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Touring the tragic kingdom

Mug shots of young Khmer Rouge victims, on display at the Tuol Sleng museum. Mug shots of young Khmer Rouge victims, on display at the Tuol Sleng museum.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia

AT SUNSET, lots of visitors to Angkor, the vast temple complex in the Cambodian jungle, go to the only hill in the area, a place called Phnom Bakeng. Hoping to have the view to myself, I hiked up in the morning instead. Upon reaching the temple ruins at the top, I climbed a steep staircase - only to find that a tour group of French-speaking senior citizens had beat me there. Zut alors!

Twenty years ago, it was risky to visit Angkor Wat and the other temples surrounding it; the area was within the reach of Khmer Rouge guerrillas who decamped to the wilds of northwest Cambodia after being driven from power in 1979. Today, the country is at peace, and its glorious temples are crowded with tourists. A couple of miles to the south of Angkor, the dusty streets of once-sleepy Siem Reap are full of tour buses and the motorcycle-drawn taxi carriages known as tuk-tuks. Out along the road near the city's international airport, hotels are going up quickly.

It sounds strange to Americans who know the country mainly for its bloody past, but Cambodia has a thriving tourism industry and ample room to develop it further. This is a welcome source of income for Cambodia. But tourism has a downside: not just the wear on 12th-century structures or the continuing theft of antiquities from sites outside Angkor, but also the uncertain effects of a fast-money industry on a poor country with a sketchy political system.

An engine of growth
Cambodia's economic picture has improved markedly in recent years, and tourism is just about the brightest spot in it. Construction, another engine of growth, depends on infusions of foreign aid. The garment industry flourished last year, but local experts fear that, over time, China and Vietnam may prove to be cheaper places for clothing factories. Meanwhile, the number of foreign visitors grew 27 percent in 2006 alone, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent research group. It's now relatively convenient to visit one of the world's architectural marvels. Sure, getting here is a schlep - at least for Americans - but lodging, food, and local transportation are easy and cheap.

The temples at Angkor aren't the only appealing sight. Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, has a pleasant, French-influenced downtown whose streetscape and stately old ocher-colored buildings reminded me of New Orleans. The city abounds with ex-pat hipsters and bohemians lured by the possibility of adventure or the chance to do good.

In some ways, though, today's Kingdom of Cambodia remains a rather noirish place for a vacation. Despite years of mine-clearance efforts, unexploded ordnance still dots the countryside. In urban public places where tourists gather, so too do maimed land mine victims who have been reduced to beggary.

Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge period still exerts its dark pull. One popular attraction outside Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek killing field, where the clothes and bones of people thrown into mass graves are still visible in the ground upon which tourists tread.

Another attraction near the capital is Tuol Sleng, a school that became a torture center. If this were a modern Western museum, artifacts of the era would be tastefully and neutrally presented behind velvet rope or protective glass. At Tuol Sleng, one walks across bloodstained tile to the metal bedframes where suspects were found shackled and bloodied. To the extent that the museum's curators offer any interpretation, it's meant to shock. On the walls in one building, a series of crude illustrations by a Khmer Rouge victim re-create the full range of interrogation practices at Tuol Sleng.

A mixed blessing
Such images help the current government, led by heavy-handed former communist Hun Sen, to remind Cambodians that it is a more benign presence than the Khmer Rouge. (What government isn't?) And if Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are popular with international visitors, so be it. The problem with tourism in Cambodia isn't the attractions themselves, but rather its potential to delay the political and economic reforms needed to move the country forward.

In neighboring Vietnam, the foreign companies investing billions in equipment, factories, and other businesses are asking the government to fix an education system that, they say, doesn't cultivate scientific or management skills. In contrast, the tourism industry doesn't require the same skills - so it doesn't make the same demands - and more of the money it generates moves under the table. This is a worrisome fit for Cambodia, a country that ranks low on the United Nations human development index and near the bottom of the group Transparency International's corruption index.

Sure enough, for a one-day visit to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, foreigners pay a $20 fee that's collected by a politically wired hotel company. Critics complain that only a small percentage of ticket sales end up being used to maintain the temples. Indeed, the preservation and restoration efforts now underway depend on overseas benefactors.

As long as Cambodia is at peace, there will always be tour groups at Angkor. Whether the country can move beyond a tuk-tuk-based economy is another question entirely.

DANTE RAMOS

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