Unexpected Cambodia

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Alexander Chee, with 24 hours’ notice, to a Southeast Asian country where he encountered headless Buddhas and naked hotel guests.

My first night in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I made a list of places I might visit. I found myself unable to commit to any. To help me choose, I went to the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Le Royal, where I was staying, and sat at the bar with a negroni, using the hotel Wi-Fi to look things up, postponing the decision even further.

I overheard two regulars near me complaining about the recent renovation.

Most hotel bars don’t have regulars, but the Elephant Bar, something of a destination in itself, does. Under the communist rule of the Khmer Rouge, the churches were torn down, but this art deco hotel, built in 1929—and its bar—remained. Pol Pot was once a guest at the hotel. So was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The online pictures of the old bar did not suggest it had been ruined by the makeover.

I liked that the ceiling’s original painted friezes of elephants were kept, and said so to the manager, who told me a story about them.

“We hoped to have a new elephant painted on one of the walls, lower to the ground, by the bar entrance,” he said. “A search was made for the artist who did these, in case he was still alive, but we couldn’t find him, and he was feared dead. And then one of the bartenders, hearing about the search, said, ‘He drinks here.’”

Their amazement at finding the artist soon turned to disappointment when he refused the commission, saying a new elephant would dampen the energy of the other elephants. “And he was right,” the manager said. He gestured at the empty wall. “We’ll just have to find something else to go there.”

I stayed in the bar, hoping to see the painter come in, but he didn’t. What had he endured to still be alive, still drinking in the bar underneath his masterpieces, years after so many artists had been killed by the Khmer Rouge? That the artist was still alive to reject the hotel’s commission was nothing short of a miracle. I wondered if his painted elephants had saved him—if Pol Pot had liked them and had spared his life.

The next morning, I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me around town. He told me his name was James Bond, and asked if he should take me to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes, offering a price that included both.

He was a handsome young man of some kind of mixed Khmer heritage—his hair was light and wavy, his eyes a dark blue. The roof of his vehicle displayed a menu of tourist spots identified with thumbnail photos: the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia, Wat Phnom, the Russian Market, building after building. The Genocide Museum and Killing Fields thumbnail was of an emaciated figure, mouth open in a cry.

On hearing that I was going to Phnom Penh, a friend had warned me that I would have to decide whether or not to take in these sights, and that if I did want to see the Killing Fields, I should go in the morning, so that the images wouldn’t end up in my dreams.

“No,” I said to James Bond, telling myself that staying away from the museum and the fields meant that at least I wouldn’t have to stand there as tourists took selfies by the remains. And so we settled on a price for him to take me to a few of the other places. But, at that moment, deciding not to go actually thrust the dead even more vividly into my imagination.

The missing generation, as it is called, (though people of many ages died between 1975 and 1979), is estimated at 1.7 million, three-quarters of the current population of Phnom Penh. The targets of the killings had been predominantly ethnic Vietnamese, but they were also Cambodian artists, writers, journalists, professors. People like me, I could only think, as James Bond pulled us out into traffic.

What do you do when you kill off a generation of your artists, I wondered. What does that city look like afterward? Everything we passed was the answer. Around me in the streets were crowds of beautiful young people on scooters, motorcycles, and tuk-tuks, moving among the cars and buses with improbable grace, like schools of fish. Some of the drivers wore helmets, some surgical face masks, some both, some neither. Most notable was that very few were older than 40.

I felt it was perhaps time to leave. Yet I also knew I wasn’t finished here.

My visit to Phnom Penh, then, was marked by what was missing, and imagining the missing became all I could do.

I quickly learned that street directions and signs operate more as suggestions than anything else. This is a city of 2.2 million with only 100 stoplights. Drivers suddenly turn down a street in the wrong direction, their faces full of what I came to think of as Buddhist aplomb. How else to explain their confidence that the other drivers would make room, which they always did, or the calm, impersonal patience of those other drivers? I waited to see one person swear, or shout, or hit another vehicle in traffic. I never witnessed anything like that.

