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SUMMER 2008 | Odyssey to Cambodia

SUMMER 2008 | Odyssey to Cambodia

We recently sent the out Ugly Betty actor to one of the world's up-and-coming travel destinations to explore the intensities of its ancient history and recent past.

Monday, FEBruary 11
OMG! When traveling internationally, always reconfirm. Checking in online at 5 p.m., I discovered my 10 p.m. departure was actually 8. Panicked, I ran around the house screaming like Edina Monsoon in AbFab: ?Money, tickets, passport! Money, tickets, passport!? Anyone nervous about traveling to the developing world should spend a couple of hours at LAX. Senator Craig wouldn?t even cruise this dump.
All the raves you?ve heard about the first-class service on Singapore Airlines are happily deserved. Model-thin flight attendants clad in the signature Balmain-designed sarong offered me goodies every 10 minutes: ?Chicken satay? Smoked salmon canap?s? Champagne?? The in-flight menu was concocted by an international team of top chefs, among them Gordon Ramsay from television?s Hell?s Kitchen. Dinner was pan-roasted lamb chops followed by Ben & Jerry?s New York Super Fudge Chunk. My seat was an ergonomically designed lounger that turned into a bed at the push of a button. I now realize flying economy is like staying in an abusive relationship. I deserve better. We all do.

Tuesday, FEBruary 12
I would?ve never chosen Cambodia as a vacation destination. My 1970s perception is completely fear-based. I hear Cambodia and all I think is carpet bombing and refugees, but all that changed the minute I landed. After years of strife and civil unrest, Phnom Penh has thrown open its doors for business, and it feels new and inviting. With luxury condo construction and restoration everywhere, the town is in the midst of a huge comeback, but there?s an eerie absence of senior citizens. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly a third of Cambodia?s population, so currently over 50% of the residents are under the age of 20. All the people zipping by on all matter of tuk tuk (?moto? bikes, pedicabs, motorcycles) look like they just graduated high school. The majority of travelers in Cambodia are Asian, European, and Australian. The few Americans I saw were either backpackers or gay. No one tacky in a fanny pack braying ?Where?s the McDonald?s?? Yet.

Situated at the confluence of the Mekong Delta and Tonle Sap river, Phnom Penh was occupied by the French from 1864 to 1953, and it?s evident from the urban planning. Wide, tree-lined boulevards culminate in driving circles crowned with monuments. As I arrived at the trendy riverfront area along Sisowath Quay, wrought iron balconies and sidewalk caf?s made me think of an Asiatic Paris or New Orleans. I had lunch at La Croisette: steamed sea bass with mushroom ragout and pommes frites -- $5! In Europe they regard the dollar like a used Kleenex. Here it?s welcome currency. As in any Third World country, the prosperous coexist with the poverty-stricken. If you?re shocked and dismayed by burning trash, street kids hustling souvenirs, and livestock holding up traffic, it?s probably best to stick to Orlando.

After lunch I checked into the historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Lovingly restored to its 1929 grandeur, Le Royal is a tribute to all things art deco and French colonial. Very Bette Davis in The Letter. I want to live here. Entering the arched lemongrass-scented lobby, it was easy to imagine former guests Charlie Chaplin and Jacqueline Onassis clicking across the black and white tile. With two shaded pools surrounded by frangipani gardens, a full-service spa, traditional English tea service in the conservatory, megastrength martinis at the Elephant Bar, and world-class dining at Restaurant Le Royal, there?s little point in staying elsewhere. They?ll have to pull me out of this place with a crowbar. I?m game for the dodgiest expedition so long as my day ends in an immaculate hotel room with a bathroom sanitized for my protection. Le Royal delivered both. My room was elegantly appointed, and my salle de bain contained one of the hotel?s original claw-footed bathtubs restored with modern fixtures. I would?ve soaked till pruny, but my guide was waiting to take me to my first stop.

Wat Phnom is a small city park crowned with an active wat (temple) marking the founding place of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that in 1372, Lady Penh fished a tree containing four statues of Buddha out of the river. She then built a hill (phnom) and a small wat, hence the name Wat Phnom, hence Phnom Penh. Tourists and locals alike flock to this temple to worship, visit fortune-tellers, or take an elephant ride around the park. I lit incense in homage to Lady P. and kept a respectful distance from the monkeys in the trees.

