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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land prices undaunted by genocide museums’ history and hauntings

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The genocide museum draws tourists by the hordes, but many locals perceive the whole area to be haunted by the victims’ spirits. Eli Meixler

Land prices undaunted by genocide museums’ history and hauntings

When it comes to ghosts and the spiritual world, whether or not you believe in them, they still have a firm grip over Asian culture and beliefs. Many, however, challenge this seemingly backward belief.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, steeped in a history of horrors, naturally comes to mind when one thinks of lingering spirits that have not passed over to the other realm, considering the gruesome and unjust murders of more than 10,000 people during the Khmer Rouge.

However, Nong Saveoun, a security guard at the genocide museum, who has lived there for nearly a decade, recounted with Post Property his debut experience with a ghost when he first came to work and live in the museum.

He is not the only one who has encountered a paranormal activity; many of the people working at the museum – cleaners, caretakers, guides – have also experienced some sort of supernaturalism one way or another.

“There was one night that I woke up to go to the bathroom when I saw a black figure bending towards me, and that made my hair stand on end. I was very frightened; I climbed back into my bed and waited until the morning to tell my colleagues,” Saveoun said.

Another security guard echoed the same sentiment claiming that a while ago, during his night-watch, he saw a dark figure opening the toilet door and heard the shower running in the back of the building. When he walked over to inspect, however, he saw nobody.

Even though his particular incident happened nearly a decade ago, Saveoun still feels afraid whenever the sun goes down and darkness falls.

He smiled slightly anxiously, furtively shifty-eyed as if on the lookout for roaming spirits, and said in hushed tones: “I still feel shaken and sometimes jump at the sight of my own shadow.”

Meanwhile, security guard Chamreoun Bunrith claimed that he had never experienced anything out of the ordinary before, since joining as the museum’s employee back in 1993. One of his friends, though, chided, “Bunrith has met a ghost before and he got himself rinsed by holy water from seven different pagodas.”

Bunrith, nonetheless, insisted that he had never encountered a haunting before, but did not deny that there were supernatural occurrences in the genocide museum, showing his talisman and a Buddha necklace meant to ward evil spirits away.

“Whether I believe in ghosts or not isn’t important, I still don’t want to experience anything paranormal, because if I say that I don’t believe and they visit me tonight, what will I do?”

As opposed to actually seeing something supernatural, many visitors most certainly feel goosebumps, according to a tuk-tuk driver who ferries tourists to the museum. “Most visitors are usually left with feelings of morbidity, sadness and sympathy after seeing the horrors that were committed in the prison, and it’s something that none of us wants to experience.”

Ly Cheng Huy, a doctor who has been residing in a house adjacent to the southern gate of the genocide museum for nearly a decade, said that he had never seen ghosts or heard odd noises from the museum. Huy does not share the beliefs that the museum’s residents have.

He added, “I don’t believe there are ghosts. It’s all just superstition, and I’ve never seen a ghost before.”

With such firm superstitious beliefs etched in the Cambodian culture, one would wonder whether land prices in these supposedly haunted areas – including the Choeung Ek Killing Fields – are at a low ebb.

Huy, however, said, “The value of the property in the area isn’t affected by the museum. The value keeps increasing every year because it’s in the Boeung Keng Kong 3 area, where development is rapid.”

Prices for property within the Tuol Sleng vicinity increased from between $1,000 to $2,000 five years ago to its current price of $2,200 to $2,500 per metre square.

As for the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, there are swarms of visitors not unlike that of the Toul Sleng genocide museum.

Chruy Chanleap, who has lived for 10 years in the Choeung Ek area, grew up with folklores told by his grandparents of the sounds of iron chains scraping from inside the museum, and jarring cries of help from within the fields. “But I have never encountered them myself.”

Regarding the value of the property in this area, Chamreoun Sovannarith, a food vendor inside the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, said prices were not decreasing or showing signs of being affected.

On the contrary, because of the popularity of the museum as a historical site for tourists, land values around the area are now increasing. The land in this area is priced at between $7,000 and $10,000 for a single plot, compared with a few years ago when there was little interest from buyers.

Such as the blessing ceremonies held at the Tuol Sleng museum, several heads of government officials invite monks to conduct special prayer rites to the fallen victims at the Killing Fields three times annually during the Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben festival, and Visak Bochea Day.

According to Sovannarith, the City Hall forbids the construction of any building higher than that of the Memorial Stupa in the Choeung Ek museum, including the prohibition of dance clubs and beer gardens with loud music and singing.

Ngin Sovann, director of business development at Khmer Real Estate, affirmed that the value of property and real estate around both genocide museums is not at a disadvantage.

“The value of land property around the Tuol Sleng genocide museum currently ranges from $2,500 to $3,000, but property around the Choeung Ek fields is valued at $500 to $150 per square metre,” he added, as Choeung Ek is further out from central Phnom Penh.

Vichakvong Realty Group general manager Suy Chhayleang expressed similar sentiments, saying the value of property around both museums had not been affected.

In fact, the value of property around both museums has increased significantly from six years ago, when the land around the Choeung Ek area was only worth between $20 and $50. At present, its worth has climbed to between $300 and $350 per metre square.

Vichakvong continued, “Land owners are still demanding a value too high above the market value, because in reality, the land property in Tuol Sleng area can only be sold between $1,200 and $1,500, due to the narrow roads in the area.”

“The haunting occurring inside the museum is nothing to worry about, since it does not affect the property prices in the area.”

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