I began my sightseeing with James Bond at Wat Phnom, a hilltop temple at the center of Phnom Penh. The city takes its name, which translates roughly as “the Hill of Lady Penh,” from a wealthy 14th-century businesswoman, the widow Penh. The temple was built to house four bronze statues of the Buddha and a stone statue of Vishnu that she found enmeshed in the branches of a tree that was floating down the Mekong River. This was a sign to her that the gods had left Angkor and blessed a new capital, what is now Phnom Penh. She was proven right a century later. The temple now sits in the middle of a roundabout along Sisowath Quay, near the river. It looks much like what you might expect of a temple built by a very rich Buddhist, complete with the found Buddhas, their bronze shapes oddly dull amid the bright colors of the place, and a statue of the widow herself.

My day tour went downhill from there.

I had a somewhat listless gin and tonic at the Foreign Correspondents Club, another famous Phnom Penh watering hole, which had seen better days. It seemed unlikely that foreign correspondents would show up here, and the other guests were probably, like me, wondering what they were doing here.

I stood in line for the Royal Palace until I discovered that admission was cash only. On my way to a nearby ATM, I passed a group of men selling paperback autobiographies of survivors of the Khmer Rouge. A sign beside them explained that they were former beggars, supported by an NGO. I withdrew my cash, but as I returned and walked by the booksellers, I could only wonder which was harder, begging or trying to sell these books. It dawned on me that paying to look at royal treasures and jewels was not how I wanted to spend my day. So I paid James Bond, who was confused when I said I wanted to walk back to the hotel on my own.

I got a little lost on the way. The beautiful Royal Poinciana trees lining the streets, covered in clouds of orange blossoms, said more to me than the jewels would have. But they also seemed to say that I had done only the easy tourist things in Phnom Penh. I felt it was perhaps time to leave. Yet I also knew I wasn’t finished here.

So far, the Raffles hotel was what I liked best in the city, a guilty pleasure and an artifact both—the dark wood polished with lemon oil, the cool tiled halls. I explored the upstairs and found myself in front of a brass plaque that read the Andre Malraux suite. The inscription explained: In honour of Andre Malraux, who as a young, talented avant-garde writer and art lover visited Cambodia and incorporated his experiences in the novel la voie royale, the royal way.

“Art lover,” I thought, and smiled.

Malraux came to Cambodia in 1923 with his wife, Clara. Like many young Frenchmen of his time, he hoped to make a fortune stealing art from the tombs in Angkor. Clara was an heiress, and they had run through her money. He managed to pilfer a few statues but was caught, arrested, and put on trial, and the relics were recovered. After his conviction, he fled and returned to France and was never extradited, thanks to his political connections.

I took a selfie of my reflection in the polished brass, and a hotel employee appeared as if by magic and offered to let me see the suite. While I preferred my own accommodations, surveying the writer’s room—with its beautiful desk, a letter box carved into the shape of a sleeping deer, leaf patterns etched along its shoulders and back, and a portrait of the young Malraux in a place of honor near the door (everything but a shelf of his collected works)—helped me make up my mind about what I’d do next.

There is one other reason one visits Phnom Penh: as a stop-off on the way to and from Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. I decided to follow in the footsteps of Malraux. I went downstairs, booked the short flight, and flew there the next day.

Angkor Wat feels like the secret capital of Cambodia, like royalty in exile, or sovereigns abandoned. In the early morning dark, as I made my way with my guide to the ticket entrance, I found hundreds of tourists hoping to catch dawn at the ruins.

I had wanted to come here for years and had nurtured a fantasy about Angkor Wat. This wasn’t it. The fantasy was of being, if not alone, at least in a calm and tranquil setting. But I pushed my disappointment aside as my guide rushed us from the ticket gate to the temple and we made our way to the edge of the palace moat. I had been five minutes late to meet him, and that had nearly cost us the dawn. The sunrise photo moment would be over quickly. Think of the Mona Lisa, if the Mona Lisa were shown for five minutes and then became too bright to look at.

