Now, Cambodia

After the hyper-modernity of Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh was a bit of a shock. As the plane descended to the runway on Saturday, I looked out both sides and saw — nothing. No tall buildings. No sign of a city. At least, no signs I recognized. Is the city that far away from the airport? I wondered.

Not far at all, it turns out. It’s just that four or five floors is about the tallest any building gets in the capital city of Cambodia. Motorbikes of the typical Southeast Asian variety (Honda Wave, and the clones by Yamaha and Suzuki) came toward my taxi on both sides, moving at a leisurely speed. We passed shabby shops and street stands, heaps of garbage, small buildings under construction or in a state of dismantlement. No apartment buildings. No office towers. No shopping malls. (Today our trip leader, Phalkun, told me there are exactly two shopping malls in Phnom Penh. We saw one KFC in our two days there. And no McDonald’s.)

Our hotel, however, was very nice. Good air conditioning, hot water in the shower, clean sheets, and an elevator.

Yesterday I spent the morning at the Royal Palace, where the beautiful gardens made for wonderful strolling. I found the architecture indistinguishable from Thai palace architecture — still quite exotic by Western standards. (Photos later.) A hard rain came down just as we were ready to leave, but it lasted only about 20 minutes, and it left a cool breeze behind it.

Our Intrepid Travel group spent the afternoon touring S-21 (Security Prison 21), now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum — where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of people in the 1970s — and the killing fields about 15 km outside Phnom Penh, where thousands of people were slaughtered. We heard a grim history lesson, delivered by a calm but intense local guide.

People here who are older than 30 can remember the horror, famine, and constant fear of that time. More than a million people were killed in less than five years. The total population of Cambodia today is 14 million.

I found it hard to imagine how people could be persuaded to interrogate and kill other people in the ways described. It’s difficult enough to understand how one ethnic or racial group can commit genocide against another, but in Cambodia, there were no ethnic, racial, religious or language differences between torturer and tortured, between killer and killed. Only ideology. Frightening to think that so little can separate people so completely.

Today, an early departure by air-con long-distance bus and arrival in Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia. It is not large at all! We walked around a bit after our five-hour bus ride (and a long lunch) and saw a wat (Buddhist temple complex) and a clean, green public park where lots of locals were lounging around, playing with their kids, and even doing aerobics in a big group.

There are eight people in this group, plus Phalkun. Two are British and the rest are Australian. We will be traveling together for two weeks.

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