When Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to town on August 10 for discussions
with Prime Minister Hun Sen, most observers were curious to see if there was any
progress on how to deal with disputed offshore oil and gas reserves.
Pol Pot's grave. Now a tourist attraction just 100 meters from a new paved road in Anlong Veng district.
Of less interest, but possibly no less significance, was the confirmation that Thailand
had agreed to lend the Cambodian government 1.3 billion baht (about US$34 million)
to pave the 110-km stretch of National Route 67 from Anlong Veng to Banteay Srei
temple, just north of Siem Reap.
The Thais have already paved the 20-km stretch of road from the official border checkpoint,
past Pol Pot's grave, down the Dangrek escarpment and into Anlong Veng town itself
- a project that was completed only three months ago and which was funded by a 95
million baht grant from the Thai government.
For travelers heading north from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng, as many journalists including
this one did for Ta Mok's funeral on July 22, the newly paved road came as a shock-and-awe
What happened to the remote, mysterious, mine-infested, ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge
enclave "cut off" from the rest of the world for decades? The answer is
simple: It's history; the war is over and many people just want to get along, keep
their heads down and get rich.
A stone's throw north of the Banteay Srei temple, the aging tarmac on Route 67 reverts
to laterite before it cuts through the Phnom Kulen hills. The road is badly rutted,
making it easy for vehicles to get bogged down in waves of mud during the rainy season.
Vehicle movement is slow and sparse; the scattered jungle settlements do not look
welcoming and there's an eerie feeling of being in a world that has never seen a
flush toilet, a tax collector or even an NGO-funded seminar on gender equity enhancement.
Twenty kilometers on, passing through the rickety settlement of Srey Noi Thmei, one
can't help wonder what in the name of God the wary-eyed settlers are doing there.
But then, with the sight of a few logging trucks, it's easy to imagine how the mantra
must have spread among career-minded youth who were trying to figure out how to get
in on the construction boom in Siem Reap: "Think timber young man, go ye north
into the forests with chainsaw and prosper."
After another three hours of bone-jarring discomfort (that's an average of 30 km
or 18.5 miles per hour for the mathematically-challenged), with only a few scattered
huts in sight, one arrives in Anlong Veng to be greeted by the southern terminus
of the brand spanking new paved road and - get this! - a triangular day-glo traffic
sign manufactured by Chaopraya Traffic Engineering that reads in Khmer and English:
Northbound motorists of all persuasions who are generally at home with the concept
of supporting the rule of law do the obvious - they immediately speed up.
The new Thai-built road is, for the moment, one of the most beautiful in all of Cambodia.
It is a sleek, bitumen noose that has reached down from Thailand's northeast and
yanked Anlong Veng into the modern world.
Three years ago, the town was a collection of dusty tracks and makeshift wooden buildings.
Ta Mok's house, now a tourist attraction, was unique for its historical significance
but also because it was one of the few large cement buildings in the area.
All that has changed.
Khem En, 46, is a jocular and effusive character known to many historians and journalists
for his role in photographing the prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison.
Since defecting from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, his career has morphed into that of
a glad-handing politician with an eye on the future. As one of six deputy district
chiefs in Anlong Veng - all former Khmer Rouge and now card-carrying CPP members
- En is riding the wave of an economic boom that has only begun to sweep through
this corner of Cambodia.
"People are coming from other provinces," En told the Post last month in
a café near Anlong Veng's new roundabout, while CTN news blared from a TV
perched on a wall stand flanked by DFID and USAID-funded posters encouraging condom
use. "About 1,000 families have moved here as newcomers in the last year.
"Many people are buying land too. Chea Sophara has bought about ten hectares,
and other Okhnas, generals and Luk Chum Teavs have bought land too."
En says that a piece of land in Anlong Veng that cost around $4,000 a year ago now
sells for between $50,000 and $100,000. One company with Thai shareholders called
Udom Sambath, he adds, has bought 4,000 hectares north of town on the road to the
border, but the details of what is planned are sketchy. Further up the escarpment
cement pilings have already been driven for a new casino.
A sugar factory and a potato flour mill are under construction, according to En,
and there are two companies in town that produce and sell electricity. This is adequate
for the town's needs at present, but power lines from Thailand will be installed
later this year.
About 1,000 Thai tourists a month are coming into Anlong Veng these days, says En.
Some just poke around town; others head for Siem Reap.
The town now has more than a half dozen guesthouses, but high rollers put up at the
new Monorom Hotel, which has Spartan rooms equipped with aircon, satellite TV, 24-hour
electricity and private bath for $15 a night.
Once the new paved road to Siem Reap is completed there is no telling the extent
of the impact on tourism and trade. Heavily laden trucks with goods of all kinds
are already making the trip from the border south. It isn't hard to imagine that
Thais - including some of the several million ethnic Khmers who live there - from
the provinces of Surin, Sisaket and Ubon Ratchatani will also start to consider visiting
Siem Reap as a vacation option. The trip from Sisaket to Siem Reap will probably
take less than three hours.
For his part, Nhem En is bullish. "I'm very optimistic about the future,"
he says. "This will be a peaceful area."
People's perspectives have changed as well, says En. "Attitudes have changed
90 percent from dictatorship to democracy. Before, people were afraid to speak their
minds; now they can complain about everything."