Wat Ratanak Sophoan sits at the top of a hill along a quiet road in Pailin town, and as with most of the rest of the sedate provincial capital, is typically a peaceful setting. Bright orange monks’ robes sit drying on fences, with the Cardamom Mountains visible in the distance, while children play in the yard out front.
Aside from Pailin residents living nearby, the pagoda attracts few visitors. Its tranquility was disrupted in August of this year, however, when locals say about 100 police and soldiers descended on the pagoda in search of a cache of gold and gems allegedy buried by the Khmer Rouge.
Noan Sophen, the deputy abbot of Ratanak Sophoan, said at the time that the party had been ordered to dig at the pagoda by Y Chhean, the governor of Pailin province and a former bodyguard for Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. The effort ultimately proved fruitless, however, as the security forces were confronted by monks and some 2,000 Pailin residents who turned them back from the complex.
Although locals are divided on whether riches are actually to be found at the site, they say this confrontation was just the latest round in a years-long saga of rumour and deception surrounding the allegedly buried treasure.
While international mining firms have been drawn in recent years to gold deposits in the Kingdom’s eastern provinces, Pailin has long been identified with its gems. Small polished rubies and sapphires are still available from local jewelers, but locals acknowledge that business has slowed over the years; in earlier decades, however, the booming gem trade provided crucial funding to the Khmer Rouge resistance, which had staked out positions against the Hun Sen government in Pailin and elsewhere along the Thai border.
Illegal logging revenue also played a part in sustaining the resistance, but from the gem trade alone, the Khmer Rouge collected perhaps US $3.8 million per month in the early 1990s, some scholars estimate. In addition to mining the stones themselves, they also earned money by selling mining concessions to Thai companies, charging them protection fees and levying taxes at the border.
Benny Widyono, a former peacekeeper with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia and UN governor for Siem Reap province, said in an email that the relative prosperity of Pailin was evident during a 1992 trip he made to the region as “wine taster” for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
“I ... observed a non-stop parade of Thai trucks hauling away logs and also Thai gem traders coming for Pailin stones,” Widyono said. Electricity was available 24 hours a day, he noted, compared with just two hours a day at that time in Siem Reap.
“The KR in the Pailin area were really the rich KR as against the Anlong Veng poor guys. They lived well and nobody defected to the [government] area,” Widyono said.
These years of resource exploitation took their toll on the landscape, however, and many residents believe the area is now all but denuded of gems. So relentless were the miners, said 17-year-old Khiev Odam, a monk at Wat Ratanak Sophoan, that if treasure had ever been buried at the pagoda, it would have been discovered already.
“I can’t believe that there are any more gold or gems here, because the Thais used to dig up all the land here and refill it with new land instead,” he said.
Others say the treasure is simply well-hidden, buried deep in the ground by Khmer Rouge members following their retreat from Phnom Penh.
Sokha, a 60-year-old layman at the pagoda who declined to give his family name, said he believed there were in fact riches buried at the site, claiming local officials had showed up earlier this year in the middle of the night to examine the area with metal detectors.
“If there were no gold, the provincial governor would not let them come to dig for it,” he said.
Widyono said it was “definitely possible that a stash of gold is buried there”.
“1979 was a confused year,” he said. “For the first time after the KR took over, Cambodians could criss-cross the country anywhere they wanted. The KR at the time already planned to have Pailin as their last stand, and it would be natural to bury the gold there.”
Marking the spot
During a recent visit to Wat Ratanak Sophoan – where the walls are decorated with Burmese script, a reflection of the years of migration to the area by Burmese to work in the gem trade – a group of young monks led a tour of the pagoda. They pointed out a square patch of dirt outside their dormitory where the treasure is thought to be buried, which, lacking the proverbial “X”, was adorned only with weeds and an empty M-150 bottle.
Just a few metres beyond the site is the home of Mao Kroeung, 73, a nun who said she had been living outside the pagoda for 12 years. She expressed doubt that any gold or gems were buried at the site, but said the area had been subject to intrigue in years past.
In 2004, she said, an elderly layman known to local residents as “Ta Sokha” was murdered at his home. During the funeral, Mao Kroeung added, several anonymous individuals snuck into the pagoda and began digging at the spot in question, a claim echoed by monk Duong Sarath and several other residents who declined to be cited by name.
“Unknown people shot him to death, but they did not take any of his property,” Mao Kroeung said. “That layman knew everything about this pagoda, so that means they were afraid he would give information about the gold to somebody else.”
Duong Sarath said that on the morning of the confrontation this past August, a group of seven men came to the pagoda in the pre-dawn hours to examine the alleged site of the treasure. Later in the morning, he said, dozens of police and soldiers returned to the pagoda with an excavator, preparing to dig.
“The police officers said the provincial authorities had ordered them to dig up the land here to find the gold, but they didn’t have any letter of permission to show us, so we did not allow them to dig,” he said.
Instead, a group of monks reportedly blocked the visiting forces at the entryway, while others beat a drum inside the temple to rally local residents. Shortly thereafter, Duong Sarath said, roughly 2,000 people joined the 140 monks to prevent the pagoda’s land from being torn up.
“We don’t want them to dig for gold because we’re afraid there will be problems if they find it, like when the layman was killed,” Duong Sarath said.
Y Chhean and other members of the provincial government could not be reached for comment, though Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said following the incident that he had spoken with Y Chhean and had confirmed that no further action would be taken.
“This will not be allowed because it is a pagoda, and it is a separate place for worship,” Khieu Sopheak said. “Sometimes it’s just a rumour, and in the process of destroying the place they would get nothing.”
Standing outside Wat Ratanak Sophoan, the name of which can be roughly translated as “decorated treasure”, 60-year-old Um Eng said he believed the police and soldiers had come to steal the treasure and split the spoils with high-ranking officials. Estimates of the total amount buried, he said, range from 50 kilograms to 20 tonnes; speaking in French-accented English, however, he declined to offer his own guess.
“There are many secret histories of the régime Pol Pot,” he said.