Travel 

The dark side of Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s capital city is still haunted by the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge

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Somewhere over the Mekong Delta we crossed from Vietnamese into Cambodian airspace. It’s only a 40-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh but it spans one of the most historically volatile regions in all of Southeast Asia. Back in the 18 th century, before the Vietnamese annexed it, the rich agricultural land of the Delta was part of the Khmer Kingdom. Since then Cambodia’s border has been buffeted by war, violated by its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, and ignored by foreign powers.

As we begin our descent into Phnom Penh I get a fleeting glimpse of the mighty Mekong River that runs through the centre of the city. Moments later a friendly immigration officer welcomes us to Cambodia and takes only a few minutes to process our visas. Kosal, a stocky, dark skinned fellow in his early 40s greets us with a big smile. He will be our guide in Phnom Penh. The trip to our hotel takes us past stately French Colonial houses, some restored, others crumbling into ruin. Built 100 years ago when Cambodia was part of French Indochina, they now stand side by side with Art Deco mansions that once belonged to officials of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s pre revolutionary government.

The traffic, a mix of tuk tuks, motorbikes, and pickups, is less frantic than that in Ho Chi Minh and, perhaps because it is smaller, the pace of life seems more relaxed. After a sumptuous dinner at the Amoc Cafe we return to the Juliana Hotel, order a drink from the bar, and settle down at a table in the lush poolside garden. It’s hard to imagine that 33 years ago foreigners like us were banned from the country and the people of Phnom Penh were fleeing their city in terror, abandoning their homes, shops, and most of their possessions to a handful of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

In her book First They Killed My Father (Harper Collins), Loung Ung describes the day the soldiers arrived and ordered everyone to leave on the pretense that the U.S. was about to bomb the city. “You can return in three days,” they were told. It was the first of many lies designed to control the terrified people. At checkpoints outside the city the Khmer soldiers offered good jobs to anyone who had worked for the Lon Noi government. Those who identified themselves were killed. The others became virtual slaves in work camps and rural communes where many died of starvation and disease.

I asked Kosal if he remembered that terrible time. “Yes,” he replied, “my experience was very similar to that of Loung Ung. Almost every family in Cambodia was affected one way or another by Khmer Rouge violence. They killed three members of my family and I have lost track of the others.”

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