The pagodas of Udong mountain are undergoing a major renovation. Atop the mountain, a shining new temple offers a grand sweeping view over the rice fields of Kandal province.
The renovations and promotion of Udong have brought hundreds of food vendors to the site hoping to cash in on the droves of tourists that descend each weekend.
Amid the hubbub of food stalls and parking lots at the foot of the mountain there stands a small wooden structure with a collapsing roof, rusty chicken-wire fencing and faded, ripped signs.
The decrepit, largely neglected structure, one of 80 such sites in Cambodia, holds the bones of hundreds of victims murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Unlike the Choeung Ek killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, there is no private company trying to seal a government deal to take over ownership and develop the memorial at Udong.
At Udong, it is local monks who are raising money to maintain the genocide memorial site, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
But “it is a slow process because it comes from local villagers,” Youk Chhang said.
Debate has erupted in recent weeks over the controversial leasing of the Choeung Ek memorial site to Japanese company JC Royal, and has put Khmer Rouge-era memorials under the spotlight. Particularly, questions are being raised over who has the right to maintain a country’s historical memory and what is the tasteful way to remember Pol Pot’s victims?
“To use Pol Pot’s gravesite to attract tourists is dehumanizing” but such places can offer visitors a valuable experience if done properly, Youk Chhang said.
“Tourists have heard about two things in Cambodia: Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. One from Heaven and one from Hell. They come here to find out how such things could come to this earth,” he said.
DC-Cam has in its collection visitor commentary books from the Tuol Sleng genocide museum dating back to the early 1980s, he said. “Tourists say that they learn about humanity, about what humans can do to other humans, about how to preserve history. They pose questions that were beyond their thinking before they came to such a place,” he said.
The problem with entrusting a foreign firm with the duty of maintaining Choeung Ek, he said, is that the memorial loses its authentic Cambodia identity and could become just a tourist spectacle devoid of meaning for survivors of the genocide.
“For the survivors these are places of healing. If the survivors want to build a stupa or to grow flowers as part of a process of healing this is natural,” he said.
Rather than leasing to a foreign firm to earn tourist revenue, the government should assist survivors in memorializing the dead, Youk Chhang said.
On April 17, 1975, Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Thong Khon, was a young medical student working in Phnom Penh’s Monivong Hospital.
“I was shocked when women troops, dressed in black uniforms forced me and my doctors out of the hospital…they came into town with angry faces and started killing people. They were cruel women,” Thong Khon said.
“I came back to Phnom Penh in 1979 with the CPP. I saw Phnom Penh as a damned site, hundreds of tons of rubbish and junk, dead bodies…. We cleaned up every Saturday,” he added.
In 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen charged Thong Khon with developing the site of Pol Pot’s death, Anlong Veng, into a tourism site.
Later this month the Ministry of Tourism and government will inform people of their plans for Anlong Veng, where construction has already begun on a major hotel casino complex near the site where Pol Pot was cremated.
Long before Choeung Ek, Youk Chhang warned that Anlong Veng should not become a Khmer Rouge “Disneyland.”
“It is not a tourism site for fun,” Thong Khon said of his plans for Anlong Veng.
“The ministry is seeking for generous people to help fund a museum in the Anlong Veng site,” he added.
Last week, Thong Khon defended the Phnom Penh Municipality’s plans to privatize Choeung Ek, saying all tourist sites in Cambodia needed proper services, such as accommodation and food vendors.
In Battambang province’s Banan district, authorities gathered the bones of victims several years ago and erected a stupa where the skulls are kept dry, Sok Sean Leang, the provincial culture department director said.
Local villagers now describe the crimes of the Khmer Rouge to visitors and, this New Year, locals are gathering there to pray.
“Tourists who go up the mountain do not just see the bones, they learn about the Buddha’s life, which explains sin,” Sok Sean Leang said.
Youk Chhang said sometimes people do not understand what visitors are seeking when they come to Khmer Rouge memorial sites and he recalled the story of one woman in Kompong Speu province as an example.
“At the Ampe Phnom site in Kompong Speu you have a waterfall, a killing field and a pagoda which the Khmer Rouge used as a prison. I talked to a lady out there. She told me that when the government announced it would be a tourist site she could not sleep for night after night worrying about what kind of food she would cook for the tourists,” Youk Chhang said.
“She decorated her hut with bright plastic flowers and plays loud music now. It is very popular