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a cafe, shop and viewing decks
The centre will feature historical and ecological information presentations, a cafe, shop and viewing decks. Photo Supplied

A beauty spot with a gruesome history

A planned information centre and memorial at northeast Cambodia’s Ang Trapeang Thmor wildlife reserve has been designed to give visitors greater insight into the location’s tragic history as well as its ecological significance.

The body of water at the 2,650-hectare reserve, located about 100km towards the Thai border from Siem Reap, was once a natural forest lake used for irrigation during the Angkorian era.

Later, the Khmer Rouge enlarged the reservoir in one of their many massive and ill-fated engineering projects. Of an estimated 50,000 people forced to work on the project, about 30,000 are thought to have died.

Simon Mahood, a technical adviser at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said the plans would do more than bring people closer to nature.

Sarus cranes fly over the Ang Trapeang Thmor wildlife reserve
Sarus cranes fly over the Ang Trapeang Thmor wildlife reserve. WCS/Eleanor biggs

“It will put the current natural wonders of the site in their historic context, allowing people to understand not just what they see before them but what happened in the past,” he said.

“It will be a place of reflection on a troubled history and a positive future.”

Ang Trapeang Thmor is now one of Cambodia’s ecological hotspots, home to some of the world’s most endangered birds and animals, and a protected reserve managed by the Forestry Administration with technical support from the WCS.

Mahood described the reserve as like a “miniature model of Cambodia”, home to painted storks, spot-billed pelicans, a herd of Eld’s deer and, in winter, a quarter of Southeast Asia’s sarus Crane population.

“Ang Trapeang Thmor is unique because these and a suite of other bird and animal species can be easily seen,” he said.

“Waterbirds are well protected from hunting, so huge flocks of ducks can be seen in the winter – something that has been lost from much of Cambodia.”

The new centre – which will feature historical and ecological information presentations, a cafe, shop and viewing decks – was designed by construction NGO Building Trust International and design firm Atelier COLE.

“Initially, the intention was to design an interpretation centre and hub for wildlife observation that would help in turn provide the revenue to cover the costs of protecting the area,” said Atelier COLE director David Cole.

“When we looked further at the site and its historical significance, the brief shifted and took on the added dimension, and the design takes its reference from both the natural and historical factors.

The planned centre will be a place for reflection
The planned centre will be a place for reflection. Photo Supplied

“The building offers a rare chance to pay respects to the sacrifice so many made during one of the darkest chapters of Cambodia’s history against a backdrop of conservation and protection of diversity and natural wildlife.”

WCS has yet to secure the estimated $200,000 needed to fund the project, Cole said.

Apart from being a destination in its own right, the centre is expected to serve as a hub for treks and tours of the further sites in the area.

There are also plans to build another two viewing platforms on the reservoir plain that could then be used as observation towers by tourists and rangers, and for local villagers to offer home-stays.

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