Khmer Rouge is in the air

Before their time
A monument was built on the infamous killing fields outside Phnom Penh. Local kids show one of the items that still saturate the soil there.

At the Buddhist new year, late at night somewhere in March 1994, I was standing on the porch of a small guesthouse in Phnom Penh. All over the horizon, streams of red tracer bullets climbed skyward while the sounds of the countless shots echoed through the city.
One of the other guests was a middle-aged English woman who had, despite her long stay in the city, maintained that unshakeable 'Oh look at these lovely, unspoiled natives'-attitude. 'Stay under the roof, that's more safe' said the son of the guesthouse's owner to her. 'Oh yes, of course he's worried', the woman said, smiling, turning to me.'Because the sticks of the firework will come down.'

Only 15 years after the Khmer Rouge was more or less kicked out by the Vietnamese, Cambodia was quite a banana republic. Phnom Penh was still half empty, partly in ruin, and most of the time blacked out for lack of electricity.
One of the curious things that took a while to sink in was the fact that most of the private cars had the steering wheel on the right, although traffic doesn't drive on the left in Cambodia. I only understood why, when I entered Thailand and saw that they did drive on the left there. Probably most of those cars were stolen and smuggled across the border.
Of course, people recognize you a mile off as a westerner, so it is not unusual to get into conversations on the street. One day, I was on my rented bicycle in front of a red trafficlight, next to a - by Cambodian standards - big, muscular guy on a brand new Harley Davidson.
Considering the pityful state of the country, I wondered how anyone could afford such luxury, and I actually asked him how he earned his money. 'I rob people', he said with a laugh, and then the light turned green and he rocketed away on his machine.

I was robbed a few days later, coming back from the disco. Three sleek young Cambodians sitting on one motorcycle brought me to a halt on my bicycle in a very dark part of town. I shone my flashlight in their faces, considering fight or flight, but the middle one pulled out a gun and pointed it at me.
Two months before, some nervous novice had tried the same on me in Beijing, but in a reflex I just put my kickboxing-experience to work, so he fled.
But these kids looked very much as if they did this every day: fast, efficient and rather polite, I must say. I gave them my wallet - which was empty, but they did not check that - they gave me a superficial body-search, got on their motorcycle and dissappeared in the night.
Of course, at night I never carried any valuables, only a fotocopy of my passport and petty cash. The only annoying thing was that they took my flashlight, an item you should allways carry at night in Phnom Penh, because even in the center the potholes can be lethal, and darkness so thick that it might be quite hard to find your way back to the guesthouse, especially post-disco.