The government plans to turn the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng into a tourist hub, but no one is quite sure how
Ta Mok, “the butcher”, loved water.
In the Dangrek Mountains along the Thai border where he led the Khmer Rouge following their 1979 defeat, he sunk lakes to help irrigate the crops grown on the remote ridge. Then, having masterminded the recapture of Anlong Veng from the Vietnamese on Christmas day 1989, he dammed the O’Chik lake and flooded the surrounding land, building his headquarters at the water’s edge. He ordered the construction of a bridge to cross the town’s fast-flowing river, and sat on the bank most days, commanding passersby to help the builders.
“He told me he liked nature, and that the water cooled the house,” says Sann Roeung, gazing down at the expanse of water lapping below Ta Mok’s wooden terrace.
Now in his 60s, Roeung was a soldier with the Khmer Rouge in the Dangrek Mountains, and later Ta Mok’s guard and companion until “the butcher” – a nickname he acquired for his involvement in some of the regime’s most brutal purges – fled Anlong Veng for good in 1998. The men had a friendly understanding. As well as being ideologically aligned, both had been burdened by losing a leg to a landmine in the 1980s.
Roeung helped build Ta Mok’s lakeside home, and lays claim to having welded its most ghoulish accessory: the two human cages in which Ta Mok kept his political prisoners.
Sweeping aimlessly around the cages with a broom, Roeung admits to feeling regret for his role in their construction. Not because the prisoners held behind these rusting bars were shortly after buried alive in a mass grave, but because their construction signalled the regime’s implosion.
“I felt a bit guilty that they were used to keep people inside when they had fighting with each other,” he says.
A beleaguered stronghold
Two hours north of Siem Reap and half an hour south of the Thai border, the Anlong Veng region is the dusty, dirt poor nexus of some of Cambodia’s darkest moments. For almost 20 years after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, this was the stronghold from which the regime battled on – first from the inaccessible Dangrek Mountains, then from Anlong Veng proper.
Over two decades, the regime slowly and painfully collapsed – dwindling from a force of tens of thousands to only a few thousand devotees by the mid-1990s, riven by internal discord that coalesced around the opposing forces of Pol Pot and Ta Mok.
Today, the town that Ta Mok once proudly called a “country” is little more than a roundabout connecting four poorly paved roads.
But if the government has its way, this unhopeful collection of huts and houses is soon to be transformed into a tourist hub to rival Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.
The plan to use Anlong Veng’s dark history to attract visitors has been in the offing since shortly after the region came under state control. It was in the year 2000 that the town first featured on the government’s list of planned sites of “historical tourism” related to the Khmer Rouge. The commitment was repeated publicly in 2006, and again in 2010 when officials finally signed off on the paperwork for the development.
But 15 years of advocacy have thus far borne little fruit. Fourteen sites related to the Khmer Rouge’s regional legacy have been selected as priorities for upkeep, but at present, less than half of them have even a rudimentary sign marking their location.
Anlong Veng currently welcomes about 50 foreign visitors per month. According to the director of the tourism office – a wooden hut reached via a gangplank across a ditch – the number of local visitors is far higher, but mostly that’s because the town makes a convenient stopover near the Chong sa-Ngam border crossing. Visitors also come to patronise the vast casino that now sits atop the mountain, casting its shadow over Pol Pot’s grave.
But optimism prevails. “We’ve failed to get to tourists because we lack publicity, and there’s the stereotype of our history such as war, mining and [poor] road conditions,” explains Hor Chin Virak Yuth, Anlong Veng’s district governor.
“Now we have good roads. Also, our province is in between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. When people want to go to those places, they need to pass our province.”
The plan to develop tourism in the region received a welcome boost this month, when the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) announced that it had compiled an information book for guides to lead visitors around the region. The hefty textbook is a practical application of the research contained in A History of the Anlong Veng Community – a book that DC-Cam published at the end of last year.
Beginning in January, 80 guides will undergo three months of training in the region’s history, learning how to use the new guidebook effectively. An Anlong Veng Peace Centre is also in the offing, if funding can be secured.
It’s an about-face from DC-Cam, who have previously expressed opposition to the government’s plans. In 2003, DC-Cam director Youk Chhang told the Post that encouraging tourism in Anlong Veng would mean an unedifying influx of “roast chicken, fried bananas, blue tents and grass huts”.
“DC-Cam was on and off at that time,” admitted project coordinator Dr Ly Sok-Kheang last week, explaining that the centre had worried that the venture might “commercialise the suffering of the people”.
But, Kheang said, DC-Cam was now convinced that if correctly managed and conducted by well-trained guides, the scheme could benefit both locals and visitors alike.
