Pol Pot's house sits in ruins on a clifftop, one kilometer from the Thai border.
Over the sound of chainsaws from the jungle below, a Ministry of Tourism (MoT) designated
guide talks about the former Brother Number One's swimming pool, now cracked and
ëPol Pot Was Cremated Hereí reads the sign, which also bears the legend ëLeisure: a tabloid expounding Cambodia in her true gloryí.
Pol Pot's family swam there and stocked it with fish for two years until he was ousted
from power in 1997.
"Sometimes he would come here in the evening and fish with his daughter to make
her happy," says the tour guide, So Phorn, of the man who died in 1998.
Phorn has an insider's knowledge of the northwestern town of Anlong Veng. He was
raised by Ta Mok, the brutal high commander who cultivated Anlong Veng as a Khmer
Phorn tells how Mok, who is now awaiting trial in Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison, adopted
him when he was just seven. Mok did not have a son of his own, and asked Phorn's
parents if the boy could live with him in Thailand at a KR camp called ON6. Later
they moved back to Anlong Veng.
"I show people around because I used to live with him," says Phorn. "I
He says he will soon be rewarded with the title of assistant director of the Anlong
Veng Tourism Office because of his intimate knowledge of the area.
The development of Anlong Veng is part of a scheme, announced by Prime Minister Hun
Sen in December 2001, to turn all of the country's genocide sites into tourism destinations.
"We're going to train local people to be tour guides there," says MoT secretary
of state Dr Thong Khon. "We also plan to build a museum, but we have to raise
Hun Sen's order was titled: 'Circular on preservation of remains of the victims of
the genocide committed during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1978), and
preparation of Anlong Veng to become a region for historical tourism'. The idea is
to preserve and prepare the former stronghold as a museum for local and international
tourists in the future.
So Phorn, now a guide, says his adoptive father Ta Mok taught him to do ëeverything thatís goodí.
Dr Khon is enthusiastic about the idea. He says that demining operations in the area
have just finished, and the Ministry of Land Management is pressing ahead with its
master plan. After that, he hopes to line up corporate sponsors or private money
to finance the cultural tourism venture.
One reason he believes Anlong Veng should be rebuilt is "to train the new generation
what the Khmer Rouge has done". He says 40 international tourists currently
visit Anlong Veng every day, and points to a map of Cambodia in his Phnom Penh office
to show how that number could grow.
Once the tourism plan is completed, he believes more people will visit since the
rutted road will be overhauled with the help of the Thai government, and there will
be an international border crossing.
"We want to open the international gate so they can drop down from the border
to Angkor Wat," says Dr Khon. "Also the tourists at Angkor Wat can extend
their visit to that place."
Guide So Phorn takes visitors to various sites which were once homes for senior cadre.
All are now in various stages of decay. Most of the sites are marked with blue MoT
signs, erected with help from a corporate sponsor. The legend: 'A Tabloid Expounding
Cambodia In Her True Glory'.
Ta Mok built houses for himself, then gave them to Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Son
Sen and Pol Pot. His final dwelling is now stripped of furniture, but living-room
murals of Preah Vihear, Angkor Wat and animals frolicking by a waterfall are intact.
His former house also has a panoramic view of Anlong Veng Lake, which Phorn describes
as an engineering marvel. A bridge and dam were commissioned by Ta Mok in 1995 to
increase fishing and dry-season rice farming. It probably did not occur to him that
the blue, still lake, which is in town, also provides a perfect breeding ground for
malaria-carrying mosquitoes. At any rate it adds a tranquil air to a place that has
witnessed so much violence.
Phorn carries a ledger that chronicles Pol Pot's last days. The guide takes tourists
to where he was sentenced. It is now a collection of lumber and long grass that is
home to several chickens. The house where Pol Pot was detained until he died is in
even worse shape. Since it was burned down, all that remains is a toilet bowl and
a pile of medicine bottles.
In front of Pol Pot's grave stands a battered and empty donation box, put out by
soldiers to raise money for developing the area. Phorn plays up the old tale of locals
praying to Brother Number One for lottery ticket numbers.