Nervously I then headed to Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum and memorial. Without a visit to Tuol Sleng, the present context of Cambodia?s recovery from disaster is lost. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia with an aim to create a society of ?pure? revolutionaries. Dissidents of any kind were considered ?enemies of the state,? and Tuol Sleng prison, a former high school, was where 17,000 Cambodians were imprisoned and mercilessly tortured before being executed at the infamous Killing Fields. An adjoining floor features the most disturbing record of all: thousands of black-and-white photographs of men, women, and children, all taken at the time of their internment -- a final, harrowing snapshot before their execution. I stood in a room where people were subjected to ?waterboarding? (the torture that simulates drowning), horrified that our present administration advocates this brand of sadism as ?advanced interrogation.? Back in my hotel room I stared at the ceiling, unable to fathom all genocides past and present: Auschwitz, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur. Unless we all personally bear witness to these atrocities and cry out against them, we are doomed to repeat this horrendous and witless cycle.

Wednesday, FEBruary 13
I?ve mastered the basics. ?Thank you? (aw kohn), ?yes? (baat), and ?hello? (johm riab sua). Careful: Mispronounce ?Please help me!? (joo-ay kh?nyohm phwang!) and you?ll be saying ?Please screw me hard!? (joy kh?nyohm phwang!). My gay guide had the giggles for an hour. One day left in Phnom Penh and too many things to see. I took a good look at five major sights instead of rushing through 20. The Independence Monument was inaugurated November 9, 1962, to celebrate Cambodia?s independence, gained nine years earlier to the day. This enormous tower fortified with sculpted nagas (snakes) doubles as a monument to the country?s war dead. Looming over the newly prosperous intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, it?s a giant about to be dwarfed by condos and offices all under construction.

Central Market is an enormous domed art deco building containing a huge bazaar selling gold, jewelry, electronics, and silks. The food-and-drink stands sell deep-fried crickets, spiders, and peeled frogs?local delicacies, but strictly for the gastronomically adventurous traveler. Too chicken to roll the dice for my tummy, I bought an ornamental pumpkin hammered out of Cambodian silver. Even though I didn?t eat, the air smelled slightly burned and delicious. Anytime my nose recognized an aroma, it would change: baguette, deep-fried catfish, red curry. Maybe next time.

Russian Market is larger than the Central Market but with more touristy stuff: T-shirts plus factory-made clothes from Gap, Banana Republic, and Quicksilver. A popular T-shirt had a skull and crossbones with the words, in Khmer (Cambodian) and English, danger! land mines! In poor taste, but I bought three.

Cambodian people are extremely friendly. Ready to smile, very flirty. I?m kind of the perfect proxy for all gay travelers: If they were nice to me, chances are they?ll be nice to you. In Asia homosexuality is generally not a topic for open discussion, and Cambodia is a lot more closeted than neighboring Thailand. Having said that, the country?s first pride party happened in Phnom Penh in 2003. The current king of Cambodia is a bachelor and former ballet dancer, and his father, an advocate for same-sex marriage, tactfully said that Sihamoni ?regards women as his sisters.? I?m just saying.

The Royal Palace is a walled city bearing a more than passing resemblance to its counterpart in Thailand. Built in 1866 under the French protectorate, the palace offers a tour featuring several ornate pavilions and temples. The Silver Pagoda, so named because it?s paved with thousands of silver tiles, is spectacular. It houses a priceless collection of Buddhas inlaid with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. The Emerald Buddha is a showstopper. An intricate outdoor mural illustrates the Hindu epic The Ramayana -- the story of Prince Rama, whose wife, Sita, is abducted by the demon Ravan. The royal living quarters, unfortunately, are off-limits to the public. I think the king saw me coming.

The National Museum is just down the street from the Royal Palace. Built in 1917, it houses the world?s finest collection of Khmer sculpture and artifacts. My guide took special care to point out the numerous lingas -- stone phallic symbols worshipped and revered during the Angkorian period (from 802 to 1431). Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a linga is always a linga. The museum was built in the traditional Angkor design: open-air galleries surrounding a lush courtyard with fountains. I asked my guide why historic places like this were spared, and he said, ?The Khmer Rouge didn?t destroy buildings. Just people."

After a much needed disco nap, my guide took me barhopping on the back of his scooter. Fearlessly zipping through the back alleys of Phnom Penh past beer halls and piles of burning trash, I didn?t know who I was anymore, and I was glad. Our first stop was Blue Chilli. There?s a handful of gay bars in Phnom Penh and the scene is cheerful. At Blue Chilli the staff resembled androgynous Asian pop idols. They served up giddiness and punctuated everything with a bump and a giggle. Second stop was the Salt Lounge on boisterous Street 136. The handsome crew here dressed in tight black T-shirts with rainbow flags, and they were a little more butch but no less friendly. Thank goodness I behaved. I ran into people I knew from L.A. at both places!

Part One |Part Two
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