"You like to go to killing field?"

OK, Phnom Penh! Before departing Siem Reap Kevin threw a little poll up on Facebook asking whether we should visit PP or not. Public opinion was split (one vote for, one against) and ultimately we decided we should see more of Cambodia than just the history-rich but touristy Siem Reap area (plus a few hours of borderland through the window of the van from Poi Pet).

I’m glad we made it to Phnom Penh. I feel this way even though we did not have an especially great time there. A big factor was the Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14 and lasts about a week; the holiday hadn’t inhibited us much in the tourist economy of Siem Reap, but in Phnom Penh, 80% of the businesses were closed. (Do your homework ahead, kids! Although as none of our guidebooks mentioned this scheduling challenge, this probably would have required more digging than we had time to do.) So instead of enjoying cafes and bars that cater to expats and the little street businesses that cater to locals, we mostly hung out at more expensive and generic places that cater to tourists. At least we contributed to the local economy.

On the plus side, we stayed in one of the best $45-a-night hotel rooms we’re ever likely to find (LeBiz, it was called: free wifi, breakfast included, looks like the inside of an Apple store). Everyone was really nice to us. The chestnut that, despite the wonders of Angkor, Cambodia’s greatest treasure is its people — which struck and more or less still strikes me as sort of a smarmy, facile thing to say — nevertheless felt true when we eked out a conversation with a remork driver about his home province, or heard from a waiter about his immense pride in Cambodia’s first-ever crop of locally grown strawberries. (I looked aghast at the two on my plate that I hadn’t yet consumed, and then crammed them into my face with the quickness.) And it was a good idea to have a more modern counterpoint to the medieval-era history artifacts in Siem Reap.

Of course, it’s a little weird to go to a place and seek out the remaining evidence of the recent atrocities visited upon, and committed by, its people. But the locals seem down with the tourist interest in the Khmer Rouge. There is a funny/terrible thing that seemed to happen repeatedly, where a remork driver would come up to any Westerner leaving a building and ask, with a huge hopeful smile, “You like to go to killing field?” Aaaaaaahhhhh.

As for the attractions themselves: The killing fields exhibit and Tuol Sleng genocide museum are especially interesting because of how poorly kept up they are. At Tuol Sleng, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a detention/torture center and general staging ground for people who were to be executed, there are still bloodstains visible on the floors and walls, and while some rooms contain prison memorabilia — bed frames, shackling equipment, photos of victims, bullet boxes in which prisoner excrement was stored, strings of barbed wire, and the gradually collapsing remains of claustrophobic detention cells — other rooms contain piles of broken air-conditioning equipment or haphazard stacks of sun-bleached informational posters that are no longer in use. The combined effect is incredibly eerie, and gave me a very different feeling than visiting Holocaust museums and exhibits ever has. It felt like at any moment a door might slam closed behind me and I might be trapped in the nightmare myself. It’s a weird example of poor organization and minimal maintenance making for an even more effective experience (whether or not this is what’s intended).

At the killing fields site, the low-maintenance approach is perhaps less good. You arrive at this field, which is hot and dusty but basically serene until you see the huge Humvee-sized divots that represent the excavated mass graves. But periodically sticking up out of the ground we would see teeth and broken limb bones, slowly disintegrating under the ferocious sun and tourist footsteps. (There were several signs entreating “Please do not walk through the mass graves!” but I can’t imagine everyone obeys.) There’s a memorial stupa — kind of a Plexiglass column within an ornamental pagoda-style tower — that displays about 8,000 human skulls. But it’s not climate-controlled, or guarded, or even fully sealed against public interference. I am not exaggerating when I say I could have taken an eggshell-fragile, 35-year-old human skull and put it in my purse, and probably no one would have noticed. This seems bad.

I’m knocking these sites’ maintenance standards in awareness of how it must sound; it’s this kind of concern that sees countries dispossessed of their antiquities by arguably well-meaning, equally arguably opportunistic western countries. And Cambodia has some problems that may well rank ahead of atrocity-preservation on its to-do list. Maybe peeps aren’t even all that interested in keeping these memories alive; that would be understandable.

Phnom Penh’s more distant history seems just as haphazardly preserved and presented, though. Touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, our guide explained rather earnestly that an effort is being made to prevent people from touching the bas reliefs, based on advice from UNESCO. By contrast, at Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda we saw the piles of bamboo strips with Sanskrit and Pali writing on them, which seemed to be just thrown in a jumble in some unlabeled glass-fronted filing cabinet. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem to assess: would some help from art historians and management consultants more than pay for itself in boosted tourist revenue or local pride, or are the country’s extremely meager funds better spent elsewhere first? Having seen a little of the hard conditions in some of the country’s more rural areas, I can’t really advocate museum renovation.

Fortunately, no one is asking me to whiteboard solutions for the challenges of any developing country. At the end of it, I felt grateful for having visited Phnom Penh, as well as guiltily grateful to leave. Our Cambodia visit registers now, even a couple of days later, as a bleeding-heart-liberal ache in my chest. No one is in any great need of my opinion, but I can’t help asking myself anyway: What to do, what to do?

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