and Hindu gods whose smooth torsos and beatific expressions radiate a self-contained gentleness, aesthetic worlds away from the gaudy baroque of Indian popular art. Unlike, say, the British Museum, where devices monitor humidity levels and the artefacts appear infinitely distant, frozen in neoclassical limbo, these statues are still functional objects, the recipients of daily religious devotion. In front of the dancing Shiva and the eight-century sandstone Ganesh, tilting his head and dipping his trunk into a bowl of water, there are sheaves of burning incense sticks and offerings of jasmine flowers, which the staff make a little cash on the side by selling to visitors. In Cambodia, where Theravada Buddhism washes over a Hindu past and an animist love for the particular - the river, the jungle clearing, the spring – it’s logical that a museum should be a place of worship as well as learning.

These stone gods and kings feel somehow more precious than their counterparts in the treasure houses of other equally proud countries. They are survivors of Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to erase history, proof of the Cambodian ability to create and preserve beauty through the nihilistic destruction which engulfed their country after the American invasion of 1970. In one room, there’s a statue of the meditating Buddha, dating perhaps from the thirteenth century. A little enclosure has been created around it, with a table for offerings, a donation box, and on the sides of its square concrete base the “four noble truths” of Buddhism picked out in river pebbles. You should know sufferings. You should abandon origins. You should attain cessation and (the odd one out, in French) ‘l’ignorance est l’ennemi de la vie, which is not the usual phrasing of the ‘fourth truth’, an injunction to follow the path of Buddhist teaching. ‘Ignorance is the enemy of life’ sounds like the anguished cry of a museum curator, a warning from someone who was alive in the old colonial days when French was still widely-spoken. Whatever you do, don’t smash up the past. Don’t forget. It’s hard not to read a terrible sadness into this list of the basic Buddhist instructions for transcending the pain of existence. The four truths don’t read as a comfort in Phnom Penh: the knowledge of suffering and the abandonment of attachment to the world have sinister connotations here.

Across town is a former school known as Tuol Sleng, a cluster of run-down concrete buildings round an open yard. This was once S-21, a secret interrogation centre where Khmer Rouge cadres, many no more than children, used torture to extract insane, florid confessions from their prisoners, who were then driven out of the city to the killing fields. An estimated seventeen thousand people passed through this place. There were seven survivors. Tuol Sleng is almost unbearable. Not because of the classrooms partitioned by crudely-built brick walls into tiny cells. Not even because of the display of shackles and torture instruments or the lurid paintings done by one of the survivors. The hardest part is seeing the faces of the victims. Everyone brought to S-21 had their picture taken, numbers round their necks, clamped into a device to keep their heads still for the camera’s slow shutter. There are rooms of ten-by-eights of dead people, men, women and children, even tiny babies, ‘discarded’ (in the jargon of the interrogators) because they posed some perceived threat to the paranoid members of the Central Committtee. During the three years, eight months and twenty days of Khmer Rouge rule, somewhere around 1.5 million people died, out of a total population of nine million, an event one writer has described as ‘auto-genocide’. On the faces of the prisoners of S-21 you see fear, confusion and defiance, but most wear an expression of blank disengagement, a resignation that seems to go beyond the effects of tiredness and hunger, an acceptance that the world they will soon be leaving is filled with horror, and that nothing they could think or do would ever make it change.

Legend has it that when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in April 1975, journalists watching from the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents club left in such a hurry that the people who opened the boarded-up building years later found cameras on the floor, complete with undeveloped images of the fighting. It’s now a restaurant, full of tourists eating club sandwiches and reading their Lonely Planet guides, but it’s still got a view over the Tonle Sap river and is as good a spot as any to watch today’s streetlife, the vendors pushing carts, cyclo drivers hustling for customers, beefy white men and waif-like Cambodian women getting in and out of tuk-tuks. A dry local joke about the FCC is that it’s the only place where the city’s many NGO workers have to grit their teeth and make conversation with so-called ‘sexpats’. Around the country, beside posters warning of the dangers of bird flu and landmines (the bird flu one has a picture of a mother scolding her little boy for playing with a dead chicken), you see an image of smiling children, part of a campaign against trafficking and child prostitution. A second dry local joke has it that Cambodians should thank Gary Glitter for this, the issue having shot up the international funding agenda after the massive publicity around the glam-rocker’s deportation in 2003.

