Postcard From Anlong Veng

Anlong Veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – More than six years after defecting to the government, ex-Khmer Rouge soldier San Roeun now works as a groundskeeper for one of Anlong Veng town’s most famous buildings, and one he helped construct.

The 51-year-old takes care of the large cement house surrounded by swamp land that was once occupied by former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok.

“I built this house as a worker in 1994,” San Roeun said, eager to tell visitors about the construction of the house, its former owner, and his own experiences as a Khmer Rouge guerrilla.

As an ex-commander, San Roeun led as many as 300 soldiers before he lost his left leg when he stepped on a land mine in 1992.

No longer able to fight in the field, he then joined more than 100 soldiers to construct Ta Mok’s house, from which the military leader oversaw the region before it fell to the government in 1998.

“I was in the last group of Khmer Rouge” to desert the movement, he said.

San Roeun is now one of a scant handful of volunteers in Anlong Veng’s tourism department who live off donations from the infrequent visitors to the area.

Anlong Veng the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and the final resting place of Pol Pot has only in recent years opened up to outsiders and the rest of the country.

While local officials in 2001 touted the region as a budding tourism destination, the number of visitors who make their way along the tumbling, unpaved and potholed road from Siem Reap town remain few.

Only about 160 foreign tourists visited last year, said Seang Sokheng, director of tourism for Anlong Veng district.

Seang Sokheng blamed the low tourism numbers on the dilapidated National Road 67, which makes for a jarring, nauseating three-hour taxi ride from Siem Reap.

“The road has not been improved,” he said. “It is worse than last year.”

In October, the government announced plans to refill the potholes and lay down fresh dirt over Road 67, said Chin Savong, a deputy governor of Anlong Veng district. But, he said: “So far, we’re still waiting.”

An alternate route entering the district through the Dangrek mountain range from Thailand is also seldom traveled by tourists. From the recently opened Chhong Saongam international checkpoint at the top of the mountain is another treacherous, though shorter, ride into Anlong Veng town. The journey, best taken by motorbike taxi, takes about 45 minutes down the steep and twisted mountain road.

Some Thai nationals do trickle across the Chhong Saongam checkpoint to trade and shop at a new market built atop the mountain in January, just meters from Pol Pot’s cremation site.

But stationed near the sleepy checkpoint and overlooking the market, tourist police officer Vai Vy shrugged when asked about the number of visitors coming across the border.

“It is not improving,” he said.

At the dusty market, surrounded by jungle, vendors sell canned goods, shampoos, clothing, bootlegged DVDs and souvenirsÑmost of which are imported from Thailand. Business, they said, is painfully slow.

“It’s not good business yet,” said Bin Saravuth, 35, who sells sunglasses and Khmer Rouge-style tire-soled “Pol Pot” sandals from his stall.

Most of his customers cross the border to buy his Thai-made products because they are slightly cheaper on the Cambodian side, where they don’t have to pay taxes, he said.

“Some days, we cannot make money. On a good day, we get [about $12.50],” Bin Saravuth said.
Still, he said, he is optimistic that business will soon pick up when roads improve and the area develops.

Efforts, though meager, have already been made to increase accessibility at historical Khmer Rouge sites.

A small dirt path snakes through the tall grass beyond Bin Saravuth’s stall to Pol Pot’s final resting place, which is marked with a Ministry of Tourism sign that reads “Pol Pot was cremated here.”

A low shelter of wood and corrugated metal has been built over a pile of dirt and ash where the body of Democratic Kampuchea’s Brother No 1 apparently lay burning at his unceremonious cremation, days after his April 1998 death. Locals have also constructed a new wooden fence around the area, which earlier this month appeared freshly swept and clear of weeds and refuse.

Sticks of incense and offerings of now-shriveled flowers decompose in front of a wooden shrine set up beside the cremation site evidence of remaining loyalty to the notorious leader.

Apparently unaware of the upkeep at the site, Seang Sokheng, the district tourism director, said he has designs to build a fence around Pol Pot’s resting place, which he was optimistic would help lure tourists.

