Normalcy retrurns to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold
original story from July
Anlong Veng, in Oddar Meanchey province, is by first appearance just another small Cambodian town badly in need of an economic boost. However, as it was the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, this remote town near the Thai border is anything but just another small town. Now, after years of isolation, Anlong Veng is seeking to attain some level of normalcy at least comparable to the present state of the rest of the nation.
For over two decades there was virtually no contact with the outside world. When the area did finally come under government control in the spring of 1998 lack of infrastructure continued to inhibit interaction with the rest of the nation. A ride up Highway 67 from Siem Reap could take two days or two weeks, as much of the 120-kilometer trip was over what was little more than ox-cart paths. But earlier this year, Highway 67 was upgraded and now Anlong Veng is welcoming visitors.
It's a quick two and a half hours from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng thanks to the reconstruction of Highway 67. The trip begins by following the road to the famous Banteay Srei temple. Just beyond, a sign proclaims the completion of the new highway. For about thirty minutes one passes an endless line of stilted houses and busy villagers. After passing the Kulen mountains the landscape begins to change. First is the tiny village of Srei Noi (Little Woman). For years, this stood as the de facto boundary between government-controlled territory and Khmer Rouge-held territory. This area was a frequent battleground, and as such, the village hasn't fared well over the years. Just beyond the village, a team of CMAC workers clear minefields while red land mine warning signs line the road every few hundred meters. You're definitely not in Kansas anymore.
For the next sixty kilometers there are few signs of civilization. First, the area is lightly wooded, then it changes to a dense jungle of soaring hardwoods. There is the occasional squatter's dwelling, often nothing more than a blue tarp covering a wooden platform - a place to sleep and store a few personal possessions. Small roads disappear between the trees - one more frightening sign of the unbridled pace of deforestation in Cambodia. There is little effort to conceal the carnage, huge tree trunks lie on the ground awaiting removal. Someone is getting very rich here. Finally, the jungle breaks and we arrive in Anlong Veng.
The road leads us past a few wooden homes and the small town market. Dominating the town is the new Hun Sen monument, a reminder of just who is the new leader around here.
Other than seeing the town simply for what it is today, the main attraction is Ta Mok's old home. Ta Mok, now under arrest and held in a Phnom Penh prison, was the chief of the Khmer Rouge armed forces and final leader of the organization after Pol Pot's arrest. A roomy abode, it's been stripped of almost all its furnishings, save a couple of western toilets, a dozen or so chairs, and wall murals. A number of police have taken up residence in the house. (Word to the wise: They provided me with totally false information about access to the Dangrek Escarpment, however, accurate information may be obtained from the Reaksmey Angkor Guesthouse - the only guesthouse in town.) Ta Mok's home fronts a large lake created by one of his many dam projects. The numerous tree trunks confirm that it was once dry land around here.
Near Ta Mok's home lie a pair of old rusting tanks. I was to see several more equally dilapidated tanks on the way to and up the Dangrek Escarpment. [Update: December 2001: These tanks have since been moved to the government war museum in Siem Reap.]
This is definitely a frontier town, you really feel like you're at the end of a long road from nowhere. A walk around town doesn't take long. I draw a lot of mostly friendly attention, though there are a few residents that look at me with unease, projecting seemingly inimical stares. Whether it is surprise, unabashed curiosity, or old feelings of enemy hatred I have no way of knowing.
Other than having the frontier feel, the town really is starting to look rather normal. There aren't weapons in the market, rebels clad in red-checkered scarves, or clearance sales on tire-rubber sandals.
The market is nothing of note except for the mere fact that it exists at all, and that is reason enough to have a look. Under the Khmer Rouge, markets, or anything to do with capitalism ran counter to the ideology promoted in this one-time hard-line communist enclave. I'm told that many of the sellers in the market are not original residents but people who moved in (or back) after the government regained control of the area. A walk through the market brings a lot of attention from the sellers, much as if my presence is the highlight of their day. My limited Khmer language skills are enough to decipher that many of the comments are along the line of "foreigner coming with a big camera" followed by shouts and laughter.
After a trip up the Dangrek Escarpment, I stop at the river just north of town. Dozens of locals cast nets here for catching small fish. Though most are quite camera shy and I respect their wishes, one girl is remarkably cooperative. Wading through the river myself, I give the locals a good laugh when I end up ankle deep in water after missing a rock. The experience, in its normalcy, is what makes it special.
The Dangrek Escarpment is the mountain ridge about ten kilometers north of Anlong Veng marking the border between Cambodia and Thailand. For years it served as Pol Pot's home and as a Khmer Rouge hideout. After his 1997 arrest by Ta Mok and subsequent show trial and purge, Pol Pot was kept under house arrest in a simple dwelling elsewhere on the mountain. He died in that home and was cremated a few meters away.