Today’s Phnom Penh has come a long way from the haunted, empty place of 1975, when the Khmer Rouge drove its entire population out into the countryside to grow rice. It’s a pleasant city, with bustling markets, elegant colonial-era boulevards, good bars, some startling modernist architecture and an ease and friendliness that will no doubt soon make it one of the most popular destinations in Asia. The incomparable temples at Angkor have long drawn large numbers of tourists, but for years, while the guerrillas were a lurking presence in rural areas and the US and UK played cold war politics here, helping the genocidal Pol Pot against the Vietnamese-backed government, Angkor was the only place in the country where many foreigners felt safe. Since Pol Pot’s death in 1998, security has returned. Little by little, the minefields are being cleared and the shattered infrastructure rebuilt. Places it was hard to visit a year or two ago are now accessible, thanks to new roads. Elegant French hotels like Le Royal have reopened, offering visitors a flavour of the Indochina of André Malraux and Marguerite Duras. And of course, as Cambodia gets plugged back into the global economy, speculators are moving in. Vietnamese and Korean investors are snapping up beaches and ruined villas. Australian mining companies are at work in the forests. In another five years, much of the country will look very different.

Drive out of Phnom Penh and you get a sense of rapid change. Garment factories line the road, which is thronged with motorcycles pulling flat-bed trailers packed with workers, mostly peasants who are thronging in from the countryside to earn between thirty and eighty dollars a month (the offical minimum wage is $45). In the Russian Market, so called because of its popularity with ‘political advisors’ during the eighties, you can find various branded clothes, some obvious fakes, others the genuine article. Further out into the countryside, boards are nailed to trees, bearing mobile phone numbers. The Khmer Rouge abolished property and destroyed most records. Until recently all land belonged to the state. Now it’s a free for-all. Anyone who can enforce a claim stands a chance of getting rich.

One place that won’t stay the same for long is the abandoned hill station of Bokor. Built in the 1920’s, it was to Indochina’s French elite what Simla was to the British in India, a retreat from the summer heat, a place to intrigue and conduct love affairs. Later it became a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and much of the mountain is still heavily mined. To get to the top, you have to make a bone-shaking 30 kilometre climb by dirt bike or four-by-four. The top is shrouded in mist, the ruins of the old church and the post office coated in spongy brick-red moss, a massive field gun limber sitting on a concrete base at a viewpoint, commanding a view of the whole peak . Bokor is dominated by the melancholy shell of the old casino, which stands on the edge of a cloudy abyss, into which more than one ruined gambler must have thrown himself before war closed the “Bokor Palace” down. Now its bullet-riddled deco façade is crumbling and the grand hall is a palimpsest of grafitti, mostly the names of European backpackers. Sokimex, the government-linked petroleum company which also owns the ticket concession for Angkor, is reported to have tabled a $100 million plan to build a new road, a 300 room hotel, a golf course and a hundred luxury villas at Bokor. While there’s no reason to expect Cambodians to live in the rubble of a painful war, Bokor’s melancholy beauty will dissipate when it becomes a pristine twenty-first century resort, buzzing with the discreet sounds of electric golf carts and credit card slips being printed.

