Phnom Penh, June 1996
My first glimpse of Cambodia was from the top of a holy mountain in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. The little boy who led me, scrambling over rocks to the summit, pointed toward the vast sea of green in the west and drew a line across his neck, saying "Kampuchea." It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now or one of those other harrowing Vietnam War films. The very word Kampuchea brings fear to many Vietnamese, whose memory of the 1978 Khmer Rouge massacres at the border village of Ba Chuc remains fresh.
Two months later, I was half-expecting to see explosions and clouds of smoke outside my window. But the Royal Air Cambodia flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh was peaceful. From the sky, Cambodia was unremarkable--a maze of flat, green paddies and low-lying jungle intersected by snaky brown roads and rivers.
Cambodia actually has a growing tourist trade, but the majority of visitors head directly to the temples at Angkor Wat, spending perhaps a day or two in Phnom Penh. Most don't know where else to go, or have been too frightened by horror stories to visit anywhere else in the country. They all know that two years ago some Australian backpackers were abducted from a train by the Khmer Rouge and subsequently killed, and that the Khmer Rouge was suspected in the shooting of an American professor and her guide near Angkor in 1995. And so the well-heeled tourists stay in the five-star luxury hotels and the backpackers cling to the small guesthouses; most of the foreigners walking around the capital city are aid workers or expatriates.
Yet the situation, though still precarious, has improved. Yes, there are no-go zones, including most of the western half of the country and the northern border, and it isn't safe to go on the trains (the police won't even allow you on anyway, were you to attempt it) or by private car to many areas. Land mines in the countryside and ordinary street crime are in reality more of a danger than the Khmer Rouge. Foreigners walking after dark alone or in small groups are sometimes targets of crime in the capitol city. As long as you are careful and aware of the trouble spots, you are unlikely to encounter problems. If you're really anxious, you can fly cheaply to all the major towns. As a young, single female, I traveled solo by boat, bus, and motorbike to many less-visited areas, and walked through Phnom Penh alone at night without any difficulties whatsoever.
From the tidy airport, it was a short ride in an ancient Peugeot taxi with some of the region's ubiquitous Israeli backpackers to Phnom Penh's infamous Cloud 9 guesthouse.
I'd been hearing about Cloud 9 all through Southeast Asia. The legal status of marijuana is ambiguous in Cambodia. It appears either to be legal, or at the very least, openly tolerated, and Cloud 9 is ground zero for travelers who wish to indulge. Cambodia is also is a major producer of cannabis in the region, and it is so cheap that people give it away. The Cambodians smoke it too, and sometimes use it as a spice in food, particularly soups.
A surreal sight, Cloud 9 is a collection of ramshackle teak and bamboo huts on a lotus-clogged lake, with a spectacular floating lounge area, all connected by rickety wooden walkways. Naturally, it's cheap, with double rooms for $3 a person, dorm beds for $2, and serious desperadoes can bring their own hammocks and hang them from the rafters for $1 a night. There's a bar, a pool table, a TV area, and a big message board, with the motto "Cloud 9--You can check out but you can never leave" written across the bottom. It's true, for the essence of Cloud 9 is pure hang-out. People from all over the world come here to lounge in the rattan chairs or hammocks all day long, passing pints, smoking joints, talking, reading, thinking. At night they wait for the brilliant sunset over the lake, and then watch pirated American videos. Many in fact, don't leave the guesthouse at all, especially not after sunset.
It's a shame that so many visitors are scared away, for Phnom Penh, with its sleepy, backwater air, is a gem of a capitol. The broad boulevards are lined with palm trees and old French colonial buildings, the street markets are vibrant and bustling, some of the streets still feature names like General Joseph Tito Avenue, and the vast brown Mekong meanders lazily by Norodom Boulevard, lined with restaurants and bars. It's less crowded and chaotic than Saigon, more interesting than Vientiane, smaller and more picturesque than the mega-city that has become Bangkok. The newly reopened National Museum has the world's best collection of ancient Khmer statues, while the National Palace, home to King Sihanouk, features a stunning pagoda with a silver floor and priceless gold, crystal, and jade Buddha figures. There are inexpensive Khmer restaurants, western fast food places, and French restaurants popping up everywhere. Wander down Sisowath Quay, after stopping in for a drink and a schmooze at the neo-colonial Foreign Correspondents Club, with its spectacular verandah. The O Russei Market, popularly known as the Russian Market, has stall after stall of silverwork, tiny bronze Buddha amulets, and gorgeous handmade cloth. In the hardware section, if you know who to ask, you can buy guns, grenades, and gas masks. At the tobacco stalls, old ladies with betel-juice stained lips and broken teeth cackle "ganja, ganja."
For a more sobering experience, I took a motorcycle taxi, the easiest mode of transportation, to Tuol Sleng, the notorious Khmer Rouge torture center. Also known as S-21, Tuol Sleng was an elementary school that the KR commandeered and used to conduct purges of party members and their unlucky friends and family. When the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh in 1979, they turned it into a memorial, leaving it much as they found it, except for several rooms where they covered the walls with the stark black and white mug shots that the Khmer Rouge took of all their victims. It's a grim place, with its cracked cement walls--torture instruments and old bloodstains litter the former classrooms. This is one of the only places in Cambodia where you get a tangible sense of the horrors that happened here. Even the Killing Fields, the mass execution site a few kilometers outside the city, except for the grisly monument of skulls would otherwise look like a grassy picnic spot. The government is considering closing both sites on the grounds that they frighten away potential tourists. Everything here is more complex than it appears.
It's especially so in Phnom Penh, where the moonlight illuminates another city altogether. This is a city teeming with brothels of "taxi-girls" offering massages, many of them just 12 or 13 years old. There is a park where foreign and Cambodian pedophiles lie in wait; the seedy old Capitol Hotel in the city center is their preferred destination. The two nights I stayed there, unaware of its reputation, no one bothered me, but I was the only woman in the place, and got many a strange glance. The wiry cyclo and moto drivers amble along the streets, looking for passengers, but some of them are crooked and rob tourists. Evening is a favorite time for the police to set up roadblocks, ostensibly to search for weapons, but really to extort money from those unlucky enough to pass through them. There is a violent underside here and the placid surface lulls the unwary.
But my favorite spot of all in Phnom Penh was the coziness of Bert's books and guesthouse, on Sisowath Quay, overlooking the river. You can spend all day browsing among the odd collection of used books, mainly junky traveler's novels, here, but there are real treasures to be found too. Nearly every traveler and expatriate comes through the store at some point, and a constant crew of people sits around the table and talks all day and much of the evening. Bert's is also one of the best places to obtain travel information for the rest of the country - there's always someone there who's been to an unusual place and will tell you how to get there. There are even some unofficial travel guides that you won't find anywhere else. I wrote a travel guide to Rattanakiri and left copies there -- just ask Bert for it and like everything else in the store, he should be able to dig it out from the piles of junk on his desk. No, Phnom Penh and Bert's Books aren't quite set up for mass tourism, and it's a relief. There's plenty of time to roam around the city at your own pace, writing the travel guide as you go.
Editor's note: Bert's Books and Guest House is now closed; owner Bert Hoak left Cambodia in the wake of the 1997 coup.