PHNOM Penh airport was hot, dusty and outrageously busy. We slipped into a taxi and joined the throng of weaving traffic where we were surrounded by myriad bikes (motorised and pedal-powered) plus plenty of cars and a handful of trucks. Some bikes had whole fruit shops or noodle bars as pillion riders. Girls on bikes were modestly dressed in jeans, shoes and thick woollen jumpers.
People casually strolled across the road, giving bright smiles whenever they made eye contact with us in the taxi. We passed tangled power lines, then shot past a suburb-sized pit - once a lake, now reclaimed to build more city. The car's air-con puffed and wheezed a rasping tune while we stuttered towards our destination.
Some buildings were surrounded by razor wire, spy cams and shards of broken glass. Mechanic shops were stacked floor to ceiling with car bodies and miscellaneous spare parts. There was no visible way into the shop or any recognisable means of removing a single piece without the whole lot collapsing in a messy and potentially fatal game of vehicular Jenga.
We made our way east along what could surely only be called Mechanics St, slipped south down Mobile Phone Alley and then headed east again along Furniture Way. We twisted halfway round the Olympic Stadium and stayed east towards the Royal Palace. Just before nearly slamming into the wall of the Royal Palace we swung a hard right to the gated Kabiki Hotel.
The Kabiki Hotel is a cool, green gem studded with tall ferns and palms amid the bustling charm of the city. The greenery was doubled in reflections from the pool. Shy, smiley staff offered cool, scented towels to wipe the dust off; iced lime drinks and a delightful nutty/jelly treat wrapped in fragrant pandan leaf followed. We were led to our room, outlined in teak and containing an elegant four-poster bed and twin bunks in an offset alcove.
Over the next few days we ticked off some of Cambodia's "must-sees”. Congested markets with morning price specials, the astonishing Royal Palace, the Foreign Correspondents Club, busy bars and hookers a-go-go, the mighty Mekong River, Silver Pagoda and an Emerald Buddha. A lovely city in which to spend some time, filled with charming people.
But there was an elephant in the room, casting a dark shadow over the city and country. Its foul name is Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Many moons ago I saw some historic footage that had been filmed in Cambodia in the mid-70s, when Pol Pot and the KR ruled the roost. Taken in the 60,000-capacity Olympic soccer stadium in Phnom Penh, the camera showed a scene that was initially puzzling and difficult to resolve.
A massive pile of jumbled confusion sprang into focus as the camera slowly panned out. It was a vast and ghastly heap of human corpses. At the top were recently killed bodies, becoming increasingly decayed further down the pile. At the base were skeletal remains with ragged scraps of clothing attached. Scattered around the base of this grisly mound were many "footballs”, which on closer inspection turned out to be heads. This hideous sight was the remains of the soldiers and supporters of the previous Lon Nol regime, which the KR had vigorously replaced.
I got the chance to visit that same place just before dawn. It soon appeared that I wasn't the only one there to soak up the atmosphere. Gladly, things have moved on since the mid-70s and so has the Olympic Stadium. At dawn and dusk the entire place is now a massive open-air aerobics arena, catering to middle-aged ladies moving to the beat of a Khmer/K-pop music selection. As the warm air became hotter and started to shimmer, the beats became increasingly discordant. The atmosphere was also warm and welcoming with greetings, grins and nods a-plenty.
The stadium itself was designed by the first fully qualified Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann, in the early 1960s. Imagine flat ground that has been laboured into raised hill slopes surrounding the main pitch. On top of that foundation were concrete terraces stretching up 40 metres high.
The stadium's main building was concrete with high ceilings, sloping ramparts and causeways. A few squatters still inhabited the buildings, yawning and scratching in the sunrise. The simple yet functional light and airy design perfectly captured any passing breeze and channelled it to the surrounding terraces. Irrigation channels and fountains once further cooled the atmosphere, but these have been destroyed.
All over Cambodia were grim reminders of the days of the KR. The KR arose from the fluid political scene that followed (and was partly driven by) American bombings of Cambodia during the early '70s. B52 strikes dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the US released over Second World War Europe. The KR finally rolled into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 to an initially jubilant, yet hesitant population.
Three days later the city had been completely depopulated - the Marxist KR wanted to turn back the clock to Year Zero by reverting the entire population to an agrarian society.
Over the next four years, the remaining residents were "re-educated” and strongly encouraged to inform on colleagues. People settled old scores. Many worked exhausting manual labour in the fields from dawn to well beyond dusk.
Two spoons of rice boiled up in some rice paddy water was the daily sole nourishment. Stealing food, wearing spectacles, speaking another language, working for the previous government in any capacity, being a teacher or a doctor or an artist or priest were all heinous counter-revolutionary crimes, punishable by torture and death.
Churches and cathedrals were torn down and the rubble used to make dams, runways, roads so that more money could be made to buy more guns. Today, mass graves are everywhere and bones and fragments of clothing still wash to the surface after heavy rains. But, on the surface at least, the Cambodian people are resilient. They are welcoming, a little shy and maybe even sombre on first glance, but smiles and kind words are never too far away. Lest we forget.
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