A Grim, Yet Satisfying, Return Visit to Cambodia

12/19/2013 02:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

I returned to Cambodia a month ago, unsure that I wanted to be reminded once again of the haunted days in 1975 when I was a CBS News correspondent in Phnom Penh that was under siege and the Khmer Rouge was close to imposing its horror on the capital's citizens -- innocent victims of the Cold War. But there I was with my wife twenty years since our last visit, walking again among the barren walls of Tuol Sleng, a former high school converted into what came to be known as the Genocide Museum.

We were not alone. Tourist buses stopped at the intersection of Sihanouk and Mao Zedong Boulevards, bringing dozens of people: young and old, Muslims and Christians, as well as curious international visitors who had never before been to Cambodia. They walked silently from room to room where some of the prisoners were kept and tortured. I turned to a young couple from Australia and said, "Just think about this grim example of madness unleashed when Cambodians tortured and killed other Cambodians." The couple was not moved. They had nothing to say and just walked on.

But if that indifference caused me to shake my head internally, imagine what it was like on several occasions when I attempted to ask young people on the street about the horror of the Khmer Rouge occupation. They did not seem to understand my question. I could only guess that they were too young to have experienced those traumatic days and quite possibly their parents never explained it to them.

The old Hotel Royale, where a half century ago I was based with other correspondents covering the war in the 1960s-70s, has come under new management and now was catering to wealthy tourists, not journalists on cheap expense accounts. The hotel was modernized to cater to very wealthy travelers. A memorial honoring foreign correspondents killed during the war was said to be based on the hotel grounds. The new managers must have thought it was kind of an unpleasant reminder to its current breed of visitors. They moved the memorial plaque to a place a good walk away from the hotel itself. Curious citizens didn't have a clue about why we were looking at the engraved names of the journalists, many of whom were colleagues I remembered well.

The most popular restaurant in Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents Club, we discovered, had no more foreign correspondents. Those who existed moved on to cover other wars. Now, the original pub had enlarged and become a highly successful hang-out for local expatriates and curious tourists. If they wanted to meet a real correspondent, they had to settle for a T-shirt on sale at the cashier's desk, with the restaurant's name splashed across it. I wasn't about to tell anyone about my background, since I had retired from journalism into the doldrums of academia. But who cared anyway?

We had rejected the idea of continuing on to Siem Reap and the road to Angkor Wat after being warned that the whole town was now swamped with luxury hotels, guest houses and restaurants catering to tourists who paid varying figures for overnight sleepovers when more than a half century ago Mizu Waters, my Associated Press photographer, our translator, James Wilde, and I checked into the then tacky hotel, the original Grand, the only one in the whole city, that charged us a nightly fee of $15. I had driven to Cambodia from Saigon in 1956 when the AP foreign desk assigned me to write the first report on the discovery of the remarkable ruins of Angkor Wat by French archaeologists. Their efforts to restore the ancient legacy of Khmer glory that had laid dormant and unheard of for several centuries were enriched by their stories over several goblets of French wine.

But having returned to Cambodia more than once in the post-Cold War era, my wife and I were surprisingly impressed by the extent to which this once battle-torn country was now coming to life, placing the memories of its past well behind it. We had been to the ruins often, and preferred to remember it without vestiges of tourism nearby.Our charming driver named Ken had us weave through traffic jams in Phnom Penh on his "tuk-tuk," a contraption that looked like a motorcycle mounted on three wheels with colorful awnings. The city had come alive and invited foreign investors to give the Cambodian capital a touch of metropolitan importance.

In our final remembrance, we paid a visit to the country's National Museum, where we once feared its treasures might have been trashed by the Khmer Rouge. On our last visit 20 years ago, the roof leaked mercilessly, and bats occupied the ceiling. Now, after a very successful exhibition in Australia, with catalogue, there was money to make necessary and visual repairs. We found it to be in excellent condition, and its wealth of fine arts was there for visitors to see. Room after room is filled with spectacular figures from a distant era produced by unidentified artisans many centuries ago.

What finally struck me was to imagine if all the plays, books, sonatas and paintings in our civilization would have gone unidentified, we never would have heard of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Beethoven or Van Gogh. Unfortunately we have never learned who was responsible and who should have been honored for the meticulous works of art carved out of sandstone in the countless nations of Asia. These legendary examples of ancient genius have tragically gone unrewarded, though hugely admired, for centuries.

The Cambodian government has been vigorously pursuing their stolen art that has been scattered all over the world for years and only this past week it was advised that a centuries-old statue of a Hindu warrior, a 500-pound antiquity, will be returned to it by Sotheby's, the prominent international auction house based in Manhattan, within the next 90 days. The U.S. Attorney's Office said the settlement "reunites a priceless artifact with its rightful owners, the Cambodian people. The United States is not a market for antiquities stolen from other nations, and we will continue to track down and return those that are brought here illegally."