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House of murder and fortune

House of murder and fortune

It's the house that Mok built. Scores of people were murdered here, ghosts still

haunt it, and fortunes of gold were hidden in the walls and garden. Or so the legend

goes.

On the edge of a peninsula on the lake in downtown Takeo, an idyllic location catching

the sunrise and sunset rays, sits a three-story monument to the Democratic Kampuchea

regime custom-built by one of its most notorious leaders, Ta Mok.

Widely believed to have been Mok's home and headquarters of the Southwest Zone during

the regime, the house is as famous around Tak-eo as the guerrilla chief himself.

"When they finished it, they killed all the workers," says a local farmer.

"After his house was finished, Ta Mok had a big party for all the workers at

a wat. Then he killed them all," says another local man.

The ghosts of the dead still roam the house, many believe. Several foreigners who

stayed there during the UN peace-keeping mission swear that, in the middle of the

night, they heard the cries of suffering people and the rattling of chains.

Wandering around the house today, it's easy to believe the myths. The house is unfinished,

metal and concrete pylons poking up from the third floor roof, giving a sense of

something interrupted, of unfinished business. The serenity of the peninsula, with

the gentle lapping of the lake, and eerieness of the house's large rooms - deserted

except for a policeman and his family who look after the building - produce a ghostly

atmosphere. Listen to a few tales from the locals, and the imagination does the rest.

But much of the legend of Mok's house is not true, according to local officials.

For starters, he never lived there, nor used it as his headquarters.

"The house on the lake was built in 1977 for foreign guests who came to work

for the province," according to Tit Khem, a local official, in apparent reference

to Chinese advisers to the KR.

Khem, who served the KR in Takeo town during the regime, said Mok had two houses:

one in rural Kampong Ampil and another home and office in a large but simple wooden

house in Takeo town.

The second house, formerly the home of the provincial military commander during the

Sihanouk times, is now the gendarmarie police headquarters. Khem says he used to

see Mok walking around the house in a sarong.

The better-known house on the lake was reportedly built on the site of a Vietnamese

temple, complete with Vietnamese monks, which had stood there since the French colonial

times. The temple was razed to the ground and the house built on orders of Mok, who

frequently visited it, according to Khem, who says it was designed by Chinese engineers.

Khem doesn't believe the stories about massacres of the house builders. But he confirms

that nearby Borei village was evacuated by the KR, who "killed people in the

village."

So-called 'old people' - those who had lived in KR-controlled territory before Pol

Pot seized all of Cambodia - were moved into the village.

As for the house serving as a prison, Khem - a former KR driver who took prisoners

to detention centers in the province - says he never heard of prisoners being taken

to the lake.

Today, the house is used as an unofficial guesthouse for visiting government officials

and anyone else who will pay a few thousand riels.

Policeman Sat Soeun, who lives there and is in charge of preparing rooms for its

occasional guests, agrees with Khem's version of history.

"It was for Chinese delegations. Ta Mok never slept here himself. He just came

here when the Chinese guests stayed here. They started to build it in 1976 or 1977,

but it wasn't finished because of the Vietnamese invasion.

"It's not true that the people who built this house were killed," he insists,

but adds that workers who "made mistakes" would probably have been killed.

"No ghosts," swears Soeun, who has lived here for years. "I've never

been frightened about ghosts."

So why the ghost tales? Soeun comes up with perhaps the most plausible explanation:

"Those stories are propaganda from [Takeo hotel owners] who don't want people

to stay here. If they don't use this kind of magic story, then people won't stay

at their hotels."

Ghosts didn't scare off a rush of fortune seekers - believing that Mok must have

left behind caches of gold when he fled - from all around Cambodia in the months

and years after the Vietnamese invasion.

Soeun points to a sunken ditch in the garden: "That's where people dug up the

ground looking for gold. There were so many rumors that a casket of gold was buried

there, and there was gold hidden in the walls of the house.

"That hole was dug up by people from Kandal. Then some people from Kampong Cham

heard that there was a lot of gold just south of the house. They said they knew the

location. They dug and dug, but nobody ever found anything."

The stories of the gold, like the ghosts, never went away. They were fueled over

the years by some people, apparently former KR, coming to collect long-hidden caches

of treasure.

"One day, a man came along on an ox-cart. He stopped on the bridge, and went

into the water. He came out with a shoe, full of gold. He got back into his ox-cart

and went off," recounts a local villager, pointing to a bridge near the house.

Mok's real house, now the gendarmerie headquarters, was also ripped apart by gold-seekers

after the fall of the KR regime. "Everyone thought Mok must have been rich,"

says a gendarmerie chief, sheepishly admitting that he dug holes up to his chest

all around the house, but never found anything.

As for the house on the lake, it has yet to attract the attention of any hotel or

tourism developer. Today, the former DK house still has its uses for 'the masses'.

It's the cheapest, yet respectable, place in town to take your songsa [boyfriend

or girlfriend] for a night of passion, according to a local moto taxi driver. And,

if you don't mind the ghosts, you might even find some gold.

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