Cambodia's New Vacation Spot: A Khmer Rouge Bastion

Hoping to divert visitors from the well-worn temple-beach circuit, the Cambodian government is trying to turn a former Khmer Rouge stronghold into an unlikely tourist attraction

  • Brendan Brady

    A Cambodian soldier stands by a sign pointing to the cremation spot of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in Anlong Veng

    "In those days we didn't have to worry about food or supplies — Ta Mok took care of that," says 56-year-old Sam Roeun, a former Khmer Rouge soldier with a prosthetic left leg who now sells entrance tickets to tourists in front of his former boss's home. Ta (Grandfather) Mok, as his revolutionary alias went, was the ultra-Maoist regime's top military commander. In Anlong Veng, an isolated district of mostly wooden homes and crop fields north of Siem Reap, the name still conjures a mixture of worship and fear.

    It's the latter sentiment that the Cambodian government is now trying to cultivate. Hoping to convince visitors to branch out from the more trodden Cambodian tourism trails of ancient temples and backpacker bars, the government is trying to add a new stop to the foreign tourist's to-do list: a foray into the last stronghold of the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge. Anlong Veng, where the ultra-Maoist regime held out in its final years, may not be as enticing as the Cambodian hinterland's majestic Angkor temples, nor as easygoing as its coastal hippie dens. But tourism officials are betting that travelers visiting for these two more common attractions can also be enticed by the dark history of this undeveloped pocket hugging the Thai border.

    More than a million foreign tourists each year pay homage to Angkor Wat. But while it is just an hour and a half away by road, Anlong Veng receives only a tiny fraction of this horde, and its visitors are a trickle compared to the modest flow who visit Phnom Penh's infamous killing fields and Tuol Sleng torture center for a glimpse of the Khmer Rouge's goriest operations. Tourism officials' plans, dating back to 2000, to transform Anlong Veng into a showcase of the regime's final days suggest that they believe a bit of polish could turn those numbers around. In March, the government approved a comprehensive plan to formalize the area's development in order to allow "national and international guests to visit to understand the last political leadership of the genocidal regime," but they have yet to begin any significant construction.

    Anlong Veng today is mostly populated by former Khmer Rouge cadres, as well as those who had been their most die-hard supporters or those who were forced by threat of death to join them in retreat. The fanatical regime's surviving leaders, depleted militia and dwindling supporters decamped there in 1979, after Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge and installed a new government. When it fell in 1998, Anlong Veng was the last territory under the Khmer Rouge rule and, to this day, the regime remains a presence in the area — in local residents' memories, former leaders' homes and grave sites and the facilities that served their deadly cause.

    For some Cambodians, bizarrely enough, nostalgia lingers for the final years of Khmer Rouge rule. From 1975 to '79, the Khmer Rouge sought to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia and rid itself of traditional elites. In the process, an estimated 2 million people died from overwork, starvation and execution. Ta Mok, who earned the nickname "the Butcher," had accumulated a small fortune by pillaging this area's forests for timber he sold to Thailand, and he extended benefits to his followers to ensure their loyalty. Hence the former Khmer Rouge soldier Sam Rouen's admiration.

    The remnants of these selective slices of Khmer Rouge history concerns Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a nonprofit group that researches the regime's history. Chhang is skeptical that a "sufficient effort will be made to accurately explain the [tragic] historical context" behind the new attractions, and says the project is at risk of becoming more of a gimmick than sincere historical showcase. (Similar efforts have gone very wrong before, though it's hard to imagine anything stooping as low as Phnom Penh's Khmer Rouge Experience Café, which offered dishes styled after Khmer Rouge–era rations served by waitresses dressed as cadres. The café closed shortly after it opened in 2005.)

    Today, most of the 14 scattered sites in Anlong Veng that the Tourism Ministry has chosen for its new "genocide tour" itinerary leave a meager impression. The best-preserved attraction, Ta Mok's hideout, nestled in a floodplain to limit access points, includes three rickety structures and a decaying Chinese-made radio car used to disseminate propaganda. Otherwise, Pol Pot's old home has degenerated into a small shell of a building, akin to a concrete hut; the old schoolhouse for indoctrination is now simply part of a larger school for today's state education; and the medical ward that used to serve wounded militia is, after renovations and additions, a hospital serving the area.

    It is, rather, the life stories of local residents that offer the starkest insight into the area's dark history. The hospital's director, 50-year-old Bich Sokha, for one, has worked in the same building for two decades, though he now only treats victims of traffic accidents and domestic abuse instead of militia with blown-off limbs. As part of the reconciliation plan that allowed former Khmer Rouge to integrate into new state institutions, Bich was able to trade in his black threads for a lab coat. He recalls having treated Ta Mok himself. "He had lost part of his leg from fighting and didn't like the first cut so we cut it again, above the knee, and he liked that."

    Ta Mok's daughter Preak Lin, a deadpan 56-year-old woman who owns a sizeable peanut farm in the area, says the elegant stupa housing her father's remains (also one of the itinerary stops) nourishes fond family memories. Ta Mok died in 2006, just months after he was placed in pretrial detention for the U.N.-backed war-crimes court that is ongoing. "Many people came to his funeral to pay tribute to him," she says. "When they open the tourist project, the villagers will be happy because they can earn more money, but I won't be happy because it will make me think about my father more and miss him."

    Grappling with the loss of the Butcher or not, Anlong Veng's residents, whose living conditions are no exception to the poverty afflicting most Cambodians, are excited at the prospect of a steadier stream of customers for their vending stalls, restaurants and guesthouses. At the moment, only about a dozen people visit the main sites each day. Perhaps none has his entrepreneurial ambitions set higher than Nhem En. The former portrait photographer of prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng prison, an anteroom to death where an estimated 15,000 people were viciously tortured, Nhem has for years tried to capitalize on his morbidly intimate connection with the regime and its inner workings. Now, he is uncasing his own attraction, a private museum located a half hour's commute outside of Anlong Veng, that will include, among other things, a walking stick, toilet seat and sandals he claims belonged to Pol Pot. (His offer to sell them last year for $1 million didn't attract any suitors.) Nhem says he wants to help illuminate Khmer Rouge history to foreigners and young Cambodians alike, but he's also happy to let someone else carry the torch: "I am offering my museum for $2 million to anyone interested in buying it."