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PHNOM PENH

It’s the second great set-piece of Cambodian tourism, ranking only after ‘The Day At The Temples’ – ‘One Day In Phnom Penh’ is just as awesome, in its own, kinda unpleasant way. Everybody does it, one way or another. Today is Pol Pot day; the Phnom Penh day of death and destruction – man’s inhumanity to man served up in neat, bite-size chunks.

First a touch of culture; on the one day circuit you’ll do the Museum, the Golden Palace, and much, much more – but, having taken your exactly similar photos you’ll forget all this.

In the afternoon, the museum of the inexplicable is on the list. Tuol Sleng, primary school turned torture house, suburban charnel with all the madness of Pol Pot on display. Nobody gets out of here alive. It’s the faces you’ll remember, staring out at you; walls of them, faces before death.

And the ‘why?’

No one gets that right. The fact is that nobody knows.

There’s nothing smart to say about it, no words that haven’t been said – it’s the ritual Phnom Penh rite of passage – the only thing fun about it is the knowledge that you never have to do it again. It’s essential Cambodia knowledge; without it nothing makes sense – but many choose the shopping option, duck the carnage, jump the gore.

  

Killing fields

In a curious by-product of the tourist boom a particular brand of ‘trauma-theatre’ has developed as guides vie daily for the Best Actor Award. Everybody has a lengthy Pol Pot story. That’s what we want to hear. If it can make the tourists cry, all the better. Today is a day for those well-meaning, thoughtless Pol Pot tears, a day to weep for those battered Pol Pot babies. There’s a direct ratio between sobs sobbed and tips tipped.

The best of them will lead you on a tour to remember; even the worst can’t dull the pain of that empty schoolyard, those brown tiles, the rows and rows of photos, high school yearbook of the year of no return. No matter how moved you choose to be, remember this single fact; for a trauma story to be repeated three times a week, fifty weeks a year; year after year – it’s a performance, not a purge.

Those Delta divas know how to make you cry, it’s as polished a show as you’re likely to see – you’ll feel bonded, indeed privileged, to hear such a tale. Murmuring sweet caresses, she will blush and scoop up your guilty tips by the Gypsy handful as you queue to thank her in the appropriate way.

And at the end of the long and grisly day you can content yourself with the certain knowledge that you are the only person thinking about Pol Pot in Cambodia at that moment.

Still frozen in the long winter of national shame, Cambodia prefers to get on with life. Those who remember with any clarity have to be fifty. In Cambodia that is getting very old. Life expectancy is fifty-nine. Fifty percent of the population is under the age of twenty. The new Cambodia is flooded with children who have no comprehension or, indeed, any interest in what went before. Some don’t even believe it happened; most only know what little they are taught. Just as the baby-boomers turned their backs on their parent’s war, so the youth of Cambodia forge ahead ignoring theirs.

The other consolation may be the knowledge that no matter how much you talk, no matter how much you read and study the politics of the time, no matter how much you puzzle; the pure fact of the matter is that you, like countless scholars before you, will not uncover a single clue as to why all this happened. None of it makes any sense at all. ‘A national madness’ is about as good a phrase as any.

The scarring effect on the national psyche is as much in the eyes of the onlooker as in the Cambodian heart. For the youthful denizens of Phnom Penh Pol Pot has no resonance at all. They are far more preoccupied with matters close at hand.

That night, docked in Phnom Penh, Ned stood up after dinner, flushed with cheap wine and bonhomie.

‘Come on,’ he said to his startled wife,’ we’re going out.’

She was so surprised she agreed. They lurched off up the gangway and clambered up the bank to the bright lighjts of downtown Phnom Penh laughing like crazy children. Ned and Mrs. Ned were having a great adventure. They were a long way from the farm.

‘How’d you go last night,’ I asked at breakfast.

‘Well, Ned said with a new twinkle in his eye,’ we didn’t go far…’

He chuckled.

‘And we didn’t do much…

He paused triumphantly.

‘But we DID…”

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