At the time of my visit (July 24, 2000), the mountain was officially closed to tourists. However, if you don't arrive as a group and can tell the military a good story (bring an interpreter for this) it may be possible to look around at least part of the mountain.
I hired a pair of local motodops - one for me, one for my interpreter - and headed up the mountain. The road to the mountain is in excellent shape, however the road up the mountain isn't even fit to be called one. It's a steep rocky rugged incline that looks more fitting for a glacier than for a road and our pace up the mountain is no quicker.
Halfway up is the Ta Mok roundabout. This former checkpoint and monument to the Khmer Rouge has received proper respect. The heads have all been shot off.
Passing another pair of decaying tanks shoved off to the side of the road, we reach the top and the first of many military checkpoints. My interpreter tells them a good story on my behalf and I'm allowed to proceed. The road forks, but to the left several barricades make it clear not to continue that way. Too many mines they tell me. The other fork leads across the mountain to both Ta Mok's and Pol Pot's old homes, and also to the Thai border. I'm told the road itself is safe, but don't even think about stepping on the grass. Do it in the road.
Reaching Ta Mok's residence, we find a number of heavily armed, unsmiling RCAF soldiers have set up camp nearby. A commander emerges who happens to be an old friend of my interpreter. That's good news. He escorts us to the home, but not before one of the soldiers photographs me for identification purposes. The house is quite a bit smaller than the one in town, and it too, has been stripped of its furnishings and adapted to the personal use of several soldiers.
I'm then lead to a small ledge providing a spectacular view of Oddar Meanchey province. Enjoying the view which reaches as far as the Kulen Mountains, I ask the commander about the viability of tourists on the mountain. "We arenít ready yet," he says, "the mountain is not safe. Perhaps next year, but now, still too many mines." As we're ready to leave, a young woman emerges from a nearby dwelling. Unsmiling and looking a bit peaked, it doesn't take much to figure out what she's doing in this remote outpost.
We continue a few more kilometers reaching another military post at the Thai border. A narrow road leads off into the trees where I see a single makeshift gate separating Cambodia from Thailand - porous, to say the least. A small payment and I'm allowed to continue towards Pol Pot's old home, but not before another military post requires another stop. As usual, nobody smiles much and a few dollars are requested to pay for my mandatory escort. My escort looks like he should be back in school instead of shouldering an automatic weapon.
[Update: January 2003: I was to learn in late 2002 that CMAC pulled over 200 land mines out of the ground along the short path that leads to Pol Pot's old house.]
There's not much left of this house which served as Pol Pot's home from 1993 to 1997, just a single room at one end and a long tile floor in front. Inside, pornographic graffiti covers the walls. A porcelain stub is all that remains of the western-style toilet which received a lot of notice in the press earlier this year. First for its existence, then for its disappearance. The toilet seat appeared later in the Ivy Guesthouse in Siem Reap..
Returning to the first checkpoint at the front of the mountain, an escort shows me where it all came to an end. Walking through the brush he leads me to the spot where Pol Pot lived his final months. After his purge, he was placed under house arrest in a simple dwelling where he remained until his death on April 15, 1998. The house is gone now. While some reports say it was hit by an RCAF shell, my escort tells me a simpler tale. After Pol Pot died, the house was stripped, the materials taken elsewhere. The only signs of past habitation are a slab of cement, a broken toilet, and a few medicine jars and other personal effects. I ask my escort if they'll let this toilet disappear. "No, then there will be nothing left for the tourists to see," he tells me. But he offers me a token piece of broken toilet. A souvenir of Pol's last pot.
A few meters away from the home site is a pile of ashes with a couple of sticks on top. It is Pol Pot. His body, thrown on a pile of tires was most unceremoniously cremated here. My escort reaches into the ashes pulling out what he tells me is a bone fragment. He offers it to me. A souvenir of Pol Pot.
Education and Development
While there's no place in Cambodia that can't use a good shot in the arm of educational and infrastructure improvements, it's fair to say that Anlong Veng is certainly at the top of the list of areas needing assistance.
Under the Khmer Rouge, school was not a place to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, rather it was a place to learn more important things like building booby traps, making and placing land mines, and staging assaults on the enemy. Not surprisingly, illiteracy in the Anlong Veng area, estimated at over 65%, is among the highest in the country.
I dropped in on the old Ta Mok school. Located just east of town, this was where the children learned how to become good revolutionaries. Next to this old school construction is well underway on a new school building - a common sight throughout the Anlong Veng area.
