“You want go to killing fields?” “Go to killing fields?” We must have heard that question 20 times during our brief stay in Phnom Penh. I found it repugnant — Cambodia's ghastly genocide turned into the town's biggest tourist attraction. As Steve points out, I shouldn't blame the Cambodians. We've paid our entrance fees at plenty of other testaments to human barbarism around the globe. And I think visitors to Cambodia should know about what happened here (now almost 40 years ago). Almost everything I know about it comes from reading A Cambodian Odyssey, the memoir written by Haing Ngor — the Cambodian doctor-turned-actor who won an Academy Award for his performance in the famous movie. His book recounted the horrible events so vividly, I've never been able to shake the memory of them. It also made me aware that virtually the whole country became a killing field during the four bloody years during which the Khmer Rouge rampaged. So why go to one particular spot?
But what else to do on the single day we had to explore the city? (Although we arrived at mid-day Thursday, the heat was so stunning, we couldn't drag ourselves away from our hotel's awesome pool.) Fortunately, I had posed this question to the Goddess Google, and she had whispered back: take one of the Khmer Architecture Tours.
Online, I learned that Phnom Penh has a tiny private organization dedicated to educating visitors about the architectural innovation that flowered in the city during the 1960s. Its members give a couple of private tours; one concentrates on the work of the Vann Molyvann. I'd never heard of the guy, but the website made it sound like he was a major figure in architecture, designing at least 100 significant works between 1960 and 1972 (when the looming catastrophic political events prompted him to leave the country). Steve and I love looking at buildings, so we booked the Molyvann private tour ($30 per person, including the cost of hiring a tuk-tuk for half a day and a professional architect to serve as guide.)
We were scheduled to do that at 2:30 in the afternoon. In the morning we caught a tuk-tuk and walked around the center of Phnom Penh for 3 hours, following the self-guided map published by the KAT organization. It rained for the first hour, so the heat didn't feel lethal. Cambodia today is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its capital shows the strain. It has a couple of glitzy high-rises, and some upscale neighborhoods that look almost chic by American standards. It has coffee shops to rival Starbucks and fancy cosmetic stores and at least some gleaming supermarkets. But stinking heaps of garbage collect along plenty of streets, and the power goes out frequently. On our walking tour, we saw structures built at various points in the first half of the 20th century. Though we could see the former beauty of them, most looked sad and unkempt.
While the walking tour was interesting, the highlight of the day was our outing with Varik Roeum, our 23-year-old KAT guide. A charming fellow who just completed his architectural studies a few months ago, he spent almost 4 hours with us, during which we talked about topics ranging from Indochinese alphabets to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. As we chatted, we drove to see three examples of Molyvann's work: a low-income housing project built between 1965 and 1967, the Teachers Training College facility (now the Institute of Language) built on the Royal University of Phnom Penh campus and inaugurated in 1972, and the massive National Sport Complex dedicated in 1964.
Seeing these buildings, learning from Varik about the innovations that went into their design, made us think: this guy really WAS a genius. His works have the look of the 60s about them — the use of concrete, the sharp geometries. But more than 50 years later, they're still functioning well, letting in light and air in ways that make them both livable, beautiful, and economical. Molyvann at times pays subtle homage to classical Khmer detailing, but more than anything, we sensed an intelligence keenly attuned to the ever-important question: how can I create a sustainable building that these particular inhabitants at this particular site will be happy living and working in?
“No one is doing ANYTHING like this in Cambodia today!” Varik lamented. Architectural students don't learn about Molyvann in school; Varik's passionate enthusiasm only developed after he heard about the KAT group from a fellow student (the group itself was started by a knowledgeable British architect.) At the National Sports Complex, where we watched a horde of Cambodians using the stadium — jogging, strolling, playing soccer on the field — Varik said there were rumors it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for more gleaming, fast-money developments. “I hope it's just a rumor,” he said. But other Molyvann masterpieces have already fallen victim to the wrecking ball.
I told him I hoped so too. Some Khmer masterpieces have long withstood the attack of brutes and barbarians. Right now we're blasting up the Tonle Sap River toward the most famous one of all: Angkor Wat.