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Vale Karl Balch: Siem Reap mourns a local legend

Vale Karl Balch: Siem Reap mourns a local legend

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Karl holding his prized possesion: Pol Pot's toilet seat.

The toilet seat was just lying on the floor and a friend suggested I take it as a souvenir

Shockwaves of grief rippled through the Siem Reap expat community last week as news of Karl Balch’s sudden death spread.

Balch, 47-years-young, a guesthouse owner and warden for the British embassy, was quite simply a beaut bloke and a stalwart amongst the expat community, having arrived in Temple Town in 1994.

I sat next to Karl only a few weeks ago on the air shuttle from Phnom Penh, and listened to his tales of Siem Reap in days of yore, and his plans for the future.

Sadly, as it turned out, Karl didn’t have a long-term future. Sincere condolences to his wife and family.

Perhaps the best thing that can be done to remember Karl’s legacy is to reprint an article the Post ran about Karl on September 25, 2008:

I'm keeping the pot: publican
PUB Street history is in the remaking with the change of ownership of the Ivy Bar. This long-time local institution has been sold lock, stock and barrel, with the exception of one important piece of memorabilia, the former seat of power in this country – Pol Pot's toilet seat.

While some Siem Reap residents are ruing the passing, Ivy owner Karl Balch is celebrating.

"Selling the Ivy seems to be a big deal for a lot of people here, but not for me," he told the Post. "I've had it for just less than ten years, and the way I look at it is that it just took me about nine years to sell it. I want to do other things."

And, of course, the history lives on with Balch, who is a repository of tales, both tall and true, of the good old ‘early days' of Siem Reap's boisterous Pub Street scene.

Balch's story is similar to many expatriates who drifted into Cambodia during the '90s and began sifting through the post-Pol Pot rubble with a vague plan to somehow settle and make a living.

He readily admits that when he surfaced in Siem Reap he was a knockabout drifter, but the age-old saga came into play: he fell in love, became a father and suddenly had responsibilities.

At that point there was no pub on Pub Street, so he decided to create one.

"The backpacker crowd had started drifting into town to see the temples and at night they had nowhere to go. I decided to open a bar, and scored a building.

"But it took just a little longer to get going than I thought, and the guys from Angkor What bar opened.

"So they were the first. Then I opened, then Red Piano, and that's really how the Pub Street area got started."

When Balch opened his bar, total cash on hand was $27, and the first real financial fillip to his business came with the filming of Tomb Raider.

"That film was very good to me and helped me get established," he said. "The Red Piano went more for the directors and producers, so I catered for the crew. There were a lot of them, they liked a drink, and I did well."

During his early days in Siem Reap, Balch also knocked around with NGOs who arrived to begin demining the area, and through this he acquired not only his most famous piece of memorabilia – Pol Pot's toilet seat – but also inside knowledge about Pol Pot's demise.

"According to a lot of the history books, Pol Pot died of old age or of a heart attack," Balch said. "But that's not the story I was told. I was told that he topped himself and planned it carefully."

Flushing out the truth
On April 15, 1998, the BBC reported, "The former Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, whose regime led to the deaths of millions of his people, has died.

"Journalists who were shown his body in a village in western Cambodia were told he had died of a heart attack. After initial skepticism, most of the journalists said they were confident it was Pol Pot.

"Pictures of the corpse on a bed in a jungle shack have also been broadcast on television."

Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok, who had arrested Pol Pot in late 1997, also claimed Pol Pot died of a heart attack. But because the body was cremated before government officials inspected it, rumours circulated that Pol Pot had either been poisoned or had committed suicide.

Balch claims he heard the true story of Pol Pot's death "straight from the horse's mouth."

He said "I went to Anlong Veng in January 2000, just as they were starting to build the road there and demining. We were given permission to go up to Pol Pot's house by the local commander, who gave us a guide.

"This guide told us he was one of Pol Pot's longtime bodyguards and virtually considered a member of the family.

"I asked him how Pol Pot died and he said that on the morning of the day of his death, Pol Pot gathered all the bodyguards together, plus his family members, and basically said that the international community wanted him dead so he thought it was time that he should kill himself.

"He said that he was going to commit suicide in the afternoon, that at 1pm he was going to take some pills. He said that after he was dead the bodyguards were to take him back up to the Thai border crossing where they should lay him to rest for a while so that the journalists could look at him.

"They were told that they should then cremate him, which is what happened."

As for the now-famous toilet seat, Balch said, "The toilet seat was just lying on the floor and a friend suggested I take it as a souvenir. To be honest I was a bit weirded out about it, but I threw it on the back of my motorcycle, brought it back and at first just hung it on the door of the public toilet at Ivy.

"Then I put it in a locked box and it became an attraction – there have been articles about it in German magazines and guidebooks and in a Canadian documentary.

"I've never been offered anything for it, but I like to keep it as a souvenir anyway."

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