Phnom Penh, one might say, is the last truly Indochinese city. Ten years ago it was filled with legless beggars mutilated by land mines who chased tourists around in strange green machines operated by their arms. The boys had guns, and the Khmer children of the rich sometimes had their bodyguards shoot up the most infamous of Southeast Asian bars, Heart of Darkness. It was a wild city. The long shadow of Pol Pot was still upon it, and the visitor did not wander through it lightly. There was sweetness, but it could kill.
The Khmer capital is still wild and languid at heart. True, the city is periodically “cleaned up” at the urging of the American ambassador, but, mercifully, to no effect. In the parks and street corners shadowed by tangled wires, the girls with cellphones still whisper all night to passing motorbikes. The Hotel de Paris and the Sakura, half-hidden brothels on out-of-the-way streets, still have their devotees. The French villas are still there in their slow-motion decay, their walls ocher and dark blue and sparkling with crenellations of glass. The douceur de vivre seems improbably intact, a relic of disappeared regimes.
The Tonle Sap flows through the city like a freshwater sea. Not far from this wide, sinister, and beautiful river stands the Hotel Le Royal. Opened in 1929, the Royal was built by the French architect and town planner Ernest Hébrard, the man most responsible for laying out and building modern Phnom Penh. The British war correspondent Jon Swain featured the hotel in his harrowing account of the Indochina war, River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam. He portrayed it as it appeared when he stayed there in the mid-’70s, just prior to the apocalyptic arrival of the Khmer Rouge. It was, he wrote, the only place in the city where there was “something of the lazy charm of the prewar days.” Rooms at the top could be had for $5 a day, he wrote, but they were cheap only because they were exposed to daily rockets and artillery shells. Peril made the city sensual; genocide made it haunted.
I love it at dusk. I sit at the Café de Coral, a Viet place with outdoor tables opposite the Smile supermarket. This little area has perhaps the greatest concentration of dentists on earth, with molar-shaped signs with happy faces painted on them dangling above the mayhem. At 6, it will be the hour for bau (steamed buns) and “purple kelp roll” and “turquoise herbal pudding” downed with “salt lemon water.” Who has yet fully described the wonders of twist rolls and mini cage buns? After which comes an iced Vietnamese coffee with the filter resting on a glass cup and a bowl of condensed milk on the side while I smoke a cigar, always legal here, and watch the smoke in the windless air.
The lights come on, but just before they do there is a half hour of tropical semi-darkness in which the cement-and-plaster façades and the disintegrating shutters suddenly look intimately formal. I walk to Van, the restaurant in a colonial building opposite the Banque d’Indochine, and eat a steak Rossini with foie gras for about $14; afterward I find the blind masseurs wounded by the war, and then the bars on the far side of the Friendship Bridge that sit over the water and from where one can watch the longtail boats with their lanterns moving toward the Mekong.
The city is filled with ruins that elsewhere would have been torn down long ago. Great houses surrounded by gardens that are really fragments of forest; streets that do not feel like streets—more like paths cut through a landscape of plants. At night, then, you are alone, in places unlit, with the smell of giant mango trees. And even in the crowds and markets, in the fierce hedonism of Street 63 or 51, you feel beautifully self-contained and free. The past swamps the present, but not by design.
I ride a motodop through the rivers of motorbikes, and yet there is no friction. Everything is slow. Such cities—like opium dens—will no doubt soon be a thing of the past, and everywhere will be like Brussels or Vancouver. But until then Phnom Penh reminds me of what Indochina was once like: a place given to a curious, indefinable privacy and a merry tolerance, to horror and its forgiveness. You leave your door every night with a slight apprehension, and you return to it hours later with a satiation that is quite mysterious but does not conform to the knowing wink-wink of the outsider: it’s the alchemy of lotus eaters who have also tasted suffering, and of visitors who no longer quite want to go home.