“We plan to clear the grass and bush around Pol Pot’s grave. It’s quite overgrown and difficult for tourists to go there,” he added.

“We think Pol Pot’s grave is a potential destination for Anlong Veng,” said Seang Sokheng, who also told of plans to offer boat rides to promote tourism at the swamp around Ta Mok’s house.

The construction of a grand casino about 1 km down the mountain from Pol Pot’s cremation site, on the Cambodian side of the border, is also expected to draw visitors, locals said.

District authorities could provide little detail about plans for the casino, but said a Cambodian investor was building it.

In June, Oddar Meanchey’s Governor Lay Virak said the casino project included the construction of a large luxury hotel, though he did not disclose the name of the company building it.

Bulldozers at the proposed casino site were seen clearing the once heavily-mined jungle earlier this month. While some acknowledged it may eventually be good for business, the prospect of a casino in a once communist region has residents especially ex-Khmer Rouge cadre expressing mixed feelings.

“During the Khmer Rouge, before integration, everybody was very disciplined and followed the Khmer Rouge rule: To not drink alcohol, no prostitution, no gambling,” said Im Sopheap, a former rebel soldier and also now a deputy Anlong Veng district governor.

“Now Anlong Veng has been transformed into a liberal place,” he said. “A casino is against the rule we used to follow. I don’t understand why they’re building it.”

In the opposite direction from the casino site, a road from the Chhong Saongam checkpoint leads to Ta Mok’s former lookout point, which offers a clear view of the drought-stricken fields and deforested tracts of land below. But from the rocky cliff, which would have allowed the military commander to see oncoming enemy forces, the scenery is still breathtaking.

The lookout point is now occupied by a family whose claim to the land is disputed by local authorities.

Seang Sokheng charged that an RCAF soldier, Rang Saruon, grabbed the land in 2000. The tourism director said he recently lodged a complaint about Rang Saruon’s family to his superiors, claiming the soldier was taking money from tourists visiting the lookout point that should instead be going to the district tourism bureau.

Since making the complaint, however, Seang Sokheng said: “I’ve heard nothing.”

During a visit to the lookout point, Rang Saruon was not at home. But his daughter, Un Sereirath, 21, said her father, the deputy commander of RCAF Region 4’s development unit, had legitimate claim to the 1 hectare of land, having been granted it after the fall of Anlong Veng to government soldiers in 1998.

“My family has ownership,” she said. After the rebels gave in to the government, she said, “the land was distributed to each [RCAF] soldier.”

An open-air restaurant established by the family offers Thai-imported Coca-Cola, beer and canned soy milk for anyone who ventures there for the mountain view and refreshments.

Though tourists may not be coming to Anlong Veng in droves, the district’s potential as a traveler’s destination has brought an increasing number of settlers from other parts of the country who have come in search of business opportunities.

Where the sound of gunfire once punctured the calm, the sound of hammers and saws now come from the construction sites of new homes and a yet-unopened market in the middle of town.

While some former Khmer Rouge soldiers reminisce about days when their communist leadership handed out rice rations and society was kept under tight control, newcomers have happily embraced the free market economy.

The influx of settlers has more than tripled the price of land along the road between Anlong Veng town and the Dangrek mountains, residents say.

Two years ago, Sin Thong, 46, gave up his livelihood as a grocery trader in Stung Treng province when he heard there was money to be made here and built a guest house and restaurant on a 12 meter by 36 meter plot of land near the center of town. At the time, the property cost $8,500, he said.

This year, Sin Thong said, his neighbor bought the same amount of land right next door for $30,000.

“From the beginning, I didn’t want to buy land here,” he said. “But now land is so expensive, we’re lucky that we bought it,” he said, laughing.

The rationale for those moving here is simple, Sin Thong said it’s much closer to travel from Thailand to Cambodia’s prime tourist destination, Siem Reap, through Anlong Veng than to travel there from Phnom Penh.

As long as the government builds good roads, visitors will come, he reasoned. Though that has yet to happen, a smiling Sin Thong said he wasn’t concerned.

“The future for Anlong Veng is very good,” he said.

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