Part 8: Changed City
Back in Phnom Penh in the late afternoon, I walk to the Asia Palace Hotel. Once upon a time, it was Hotel Saw - the White Hotel. In 1991, one of the first pictures I took in Cambodia was a shot of the central market from my room in the White Hotel.
The hotel is a good indicator of the change in Phnom Penh over the last 14 years. In 1991, it was badly rundown. The electricity rarely worked (as was the case throughout Phnom Penh), and often there was no water. There were no elevators, or at least no functional elevators.
Now, the hotel gleams. On the ground floor, a Lucky Burger restaurant is crowded with patrons snacking on burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets. As I approach the lobby, a pair of doormen swing open the plate glass doors, and I make my way across the ornate lobby to the front desk. I'm suddenly very conscious my sweat-stained t-shirt and the mud on my shoes. The staff kindly allows me to go to the roof to take several photos.
From the roof, one gets a more realistic assessment of what has and has not changed. New high-rises stand out above the city in every direction, but the overall vista is very similar to what it was years ago. On the balance, Phnom Penh is still poor and dirty... less so than before, certainly, but even a best-case scenario of benevolent, intelligent development will require years to make broad improvements that benefit all of the population.
On the way home, it begins to rain. The water drips down my face, tasting of salt and sweat. I walk past the Holiday Villa hotel; once upon a time, it was the Monorom, a favorite haunt of journalists covering the 1970-75 civil war. A few blocks away is the Royale, another journalists' favorite. Its air of decaying colonial elegance is long gone. It is now the Raffles Hotel Le Royale, and it radiates a haughty corporate air: "International business executives, Welcome: others, please look elsewhere."
Wednesday, Nov. 30, is spent visiting friends and markets. The Olympic Market and the O'Russey Market. In Cambodian markets, it's expected that you'll haggle over the price. I'm no good at haggling to begin with. How much do I want to argue in order to save a dollar? My inability to bargain was the main reason we brought our Thai friend Sue with us when we had purchased our tickets to Cambodia months ago; Sue argued the price down another $20. Alas, Sue is far, far away now, and we've made the mistake of letting the vendor see that the globe we're asking about is for the seven-year-old standing right next to us. Gee, who has the better bargaining position? Thus the afternoon ends with the boy happily clinging to his new globe, and the vendor in a very good mood over the surprising amount of profit yielded by a cheap-ass Chinese-made globe.
Around Phnom Penh, there are many memories for Srey. As we pass one small neighborhood on the road toward Pochentong, she mentions that she had gone to first grade at a school nearby. She laughs as she recalls how one morning she had gotten into her father's wine, with the result that she became drunk and fell asleep in class later that day. Always the troublemaker.
Phnom Penh today is many ways similar to Bangkok, sixteen years ago. Depending on which direction you are facing, it might be prosperous or it might be poor. It might be modern or it might be ancient. It is a city in transition, distinctly Asian in some ways, decidedly Western in others.
I can't think about cities without thinking about Chicago. I'm ready to go home. I miss my cats, I miss pizza, I miss talking to my Mom every Sunday. I miss television that I actually want to watch: Full Metal Alchemist, Mythbusters, The Simpsons, The Daily Show.
It's our next to last day in Cambodia. In the morning, I visit Tuol Sleng. On the way, we pass a vendor pushing a bicycle laden with all sorts of plastic pans and baskets. It reminds me of the famous method of transit on the Ho Chi Minh trail: bicycles were loaded with supplies and pushed, not ridden, through hundreds of miles of jungle.
Thinking of the Ho Chi Minh trail naturally leads to thinking about history, and about mistakes. A cynic might regard history as the study of mistakes. In 1989, scholar Frances Fukuyama wrote an essay called "The End of History?" in which he argued that, with the collapse of communism, history was essentially over, and the liberalism had won.
The two major Twentieth Century challenges to liberalism - communism and fascism - had been discredited. Liberal democracy would be the dominant political system for the foreseeable future: The question had been settled, and democracy was the correct answer.
At the time Fukuyama penned his essay, I was working as a cabinetmaker. My employer was a profoundly talented woodworker named Jeff Miller. One afternoon, I destroyed a beatiful piece of cherry by making a particularly stupid miscalculation. Instead of getting angry, Miller just laughed. "One of the interesting things about working with someone," he said, "is that you find out there are all kinds of other mistakes that you never thought of before."
This demonstrates the failure of Fukuyama's argument: even if there were only one right answer, there are an infinite number of wrong ones.
Tuol Sleng is a vivid demonstration of just how far one one particular answer can be. It is difficult to imagine anything more horrible than Tuol Sleng. Some 20,000 inmates entered the prison. Only seven are known to have survived.
Today, Tuol Sleng is a museum. Graffiti scratched into the wall in a stairwell captures the spirit of the place, sad and angry and unforgettable: "Whoever disrespect this place will be cursed."
Tuol Sleng's fate is surely more fitting than that of Sang Prison, torn down and nearly erased from memory, and yet perhaps destined to be be resurrected as a prison once again. It is surely a better fate than Abu Ghraib... once the site of atrocities under Saddam Hussein, now the site of new transgressions, under new management.