Similar rumours hang around the old seaside resort of Kep, on the south coast. Walk along the paved promenade today, and you pass ornate streetlights and the skeletons of beautiful deco villas, adapted with various degrees of serviceability to lower-income living. At sunset, the place is a ghost of Antibes. It takes half an hour on a narrow diesel-engined boat to reach Koh Tansay, where the fishermen have heard it said that their island, on which the French built a ‘motel’ (there are no roads) and the Khmer Rouge a reeducation camp, is to be the site of a new resort. They have lived here for a long time. They have a pretty good business, fishing for the famous local crab, frying it with black pepper and serving it to people like me, who come to swim in the lagoon and drink cold beer and watch them mend their nets. They worry, with good reason, that they won’t be able to prove this place is theirs, if someone “high ranking” tries to take it away.

The night I sleep on the island, an electrical storm passes over, sending an hour of heavy rain and intense sheet-lightning, inverting the night sky so the palm trees look momentarily black against a white background. The boats have come in and the crew are watching tv in a hut. It must be an old film. The voice is the one I’ve been searching for in markets, the king of Khmer pop, Sin Sisamouth, who like so many other ‘new citizens’, urbanites who Pol Pot wished to reprogram with the values of the peasantry, disappeared into the black hole of the seventies. Sin liked the twist and surf guitar. Another Cambodian ghost story.

Some things won’t change in the next Cambodia. Temples, rice. I see Angkor over Khmer new year, when it’s swarming with happy families, taking snapshots of themselves scrambling up the steep stairs to the sanctuary. Certain figures (Gods, busty apsaras) on the ancient friezes have been burnished to a metallic shine by the touch of thousands of hands. Guides run through their spiel in front of the giant stone heads at the temple of Bayon, the kapok trees curl their roots charmingly round the ruins of Ta Prohm. A few days later I’m scudding down a long straight irrigation canal on a motor boat, flanked on either side by rice paddies. Men and women thresh rice and pack it into sacks. Sullen Vietnamese traders wait in boats to carry it over the border, a few miles onwards. From time to time we pass flocks of ducks, penned with chicken wire into little enclosures. Groups of men are fishing, carrying their nets through the water, submerged up to their necks, cigarettes clamped between their teeth. Children wave as we go by. Our destination is Phnom Da, a hill with a simple laterite temple, one corner scooped out by a rocket. “B40” says the Chamroeun, my guide, who knows more than he wants to about munitions.

In 1998, after the mysterious death and ignominious truck-tyre cremation of Pol Pot, the last Khmer Rouge cadres, under “Brother number five”, the one-legged general Ta Mok, made a final stand at an ancient temple complex called Prasat Preah Vihar. Dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer of the Hindu pantheon, it was built between the nineth and twelfth centuries by seven successive Khmer monarchs, whose masons hewed out stone stairs and gopuras from a breathtaking peak that looks out over the densely forested mountain range marking the border with Thailand. Ever since, pilgrims have made their way up, through five successive levels, to the sanctuary at the top. Ta Mok’s troops mined the approaches, dug trenches and mounted guns. After a few months they surrendered. The general, already eighty years old, died of natural causes in 2006, while awaiting his endlessly-deferred genocide trial. At Prasat Preah Vihar, he left behind an ornate hardwood table, off which I eat dinner, with the guide and the driver and the driver’s assistants, young men who laugh and chat and greet their friends, souvenir sellers who are packing up and heading back down the hill to their village. Everyone seems relaxed and optimistic. They have a bottle of “muscle wine” (think vodka and red bull crossed with tiger balm) and hope to make a night of it.

At sunset, up at the sanctuary, a party of Thai monks have come to visit. A school trip, perhaps. Many of them are no more than eight or nine years old. I watch one little boy skip, slightly hampered by his orange robe, past the chiselled names of soldiers who once stood guard on top of the holy mountain. Ta Mok was not the first general to lead his men here. Vietnamese names and regiments are written next to those of the Khmer Rouge. But for now, the monks have the run of the place, to climb over the stones and take pictures of one another. At sunrise (having ducked the muscle wine party) I wake up in my tent and climb up again to look at the view. A picnicking family have had the same idea. Everyone seems to be looking forward to the new day.