Angkor is a vast palace and temple structure set up as a model of the universe. The moat that surrounds it fills in the rainy season, a gleaming mirror that reflects the palace facade. To capture a photograph at dawn was the prize, and to that end the left bank of the moat was already full of tourists, but the right still had space. My guide expertly positioned me on that side and told me this was where I should take my photo.

As the crowd filled in around me, pulling out their selfie sticks, making faces, shoving one another, I kept telling myself I was at last in one of the most amazing ruins on earth. And despite my growing contempt for the people around me and what they would do with the prize—a premium flair badge for your Instagram feed—I too held my phone as high as I could to shoot over the other hands and selfie sticks as the sun appeared. My hope, like theirs, was to give any future viewer of the picture, myself included, the illusion that I stood there alone. Afterward, when I ran through my phone to delete some of the imperfect photos—the ones with other people’s phones in the shot—I couldn’t. They made me laugh and instantly became some of my favorites: pictures of a crowd of people attempting to create the impression of a solitary experience in an ancient place.

When the guide took me inside the temple, he described the myths depicted in the palace’s murals and the old ethnic conflicts written into them, and he pointed out the numerous phallic symbols, so many I had to laugh.

Then we came to a Buddha, seated in perfect meditation and headless. The head is in Phnom Penh, my guide said, in the National Museum, for safekeeping.

Someone stole the head? I asked.

Yes, he said. He raised his hand shoulder high and made a slicing motion across his neck. The tomb robbers, they took the head every time.

All the Buddha heads I had ever seen in life suddenly made sense to me. They were either stolen or replicas of stolen ones. Of course, if you are a Buddhist, you don’t want the head, you want the whole image of Buddha. If you are a trophy hunter, you take the head.

The next Angkor temples on the list were Ta Prohm, famous for the trees growing out of the ruins, and Bayon, its many stone towers bearing hundreds of gigantic faces—of the Buddha, or the king, or Shiva, or all three. The heads, too huge to be absconded with, seemed like they’d been built to mock the trophy hunters.

When I got back to Phnom Penh for the final days of my trip, the city, the second time around, was nearly like an old friend. I checked into Arthur & Paul, a former schoolhouse from the 1930s, located in Phnom Penh’s chic Boeung Keng Kang 1 neighborhood, continuing my French-colonial-hotel theme, as well as my French authors theme. The hotel is named for the writers Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Its suites pay tribute to famous gay couples—I was in Yves and Pierre, named for Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé. A framed St. Laurent drawing greeted me by the door.

In this all-male gay boutique hotel, with its L-shaped outdoor pool, like a modern temple to the phallus after all those ancient ones, my sense of the dead as constant companions no longer overwhelmed me. It had been supplanted by a sense of the deeper relationship between Phnom Penh and Angkor. Each of these places had come to hold pieces of the other, as defined by the story my guide told me about the head of the Buddha sitting in the National Museum. To close the loop, I went to the museum, hired a guide, and asked him to take me to see the head—a final act of imagination, of reunification.

I could now see Phnom Penh as a city full of life, and I turned my attention to the living. The Arthur & Paul was like a hotel out of a storybook, the charming hotel cat always being chased by the adorable two-year-old daughter of the owner, Josephine—the one woman allowed inside. The staff was all sweet young Khmer men, attractive, funny, and friendly. The bartender fixed his hair so incessantly I was afraid it would fall out. I taught him how to make a proper dry gin martini and watched guests swim naked in the hotel pool. Around town, I drank at Zeppelin, a rock-and-roll LP bar; and I got a pizza at Katy Peri’s Peri Peri Chicken & Pizza, essentially a wood-fired oven mounted on a tuk-tuk named in honor of Katy Perry. I tried a few of the new restaurants opening up all over Phnom Penh, including Deco and the Duck, and drank negronis at the microbars on Bassac Lane. On my last night, I swam in my hotel’s pool, alone under the moon. Instead of feeling that there was nothing to do, I found there was too much to do.

At Wat Phnom they tell you to make a wish, and if it comes true, you have to come back to give thanks. I didn’t make one, unsure if I would return. I wish I had. I’ll make one next time.

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