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Into the Heart of Darkness

Into the Heart of Darkness


Actually, the boat trip up the Mekong was uneventful. I kept looking for remnants of that bridge from Apocalypse Now, but there wasn’t much to see from the middle of a mile-wide river, red with the mud of the half dozen countries it passes through. In the hour we were still in Vietnam, the banks were mainly vegetable and rice farms.


In Cambodia, you see more trees and cattle. Crossing the border, we stopped at both a Vietnam exit station (a houseboat) and the Cambodia entry station. Although there is nothing to it, just the concept of entering Cambodia is exciting. While waiting to get our passports stamped, we talked to French couple about our age and found that the man was actually born in Hanoi. His father had been a lawyer in the old French Indochina, leaving Hanoi for Phnom Penh when the country was partitioned in 1954. In 1975, he was the last Frenchman to leave Phnom Penh, barely escaping the Kymer Rouge. This was their third visit back to southeast Asia.


The boat trip was from 8:00 AM until 2:30 PM, at least 1 1/2 hours more than scheduled. There are no taxis in Phnom Penh, so we took a tuk-tuk to the Raffles Hotel Royal. A tuk-tuk is a gussied up trailer with seats and a canopy pulled by a motorcycle and is the main transportation for visitors in Cambodia. The Raffles is the most expensive hotel we are staying in, but I chose it for nostalgia. I stayed there in March 1970 for about three days. Then, it was Phnom Penh's best hotel but was in genteel deterioration and cheap by American standards. Now it is expanded and thoroughly modern.


When I was here in 1970, Cambodia probably had not changed in 100 years. It still was French Indochina in appearance and culture. French was still the language of culture, commerce and tourism (what little there was of it), and I found my vestigial French quite useful. The same time I was here, the U.S. backed coup when Sihanouk was deposed by Lon Nol. It was also the month the U.S. started B-52 raids in Cambodia and invaded six weeks later.


The resiliency of what is now the population of Phnom Penh is astonishing. When Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge capture the city in 1975 and drove its inhabitants into the countryside, killing most of them, the population dropped from 600,000 to some 30,000, mainly Khymer Rouge soldiers. This is about the same scale of depopulation present in New Orleans when I was there after Katrina, only they weren't killing people. By mid 1975, Phnom Penh  was no longer functional, and many buildings and monuments were destroyed. Today, the population is back up to 1.5 million, and the city is thriving.


Tourism is big, mainly Europeans and Australians. The unofficial currency is the U.S. dollar, which makes transactions easy. But Phnom Penh is still gritty, with potholed streets and garbage that remind me somewhat of wartime Vietnam. Cambodia has the highest proportion of war-related amputees of any country in the world, and they are everyhere begging for money.


we have a whole day here before flying to Siem Reap and will visit the National Museum, the Royal Palace and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.