"Some people come from Siem Reap, some come from around here. They bring food
and ask about numbers for the lottery," he says. When prodded, he adds that
they don't particularly pray to him because he was Pol Pot, but rather because he
Some might think a scheme to lure international tourists to see the place where Pol
Pot relieved himself somewhat bizarre, but the MoT's Dr Khon believes the concept
"We have plans to rebuild some of the leaders' houses," he says.
The local carpenters who built them in the first place are still around. Also, he
says, reconstruction will create a more authentic historical atmosphere. The MoT
just needs the funds.
However, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), Youk Chhang,
thinks it is a lousy idea. DC-Cam was appointed to the committee to develop the historical
sites. Its job is to make sure the tour guides are historically accurate by providing
the MoT with data, but Youk feels the ministry does not understand the cultural issues
surrounding genocide sites.
"Speaking from experience, at a lot of places under the label of tourism you'll
find roast chicken, fried bananas, blue tents and grass huts," says Youk, who
is steadfastly against the commercialization of memory. "The concept of a museum
requires scientific research and understanding."
He sees a risk in the MoT spending money to rebuild houses along with billboards
funded by Taiwanese and Chinese companies. If Anlong Veng is developed without the
proper expertise, he says, it will likely be commercialized, which would destroy
the memory of what happened.
"The bottom line is if you put money before the idea, the museum won't represent
history," he says.
Under the terms outlined by the government, DC-Cam has fulfilled its obligation to
provide information. But in August the NGO will send a staff member to the Netherlands
to study for a masters degree in tourism. The plan is to develop some local expertise
on how properly to manage sensitive historical sites.
Youk also wants equal attention for the graves of victims of the KR. The nation's
19,446 mass graves and 77 genocide memorials need more maintenance.
"What is the main idea? You have to declare your objective. So far its here
or there. They say they want to preserve it for the children - it's a beautiful idea,
but not enough," says Youk. "We have to think deeper."
The MoT needs to take more time and develop a proposal, he says. "Money would
come later if you developed a proper idea of how to preserve the site."
A government officer has been stationed at one of Ta Mok's old houses as a caretaker
since 1999. He sleeps in the house, sells food at a canteen and built a one-room
guesthouse that he rents for five dollars a night.
"I used to attack the Khmer Rouge, but now it's finished," says Major Rang
Saruon. "I want many tourists to visit here. If many tourists come here, I will
be happy to welcome them ... [T]hey will know a lot about Cambodian history and culture."
He says as many as 15 foreign visitors a week buy drinks and rice from his restaurant,
and at least ten Cambodians a day swing by. A glance at the visitor's book reveals
six foreign visitors came the day before, and there are sporadic entries before that.
One French expatriate eating rice made the day-trip from Siem Reap. When asked what
made him decide to come to Anlong Veng, he shrugged: "Why not? It's historic."
What is clear is that the area will require a lot of work before it starts ringing
in the tourist dollars. When Tem Sann, Anlong Veng's district chief, was approached
for comments about development of the area, the former KR major shouted and cursed.
He doesn't want to talk about it, he says.
So Phorn, though, is happy to do so. He says Ta Mok taught him to do "everything
that's good". He encouraged him to study mechanics, and taught him to think
before he acts. He would like to see a United Nations' sponsored tribunal of former
Khmer Rouge leaders including his adoptive father, whom he thinks will be acquitted.
"I will be very happy when [the UN] prosecutes the Khmer Rouge," he says.
"Then the Khmer Rouge can tell who supported the war in Cambodia and made the
Cambodian people fight each other. If we don't try the Khmer Rouge, we won't know
who's right and who's wrong."
But those days are now over, says Phorn. Anlong Veng's history has given it a special
lure, and that should help the town's inhabitants earn a living. The Cambodian people
want to see the sites, as do foreign tourists.
And what would Ta Mok think about him showing strangers around the old homestead?
Phorn says he would likely answer: "OK, no problem."
"Yeah, I think Ta Mok thinks it's a good idea," he says.