As life beings to revive in this battered nation, it bursts out with particular vigor in places such as this river crossing town that has always been a center of commerce and thus a target of war.
For Neak Luong, which is being reoccupied for perhaps the sixth or seventh time in recent history, the contradictions of the new Cambodian existence are easily seen in the burgeoning trade, the determination to rebuild, the uneasy relations between communist leadership and noncommunist population. But beneath the bustle lies the nightmare of the past and the fear of the future.
Along the market on the west bank of the Mekong River are Soviet trucks loaded with Vietnamese troops, who support the new Heng Samrin government. Most of them are probably on their way home for the four or five days of leave that they are allotted each year. Their officers stroll discreetly about, wearing green tropical helmets at slightly cocked angles and carrying leather map cases, the badge of rank that goes with the holstered revolver.
But the uniform of the vanquished also can be seen here. Olive drab remnants of the Lon Nol army uniforms and the thin black cloth that was the trademark of the Khmer Rouge is cut down, patched and resewn for clothing for children and peasants.
The new settlers of Neak Luong make their homes as squatters on the ornate balconies of houses from granders eras, in the roofless warehouses, in corners of shattered buildings, in old military entrenchments, or even in the mangled cabs of overturned Army trucks.
Neak Luong has been thrust into battle for the past 10 years since it commands control of the Mekong and thus the lifeline to Phnom Penh.
It has been the scene of fighting between Lon Nol forces and the insurgent Khmer Rouge Communists led by Pol Pot and then again between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin forces. It has also suffered through the intense political upheaval and mass relocations imposed by the Khmer Rouge.
But that was another era. Standing on the churned earth of the river bank as he waits for the ferry is one of the middle-class survivors of Pol Pot's massacres.
"It's very difficult to remember what happened before Pol Pot," he said. His eyes search yours for help, reassurance, like those of a child needing to know that adults will not let the bad things happen again. He rubbed his hands anxiously through his hair.
"And I can't see very well," he said "I threw away my glasses during Pol Pot's time -- even to wear glasses was to risk death. To speak one word of English would be a death warrant. I saw it happen. Many times . . . horrible, horrible. It is difficult. I cannot sleep at nights. They say I have a nervous debility. Some people seem to be able to put it behind them, but I cannot help remembering."
Some remember the old days before Pol Pot. Indeed they lived on those memories for five years. As we visited the market, there was a shout of "UPI" (United Press International).
A little man who used to be a freelance photographer for the American news agency came running up to us. In his home, he showed us his treasures, drawing them carefully from a plastic bag.
"My books of English language," he said proudly. "No, no, I don't lose him. I bury him in the ground during Pol Pot time."
His name is Siphay and he produced the most valuable items of all -- two worn scrapes of paper from 1975. One reads: "UPI -- packeted pix to Hong Kong. Used two Siphay. Let us know if any more Phnom Penh pictures." He reverently folded them up again.
What people like Siphay and, even more, the educated middle class, want is something like the old Cambodia. What the peasants want is freedom to farm and trade. What the Vietnamese and the Communuist Party want is a society moving toward the collective model.
The contradictions are obvious, but they are for the future. For the moment, the needs of Cambodia are obvious to all.
At the back of the crowd of children, who followed the rare Westerners around as it they were circus elephants, appeared two young men waving frantically. They were the school-teachers of Neak Luong, and they led us to the school. The buildings are pocked by shells and most of the roofs have gone. Along one side is a line of old foxholes and in the playground is a miraculously intact slide.
"We have nothing," one teacher said, "no tables, no chairs, no paper, no pencils, no books. Can you please help us?
Indeed, the classrooms are bare of any equipment, and the lessons are written on the wall in charcoal. One reads:
"If a farmer goes to market to sell his pigs and gets 1,998 riels, how many pigs did he have if each pig sold for 74 riels?" The question is a bizarre one in a country that has been without money for five years and still has no currency of its own.
But the students were excited as the teacher translated the "problem" from Khmer into English. It is the juxtaposition of Neak Luong's and Cambodia's frightful history and that "problem," standard blackboard fodder all over the world, that tugs at the heart.
The teacher urgently pulled at my sleeve.
"If you can get some help it will be very good . . .," he said. "We have to have some help . . . chairs, chairs . . . small chairs for children." In a world whose pursuits of larger quarrels helped to plunge of larger quarrels helped to plunge this little society into such horror and pain, it seems a minor request.