Postcard from . . . Cambodia
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An hour into the ride from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng, I stop for breakfast at a noodle stand. It’s the exact midpoint of the journey, and a moment of strange symmetry. Behind me, the ancient temples of the Angkorian empire — Cambodia’s crowning glory and its cash cow. Up ahead, a historic seat of power that many would like to forget.
Ninety miles north of Siem Reap and 10 miles south of the Thai border, Anlong Veng was the last embattled stronghold of the Khmer Rouge — the communist regime that came to power in 1975. After a four-year reign of terror during which almost a quarter of the country’s 8m people died, the Khmer Rouge were forced out of the capital and squeezed to Cambodia’s borders, until Anlong Veng and the Dangrek mountain ridge just beyond it were all that remained of their dominion.
It was here that the regime finally collapsed. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious leader, was put under house arrest on Dangrek mountain by his own army. He died in 1998, just as the town was falling to government forces, and was swiftly cremated in the jungle on a bed of car tyres.
As I approach Anlong Veng on the back of an unsteady 100cc scooter, it’s hard to shake the superstition that this dark history has been absorbed into the ground. Many trees are blackened husks, killed at their roots by the lakes that swell during the monsoon.
But it is the absence of history, or more accurately of historical record, that is exercising this remote town. Without maintenance, the markers of its recent past are vanishing. Some, including Pol Pot’s mountaintop lodge, have become almost unreachable.
Recently, however, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), Cambodia’s leading genocide research institute, has taken up the challenge of restoring these sites and even promoting Anlong Veng as a tourist destination. Staff are working to make the most important sites more accessible and the process of training English-speaking tour guides will begin shortly. “We need to remember Anlong Veng’s history, as it is the history of Cambodia,” says Ly Sok Kheang, an earnest researcher who makes the 16-hour round trip from the capital once a month.
Today he wants to visit Pol Pot’s cremation site, where he has just overseen the construction of an information booth. We leave town and begin the ascent into the mountains. A turn-off is sign posted by a hand-painted notice: “Pol Pot”, with an arrow pointing unceremoniously towards his remains.
At the cremation site, weeds have sprouted from what were once ashes. The roof is a rusted triangle of corrugated iron. The location is not intentionally obscured, just abandoned.
Kheang inspects the hut, not yet staffed, before we continue along the mountain ridge. Then the jungle parts unexpectedly; in its place a rocky clifftop, Cambodia’s rice fields stretching to the horizon below.
It is a stunning view, and a strategic one. This was where Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge’s last commander, came to direct his battles. Perched on the ledge is his meeting house, which DC-Cam has almost finished restoring. The ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers who built it originally are assisting the architects. “They even remember where Pol Pot used to sit — with his back to the wall of the toilet,” says Kheang.
This is the main difference between Anlong Veng and the country’s existing sites of “genocide tourism”, as it has come to be known. The Killing Fields’ mass graves and Tuol Sleng prison’s torture chambers, which many tourists visit while in Phnom Penh, are places to mourn the regime’s victims; Anlong Veng tells the story of the perpetrators, many of whom are still alive.
Kheang reminds me, not for the first time, that the Khmer Rouge’s foot soldiers were poor, uneducated, and often had few options except to fight. Questions of their culpability are hard to untangle, but reconciliation is critical. “If we want to have peace in the country, we must have peace in Anlong Veng,” he says, surveying the vast landscape below.
On the cliff ledge, an entrepreneurial snack vendor has erected a line of hammocks. As the sun rises overhead, local families and monks arrive on motorbikes to picnic and siesta on the quiet mountaintop. The heat, and the weight of history, are carried away on the breeze. The peace that Kheang hopes for feels within reach.
Anlong Veng can be visited as a day trip from Siem Reap; taxis are available through all hotels. Siem Reap Dirt Bikes (siemreapdirtbikes.com) offers motorbike tours to the area, an easy way to gain good access to remoter parts of the mountain