Until the first batch of fresh-faced recruits finish their training in 2016, tourism in Anlong Veng remains the preserve of what Kheang describes as “people who speak from their experience”.
Roeung is one of them. He works most days as a ticket collector at Ta Mok’s house, and acts as a guide to the region’s remoter attractions when the occasion arises, which he admits is rarely.
A house in the woods
Pol Pot’s house is the most remote spot on the list of 14 sights that the government suggests visitors attend. To reach it, we make the steep ascent into the Dangrek Mountains, then a right turn onto an increasingly rocky dirt track that runs along the ridge. In this dense mountain jungle, borders are permeable. Over the course of an hour, the track zigzags into Thai territory and back again.
Little remains of the place Pol Pot once called home, except one room, a cellar and a few supporting columns that are hard to distinguish from the interceding trees. Roeung paces the land, explaining the contours of the building as it once stood. As he does, he tugs plants up by their roots – a futile attempt to stave off the encroaching jungle.
There are no signposts at Pol Pot’s house, and no sign of human visitation aside from the odd rusting drinks can. It is hard to imagine that this isolated shell could soon become a tourist hotspot – harder still when our car gets stuck for half an hour on the descent. “The roads were better when the Khmer Rouge were here,” says Roeung.
A short way back down the mountain, the approach of Ta Mok’s mountain home is signaled by a hand-painted sign which heralds it as a “historical attractive site” of note.
It would be hard to describe Ta Mok’s house as either. A few beams, and a collapsed concrete slab are all that remains, the rest of the building having been taken by “bad people”, according to Roeung.
But the location – chosen by Ta Mok to allow his guns to track the approaching Vietnamese – is breathtaking. The jungle gives way to a vertiginous cliff, below which the province stretches out in all its monsoon-soaked glory. Two monks picnic in a hut and take in the view.
In Anlong Veng, history has dealt Pol Pot and Ta Mok two very different hands, a fact that is nowhere more evident than when visiting their graves.
Ta Mok, who died in 2006 while awaiting trial, is remembered with an ornate stupa in the Srah Chhouk pagoda – shoulder to shoulder with the stupas of local dignitaries.
Pol Pot, who was hastily burned on a bed of car tires in 1998 when he died during the final retreat from Anlong Veng, rests where he was cremated. His grave bears no name, and rain pours through holes in its corrugated iron roof, where weeds and wildflowers have sprouted.
DC-Cam’s Kheang explains that while Brother Number One and Brother Number Five (Pol Pot and Ta Mok’s self-appointed titles) are seen by the rest of the world as two faces of the same unadulterated evil, the people of Anlong Veng have good reason to remember them differently.
Between 1975 and 1979, Kheang explains, the Khmer Rouge regime meant deprivation and suffering. But after 1979 – when Ta Mok assumed an increasingly visible role – those who remained loyal enjoyed relative prosperity in Anlong Veng. The “butcher” proved to be a generous distributor of land, food and medicines. “Ta Mok acted like a father who gave everything to his children,” says Kheang, a sentiment that Roeung often echoes during his makeshift tour.
This strange scorecard – the mass murderer who went on to build a bridge, school, hospital and roads for those loyal to him – perhaps makes the region a complicated prospect for the lucrative “dark tourism” trade.
Anlong Veng’s entry on the popular website dark-tourism.com speaks of its “gloomy atmosphere”, but awards it only six out of 10 on its grisly “darkometer”. Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng rate 10 and 9, respectively – described approvingly as “fully gruesome territory”.
And the question of who should be turning a profit in this town of ex-cadres (and how) remains fraught. At Ta Mok’s lakeside house, the toilet seat is tied down to the bowl, a precaution presumably taken after Tuol Sleng photographer Nhem En tried to sell Pol Pot’s toilet seat online in 2012.
DC-Cam’s move towards endorsement comes with the proviso that tourism in the region must eschew commercial imperatives, but it is hard to see how a town currently lacking in even the most basic visitor amenities could welcome the hoards without turning a healthy profit in the process.
Kheang says he accepts as much, but argues that these activities would fall into the more acceptable “social enterprise” category, adding that even a souvenir shop selling goods embossed with an Anlong Veng logo would not be out of the question.
For his part, Roeung says he welcomes any initiatives that will formalise his role.
But he has his reservations about an influx of non-locals, who “can only guide from what the documents say”.
He hopes instead that it will be his former comrades who are able to access the new opportunities.
“There are many ex-Khmer Rouge who live in this area who have always wanted to be guides for tourists,” he says.
“They are waiting for the government plan.”