Phnom Penh

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Cambodia is not all death and destruction — not anymore, and I find its capital city, despite its uniquely violent history quite pleasant. Once again, I am acutely aware that my short glimpse of the place is entirely limited to what the vast majority tourists see: namely, the lush interior of a quaint guest house, the exquisite grounds of the Royal Palace, and the chic and expensive strip of restaurants along the warm, breezy riverfront (plus the heart-wrenching Tuol Sleng/Killing Fields tour about which I’ve written below).

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The palace grounds are stunning, an assortment of classical Cambodian pagodas, stone Buddhas, mini-museums, and a few French colonial relics. The vegetation is severely pruned, the compound immaculate, the rays of afternoon sun clean and strong. There are no thoughts here of the country’s pervasive poverty, its history of repression and war; no hint of the long string of inept and sickeningly corrupt leaders that have been raping their own people for generations. Instead, one finds only beautiful architectural lines and colors and glints of gold.

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A few blocks away, the commercial strip along the Ton Li Sap River, which has grown from a three-bar expat hangout eight years ago to a 20-bar nightspot today, shows only a little bit more of Cambodia’s reality, with a controlled assortment of beggars, deformed landmine victims, and postcard-hawking children. There are enough random oddities (a wandering elephant, a pile of greasy fried tarantulas, a crowded Buddhist shrine) to make it all quite exotic — something, indeed, to write home about.

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The expats with whom I’m drinking Lao beers at La Cantina (my first plate of nachos in six months!) call Phnom Penh extremely “livable,” a much better place to raise your kids than, say, Bangkok.

Tay and I wander the river bank, we gawk at our meal prices (triple what they were in India but infinitely more varied and delectable), and on our third morning, we climb aboard the Mekong Express with 40 other tourists, a first-class bus to Siem Reap — and the ruins of Angkor.

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