Anlong veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – Not too long ago, this muddy, remote village was a nation unto itself, protected from government attacks by some 120 km of impenetrable jungle, countless minefields and a battle-scarred army of Khmer Rouge fighters.
Ta Mok ruled, enforcing the failed Maoist ideals of the Democratic Kampuchea with an iron fist, confining soldiers who acted up to cramped, metal tiger cages in front of his bunker-like home. He prohibited capitalism, prostitution, gambling, religion and the corrupting outside influences of television and movies.
For most outsiders, an approach too close to this stronghold meant certain death—as it did for British deminer Christopher Howes in 1996, and two Belgian backpackers who disappeared in 1994 attempting to visit Preah Vihear Temple in neighboring Preah Vihear province. Five years later, after the town defected to the government, their remains resurfaced in Anlong Veng.
But things are changing fast in the muddy town that Ta Mok built.
Disciplined battlefield veterans now spend their afternoons waiting straight-backed on motorbike-taxis outside one of several new guesthouses, ready to take orders from tourists who not too long ago they might have shot.
One-story wooden shacks line the town’s main strip, housing restaurants and shops selling motorbikes, gasoline and telephones—private property that would have been definite contraband for the masses in an agrarian Maoist utopia. The tallest structure in the area is a new cell phone tower.
Already, it is possible on certain nights to sing karaoke, then return to a guest house, flip on cable television and watch “Police Academy Four.”
The government Ta Mok once attacked has paved the dirt road he carved out of this inhospitable jungle of scrub brush and palms.
It cuts through the center of town and leads up into the Dangrek Mountains all the way to the Thai border.
There are still signs along this route of the locals’ reverence for their Khmer Rouge past. After Ta Mok’s arrest in 1999, government troops beheaded the stone sculptures of Khmer Rouge warriors carved into a rock along the road. The locals now pay their respects to the headless statues by praying at their feet before a spirit house.
Pol Pot’s grave lies further up the road, in an area once forested, remote, and desolate. A burgeoning marketplace community now thrives nearby, full of vendors hawking everything from household goods like toothpaste and soda to DVDs about the Khmer Rouge.
Little children greet visitors with gap-toothed smiles and play among the deceased leader’s funeral pyre, jumping up and down, chanting his name and begging for riel. The Ministry of Tourism has erected a sign in Khmer and English marking the site of his cremation and urging tourists to respect Cambodia’s heritage. A stone’s throw away, investors plan to build a casino.
Even Ta Mok’s relatives appear to realize that the town could become a tourist draw. During his funeral ceremony on Monday, one of his grandchildren reached into Ta Mok’s coffin and removed his prosthetic leg. Holding it aloft, he proclaimed that the family would build a case and display it.
The Ministry of Tourism has already anointed a building a few meters away a heritage site, affixing a sign reading “Ta Mok’s sawmill” to a rickety shack, and appointing a young man who used to live with Ta Mok as a guide and promoter.
Ta Mok’s house in the center of town, surrounded by the lake he created, is now a museum. One of his former soldiers charges an admission fee to take in the concrete reinforced bunker where he once held strategy meetings. Though no furniture remains in the two-story house, the colorful and detailed wall paintings of Preah Vihear Temple and Angkor Wat make for good photographs.
It is the infrastructure changes—the improvements Ta Mok reached for, but failed to fully achieve—that the people here openly praise the most.
“There is a bigger road,” says Tam Tum, 77. “There is a bigger hospital, a bigger school. The government did it faster than Ta Mok because he was poor at the time. We are happy with the achievements.”
Even Ta Mok’s son-in-law, himself a former high-ranking official in the regime, can’t help but be impressed. Visiting from Battambang province’s Samlot district for Ta Mok’s funeral, Meas Muth noted that he had spoken with the village chief who informed him that of 200 families, “nobody is starving, they all have enough to eat.”
“I see people enjoying the peace,” he said.
There are, of course, some problems with the new way of life.
“There are lots of prostitutes and prostitution houses,” complains Um Sameth, 51, a loyal former Ta Mok soldier. “I hate the brothels. I hate the prostitutes. A lot of people spend money the wrong way. It’s useless and it causes problems at home. Some people sell land so they can go to the brothels.”
But Um Sameth has no desire to revisit the past.
“There’s no more war,” he said. “I just enjoy farming.”