Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The city of Siem Reap in the Kingdom of Cambodia lies some 170 kilometers and six hours from the border town of Poipet down a road that is mostly vast holes and dust and dirt that turns everything nearby into a dull red during the dry season.

A murky river divides the center of town, lined with elaborately carved stone streetlights and the dilapidated and tired remnants of French Indochina: It's easy to imagine the dismay of a low-level French diplomatic functionary assigned to remote Siem Reap in the 1930s. But now a billboard shows a picture of a new shopping center to be built to replace a whole block of buildings and not far away, vast luxury hotels are under construction along a new road that leads to the airport. Siem Reap is hardly remote any longer.

Still, one feels decadent and spoiled and like a not-so-distant cousin to the 1930s French colonial functionary to be sipping cocktails at the FCC Angkor on New Year's Eve beside a hundred other Europeans and Americans sitting and standing and dancing amidst blocks of outrageously expensive ice dripping like fountains into the swimming pool below the veranda with its ceiling fans and immaculate white linen and black wood.

"Happy New Year!" we said, toasting one another. In the sky, high above us, a soft flame floated past - it was a fire balloon - the first of what became an elegant procession of maybe fifty of them, serenely disappearing into the distance.

We lasted as long as 1:00 a.m. before trudging back to our tired old hotel to sink into the tired old - but clean - sheets on the tired old beds.

The Swedish word for the day is tjänsteman. It means civil servant.

- by Francis S.

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