Phnom Penh – The heat is getting to me. I’ve been walking around for hours, dropping into bookstores and pagodas, and I urgently need a shot of air-conditioned relief from the 32° weather.
On a side street, I come to the Tonlé Sap River and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. If there’s a place in the Cambodian capital with an AC unit, this has to be it. I climb three flights of stairs to the bar. There’s no air conditioning, but it is nevertheless a wonderfully cool spot. Giant fans whirr above leather chairs, teak tables and a billiard table.
The room is almost empty. The foreign reporters who packed the place when the Khmer Rouge killing machine was rolling south are long gone, now packing watering holes in other countries where other killing machines are causing chaos. I take a seat near a young American expat who’s talking to his visiting parents. “A lot of tourists fly into Phnom Penh and hang around here,” he says. “I feel sorry for them – this city has some awesome things they should see.”
Over the next few days, I come to the conclusion that he’s right about the hotel-clinging travellers. There are hardly any tourists anywhere I visit in Phnom Penh, although 900,000 people went to Angkor Wat last year.
At the city’s most beguiling attraction, the Royal Palace, only seven or eight Westerners mingle with the Asian visitors, yet if you compare the Cambodian monarch’s residence to Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth seems underprivileged. King-Father Norodom Sihanouk’s spacious living quarters are off-limits, but the other buildings are fascinating, especially the Silver Pagoda.
There, the silver-tiled floor supports the solid gold litter that conveyed Sihanouk to his coronation and several Buddha figurines made of gold and Baccarat crystal. A life-size Buddha is adorned with 9,500 diamonds.
Curiously, given these opulent surroundings, a donation box invites contributions to the palace coffers.
From the palace, I take a cyclo to Psar Tuol Tom Pong, the rambling shopping mecca the locals call the Russian Market.
In the 1980s, Soviet soldiers on R&R leave flocked to the aging wooden building to sell purloined binoculars, handguns and army boots to black market merchants.
Meandering through the narrow aisles, I come across stalls peddling Buddha carvings, lacquerware, wind-up toys, silk scarves and T-shirts. One of these bears a skull-and-crossbones and the words “Danger! Mines!!!”
A little slow at catching up to current pop music trends, another entrepreneur offers T-shirts emblazoned with a photo of Milli Vanilli.
Late in the afternoon, I head across town to Phnom Pehn’s only hill, Wat Phnom, and ascend the stairs to the area where four Buddha statues were toppled by receding flood waters in the 14th century. At the shrine near the top of the hill, dozens of people pray, burn incense and lay flowers on altars.
A red-robed monk says he walks 54 kilometres twice a year to worship here. “It can be kind of tiring,” he admits. “I take the bus back home.”
On my last day in Phnom Penh, as if I didn’t know enough already about human cruelty, I visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former high school the Khmer Rouge converted in 1975 into the country’s largest house of horrors.
More than 17,000 people were tortured to death on the premises or trucked to a rural killing field. A sign on the main gate lists the rules prisoners were forced to obey, among them “While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry.”
Black-and-white mug shots of grim-faced prisoners hang on inside walls. A government guide thoroughly describes the terrors they suffered. It’s a disturbing place to tour, but an important dose of reality.