Cambodian city strives to reclaim heritage of pre-war years. Kompong Cham slowly restores its economic and cultural renown
| Kompong Cham, Cambodia
After two decades of war, pogroms, and ruin, Kompong Cham's fame still lingers as the city with the most beautiful women in Cambodia. Rich merchants from the capital city once ventured here to choose young women as wives. Kompong Cham's women were deemed as pretty as the female dancers carved in stone on Cambodia's famous 12th-century temple, Angkor Wat.
The city itself, perched atop bluffs over the broad and mahogany-tinted waters of the Mekong River, had been an historic mixing ground of races. A trading crossway, it was home to Khmer, Chinese, Muslim, and Vietnamese. French rubber barons, too, were fond of the city leaving behind a lofty landmark on the river bank - a Romanesque watchtower that now leans like the Tower of Pisa.
But that was all long ago, when the country had royalty (the last being Prince Norodom Sihanouk), before the elite either fled or were killed by the communist Khmer Rouge, and before the typical Asian tradition of extolling beauty became absurd amid Kompong Cham's ugly slaughter.
Since 1979, another less radical communist regime, backed by Vietnamese troops, has tried to rebuild Kompong Cham and the rest of the small, depopulated country devastated by American bombs (1969-73) and the Khmer Rouge's bloody utopianism (1975-79).
This city, the country's third largest and the capital of a province carrying the same name, is slowly reclaiming prominence in Cambodia, at least for its economic strength.
No Western journalist has been allowed into Kompong Cham since 1983, when the Khmer Rouge rebels killed eight Soviet advisers here.
Travel on the province's pot-holed roads is bone-rattling, and Khmer soldiers, scanning the landscape like coyotes waiting for road runners, are stationed along almost every mile as a defense against guerrillas fighting the Vietnamese-backed regime.
The city's old French buildings and Chinese merchant arcades are still largely unpainted and damaged. At the center of town is a new monument, carved in ancient Khmer style, dedicated to the solidarity among Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the Soviet Union.
At dawn each day, loud speakers on the street boom out official news and exhort people on proper socialist behavior. During the day, the central market bustles with vegetable sellers, gold-dealers, and vendors selling smuggled goods.
Peasants have moved into houses where the rich once lived, including mansions overlooking the Mekong.
A modern ferry, donated by the international agency Oxfam, works its way across the wide, muddy river. What little traffic there is consists of small horse carts, bicycles, and an occasional car.
Each weekday in late afternoon, hundreds of teenagers, wearing blue-and-white uniforms, pour out of a school on their bicycles. The girls leave from one gate, boys from another, and the two flowing clusters merge soon enough.
This is the home province of Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, whose older brother, Hun Neng, is chief of the local communist party. The province receives special attention from the national government - it's the richest and most populated, with 1.2 million people.
Kompong Cham also had a reputation as Cambodia's rubber capital, as the birthplace of Khmer communism, and as the place of the first uprising against the Khmer Rouge by former Khmer Rouge commanders - notably Hun Sen.
French colonizers first planted rubber trees here in the 1920s, hiring Vietnamese from the nearby border area to tap the profitable white latex on plantations that still extend for miles across the province's red earth. These Vietnamese workers formed the country's first communist ``cells'' and then recruited Cambodians.
In the 1960s, the province's jungles were sanctuaries for Viet Cong guerrillas fighting in South Vietnam. To knock out these rear bases, President Richard Nixon ordered B-52 bombing of Cambodia in 1969, followed by a brief invasion by United States soldiers across the border.
When right-wing military leader Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk in 1970, the people in Kompong Cham killed Lon Nol's brother in an uprising. By then, rubber exports had virtually ceased, except for a black-market trade that helped finance the Khmer Rouge.
The city came under Khmer Rouge control almost two years before the 1975 takeover of the nation's capital, Phnom Penh, which lies 50 miles to the southwest. Some 15,000 inhabitants were led to the countryside, many never to return.
Lang Soly, who has worked on Cambodia's largest rubber plantation for more than 40 years, says the worst period was under the Khmer Rouge, when he was not allowed to visit his parents who lived just across the road from him.
An elderly artist, Chamm Van, survived the Khmer Rouge and these days spends most of his time up on a high bamboo scaffolding inside a giant Buddhist temple. The temple's murals, statues, and ceilings were destroyed by the anti-religious Khmer Rouge.
It has taken nearly a decade for people in Kompong Cham to earn enough extra income to ask Mr. Van to restore the temple. The effort is privately funded because the government's priorities are rubber and rice production, increasing the communist party's membership, and strengthening local militias.
Van plans to spend more than a year repainting the temple's inside walls with giant scenes from the life of Buddha. He says he wants to bring a little joy and color back to his once-beautiful city.