Where going to the mall is an education

Cambodia's first shopping mall is a respite from the heat and hazardsof the capital's streets, as well as a place to one-stop shop.

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Most American mallgoers wouldn't recognize Parkway Square Mall: It's tall with no sprawl.

At four stories, it rises above most buildings in the city, not including the golden spires of nearby Buddhist temples. A bowling alley, mini concert hall, health club, grocery, and a driving range mix with the shops and restaurants.

But Parkway is more than Cambodia's first shopping mall. It's seen as an oasis between where Cambodia is and where many hope their battered nation will someday be. "Parkway is a change from the war state to the peace state," says mall regular Kieng Samnang.

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The nouveau riche and budding middle class are here in dapper button-down shirts, traditional hand-knit dresses, and Prada handbags- genuine and knock-off. But motorcycle-taxi drivers and government employees- who barely make three figures a month- frequent the mall too.

Peak hours are from 4 p.m. until close around 9 to 10 at night, which is late for Cambodia. During these hours, the mall is one of the few places parents can bring the family and feel secure. It's a cool, air-conditioned respite from the city's postwar lawlessness.

"This place is wonderful, but I still have my bodyguard waiting for me outside," says Pong Chanthy, a businesswoman from nearby Kandal province, with her three children in tow.

The last time Cambodia had a stable peace was in the late 1960s, before its proximity to the Vietnam War and a coup sent the country into civil conflict and rule by the radical Khmer Rouge regime.

In the 1980s, a Vietnamese occupation left the country virtually isolated, at a time when the economies of neighbors like Thailand and Singapore began to boom. A 1993 democratic coalition fell apart four years later after a coup.

But after a democratic vote in 1998, all sides are again trying to rebuild the nation. Most international aid and investment disappeared yet again.

"Give this country five years of peace and you'd be amazed at how fast it would move," says Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth.

The traffic at Parkway, he says, is an expression of Cambodians' desires to shed their brutal past. "The Cambodian people have had a lot of problems- war, suffering, and starvation. They are eager do things- they just want to go out and have fun."

"I saw on TV that this was a good place, a happy place, but I bring my children here because it's also a place to improve their brains," says Ros Bun Than, a soldier. "It's so visual, and you can see things from all over the world."

Cambodia's traditional open-air markets sell many of the same things the mall offers, but not in one place, of such high quality, and presented in modern packaging. There are fashions from Taiwan, Chinese music, and American brand names. Baseball may not have made a mark in Cambodia, but Mark McGwire posters hawking film are plastered throughout the mall.

But people like Ros Bun Than also demonstrate the other view from this oasis. As Parkway beckons Cambodians to surge ahead economically, it's all the more noticeable where the country lags behind.

While Kieng Samnang boasts that he spends about $20 of his parents' money per trip to the mall, most government employees make far less than $100 a month- many as little as $10.

But those who can't afford the Parkway say that's a minor issue. Ros Bun Than said he goes as much for the sights and the atmosphere. For now, he'll take what he can get.

"Money is no problem for me," he says. "If I want to be happier, I spend more money. If I want to be less happy, I spend less."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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