Phnom Penh gets its name from the Cambodian phnom(meaning mountain or hill) and penh(meaning full). Traditionally, it is known as “Mountain of Plenty.” They've got that right: plenty of heat and dust. Cambodia's capital city doesn't suffer beneath the heavy smog that clouds other big Asian cities, but a perpetual haze of dust from unpaved or barely paved roads serves as a kind of brown canopy.
That's not all that hangs over Phnom Penh. Reigning for just three years, eight months and 20 days beginning in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge regime committed some of this century's worst crimes against humanity. Some 2 million people were executed or herded toward death. Twenty-three years later, gruesome, dreadfully unmistakable signs of the recently deceased Pol Pot's reign of terror still dot the city. Many men and women scurry about with shrapnel scars where eyes used to be. Some push themselves in rickety wheelchairs. One-legged people hop along on makeshift crutches or prosthetic legs made out of simple items like stovepipes with wooden discs for feet.
One twentysomething man in a park across the street, shirtless and wearing grubby pants and thongs, stood over an infant who was shuffling and waving its hands as children that age do. The man leaned on a single crutch, his left leg blown off just below the knee. Furtively, I let out the full 300 mm zoom lens, believing the distance separating us enough cover, and snapped off two frames. His radar beamed in, and he scooped up the child in one arm and began hobbling over to my position with the same hand out that bore the kid. I walked the opposite way. He called, “Money, money.” I felt shame, fear, dishonor. Was taking a photo turning him into a cheap midway act? Did I owe him money? Could it be said he was exploiting his debilitation?
I didn't know. I kept walking.
Street vendors peddled deep-fried whole birds a little smaller than Cornish game hens. Also on the menu were deep-fried grasshoppers the length of my forefinger and deep-fried cockroaches about half that. I decided to save my money and appetite for later.
The Silver Pagoda, an attention-grabbing tourist stop when it's open, houses solid-gold Buddhas trimmed with huge diamonds and other precious stones. The floor is covered with exactly 5,329 tiles of silver, each weighing 1.125 kilograms. Why hadn't the Khmer Rouge looted it? Was a conscience in there somewhere?
Hardly. Ten miles outside Phnom Penh are the most famous killing fields, those of Choeung Ek. A fabulous guide named Leat (pronounced LEE-AT) led me through the area on his Honda 50. Approximately 17,000 people were killed and buried in 129 mass graves here. Workers exhumed more than 8,000 remains from 86 graves and then arranged the skulls by sex and age into a glass stupa as a memorial. Leat pointed out the gaping holes and cuts in the skulls where hammers or axes bludgeoned the victims.
On the floor of the stupa were rusted garden shears, hoes, hammers, saws and leg chains that had been used as instruments of torture and death. There were less industrial methods, too. The part of the leaf that grows near the trunk of palm-oil trees is stiff, with sharp, serrated edges resembling organic Swede saws. These were the Khmer Rouge's tools of decapitation. Women and children were held by the feet, and Leat pointed out the trees where the victims' heads were smashed. Small dugouts survive with bits of cloth, bones and teeth scattered about. You can find similar killing fields and mass graves throughout the country, as well as eager and intelligent guides willing to take you through them.
And yet the most remarkable thing about Cambodia today is the pervasive gaiety—despite the history, the pain and losses. The adults initially stare with unsettling apprehension, but I soon found that as soon as I smiled, their faces sprang to life. The children exploded with immediate, unsolicited joy, grinning from temple to temple, waving delightedly and bursting, “Hello! Hello!” Simply waving back with a smile or a reciprocal “hello” spawned torrential giggles.
Leat—my chauffeur, guide, friend and Cambodian encyclopedia—has the highest ratio of smile per square inch in the history of faces. He never let me down or tried to weasel an extra nickel. In Phnom Penh, he took me to a school that the Khmer Rouge used as a prison and torture chamber. It is now the Museum of Genocide. The classrooms became jails where slaves constructed tiny cells of brick and mortar and secured chains in the floor. A wall shows rows and rows of black-and-white mug shots of the soon-to-be-massacred with numbers on their chests. Another wall of photos unmasks the inhumanity, the numbered bodies now shown in assorted horizontal poses of death.
Leat patiently explained that he was 17 when Pol Pot banned formal education. Conscripted to the south, Leat worked in the rice fields from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for three years and eight months. Twice a day, he was fed watery rice.
“No meat! No meat! Only rice! No vegetables! Only rice!” Leat shouted in imitation of his former captors.
After some uncomfortable silence, Leat let out a laugh to break the tension and said, “Pol Pot crazy! Pol Pot crazy!”