(This is the first of three stories on tourist attractions in rural Cambodia. Tomorrow: Stung Treng)
anlong veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – Ly Kim Heng, who used to work for Pol Pot, knows as much as anybody about the last years of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime.
So it makes perfect sense that she should be sitting in a rustic hut here in the heart of Khmer Rouge country recently, sketching out a map of sites tourists might like to see.
“I’m trying to figure out where the places are that most concern the former Khmer Rouge leaders,” she said. “I’m very happy to hear that the government wants to open the border so tourists can visit Anlong Veng.”
The government is only responding to demand. Already, with no special preparations at all, between 200 and 300 tourists visit the area each week, while 2,000 come during major national festivals.
Ly Kim Heng, a 40-year-old mother of four, is the new deputy chief of tourism for Anlong Veng. In her previous life under the Khmer Rouge, she was a “base” person—a peasant untainted by Western influence—appointed by Pol Pot to take charge of education.
She moves easily between two ideologies that could not be more different: The radical Maoist agrarian utopia of her youth, and the take-no-prisoners world of modern Asian tourism.
She has pinpointed eight sites she thinks will be of interest, from the lonely spot in the woodlands where Pol Pot’s body was burned with car tires to the lavish compound Ta Mok built for himself, complete with ornamental plantings and a huge satellite dish.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Cambodian communist movement that took over the country in 1975, vowing to build a new egalitarian society free of Western taint.
By the time they were driven from power more than three years later, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians had died of overwork, disease, starvation or execution.
When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979, the Khmer Rouge were driven back into the north and western parts of the country, where they remained a force until the late 1990s.
Before Pol Pot’s death in 1998, he had retreated with his most loyal supporters to the Anlong Veng area, near the Dangrek Mountains along the Thai border. With him were Ta Mok and Son Sen, who had supported him from the beginning.
The Cambodian government believes tourists will pay to visit the homes and graves of these men so long hidden from the outside world. Ta Mok is in prison, awaiting trial for war crimes; Son Sen and 10 members of his household were ordered killed by Pol Pot in 1997 as the movement fell apart.
Ly Kim Heng is writing a textbook to explain what happened in Anlong Veng in those last years, including why and how Pol Pot died, why he had Son Sen’s family killed, and why Ta Mok landed in prison.
“I think this historical information will be helpful for future tour guides and tourists,” she said.
The government is moving ahead with plans to develop the area. Last month, they sent 23-year-old Oum Khemara, who lived with Pol Pot as a youth, to Siem Reap for training as a trilingual tour guide.
“He will be able to explain the situation here” in English, Thai and Khmer, said Ly Kim Heng.
Thong Khon, secretary of state for tourism, has told former Khmer Rouge in the Anlong Veng area to protect the historic sites and properties. In some cases, that warning comes too late.
Pol Pot’s final resting place has already been picked clean. His ignominious funeral pyre was in the Dangrek Mountains, about 100 meters from the border, and is marked today by a wooden sign.
“This is the resting place of Pol Pot,” the sign says. “It is a historic area.” Behind the sign is a pile of ashes covered by galvanized tin, remnants of car tires and a few discarded bottles; someone has left incense sticks and flowers at the site.
But someone else has removed all bone fragments or other items that might conceivably have belonged to Pol Pot. And the last house he stayed in before he died has been similarly stripped to its frame.
Son Sen fared better. Although he and his family were slaughtered in the Dangrek Mountains, their bodies were dumped in a mass grave not far from Pol Pot’s pyre.
That site is unmarked and unmolested. It contains the bodies of Son Sen, his wife, their two children, one son-in-law, two grandchildren, two maids and two bodyguards. Today it is covered by grasses and wildflowers.
It appears that the Ministry of Tourism is not the only organization interested in the tourist potential of Anlong Veng. Non Nov, deputy commander of Military Region 4, was an assistant to Pol Pot in the final years.
Military Region 4, based in Siem Reap, has come into conflict with the government before over potentially lucrative tourist sites. The army controls Phnom Kulen, the most sacred site in Cambodia, saying the government gave them the land in 1998.
Cultural officials and conservationists, noting that the army for years looted priceless artifacts from the Angkorian temples, said they should not be allowed anywhere near cultural sites.
Non Nov said he did not want to talk much about Pol Pot. “But if the Ministry of Tourism opens this border, I will make a museum about him, and organize [the place where he died] better for tourism.
“I think we can make some money from this.”
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)