When I arrived, a single class was in session on the first floor. The teacher, a kind man by the name of Sonn Niem warmly welcomed me in. A girl was at the front of the room shouting out what was written on the chalkboard, simultaneously hitting at each word with her stick. The class, standing at their desks, responded in unison behind her - shouting back whatever she said. Mr. Sonn was happy to have me move among the students taking photographs. The students tried to maintain composure, but many failed, erupting in giggles and laughter as I snapped photos.
The isolation of Anlong Veng continues to inhibit development in the area. While Highway 67 now connects Anlong Veng to Siem Reap, soon road construction will bring another important landmark into reach. The magnificent Preah Vihear temple, about sixty kilometers to the east of Anlong Veng, is presently accessible only from Thailand, cut-off from Cambodia due to bad roads and mines. This situation is set to be rectified possibly as early as next year.
Anlong Veng remains a victim of its history. Whether that history can return economic benefit to the area is yet to be seen. The road network isn't complete, there's but a single guesthouse in town (about a dozen rooms, $2 or $3 depending on their mood), and the Dangrek Escarpment isn't officially open. But Khmer Rouge history ranks highly with tourists. After the Angkor temples, the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia are the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek. It only stands to reason then, that Anlong Veng may someday become another stop on the Cambodia tourist loop.
Update : December 16, 2001
Curious to check out the extent of tourism development in the region, I returned on December 16, 2001.
Highway 67 is holding up pretty good. There are some rough spots between Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean and again north of the village of Srei Noi. I still made the trip in about two and a half hours. The stretch of magnificent hardwood forest has been thinned out a bit. But everyone knows that quality wood furniture always comes from Anlong Veng.
The town now has two guesthouses, both very basic. Several places advertise themselves in English as restaurants though neither one could serve me any food when I asked. One pointed me to the other which pointed me to another which told me to go to the market. The tanks in the road have been removed and are now in the new War Museum in Siem Reap run by the Ministry of Defense.
The road up the Dangrek Mountain is as wretched as ever though there was some heavy earth moving equipment and one stretch had seen some new dirt recently thrown down, but it's still mostly one big rock field. Once on the mountain, the military still runs the show but they are a lot more relaxed now. I still had to check in at the front but it wasn't necessary to explain my purpose. Only a couple of soldiers now hang out around Ta Mok's villa.
Going out to Pol Pot's house, the road is still blocked - this is because the Thai border is only a few meters away. But they didn't ask me for any money or demand that I use and pay for an escort. As a matter of fact, further down the road towards Pol Pot's place the former military station was devoid of soldiers. I was able to go all the way to Pol Pot's place unescorted, which other than being a bit more overgrown around the villa it's much as it was in July 2000.
Pol Pot's cremation site is the one the government seems most interested in promoting for tourism - so consider this: When I visited, there was a gate near the first military checkpoint blocking access to it. Hungry, I chose to leave well enough alone. I'd seen it before, had heard they had already constructed some sort of crude memorial over the ashes, and figured if there's a gate, then somebody will probably want money for me to visit the site. So it was with some surprise that I heard on the 31st of December - two days after a friend of mine visited Dangrek - that the military refused to allow him and his two companions to see the site. My friend reported that the military person they spoke with was extremely rude and nasty saying things along the line of - Who are you to visit this place? This place isn't for you. Get lost. And so forth. This hardly sounds like the proper attitude to take for an area which PM Hun Sen is insisting be developed for tourism - and with Pol Pot's cremation site the main attraction.
And that was that. The area is open and if you can get yourself up there nobody's going to bother you about visiting these places - with the possible exception of Pol Pot's cremation site - but you'll probably need somebody to show you around as you can get lost up on the mountain. Or follow my map.
Update : January 15, 2003
I passed through briefly on my to Preah Vihear and found for the most part the town looks pretty much the same as it always has. The road from Srey Noi north is in very good condition. There are a couple of guesthouses now and a new restaurant, the Choum No Tror Cheak Restaurant is worth a look. If it walks, crawls, swims, or slithers Ė itís on the menu, however, the menu is in Khmer and Thai only. Go left at the Hun Sen Monument and the restaurant is a few hundred meters up on your left, near Ta Mok's old villa. The road to Preah Vihear is finished and is very fast.
Update : January 24, 2005
The following report is courtesy "Richey", who was kind enough to offer this update:
- The road from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng has deteriored extremely during the last 2 yrs, as locals explained to me why the trip now takes *at least* five hours! Its condition is so bad that though the humble mentality of the fellow Cambodians, many car drivers are already angry at the government as almost no vehicle can do the trip without any damages to the car. Example: my way from SR -> AV took me **10** (!) hours because the pick-up broke down and had to be pulled to Anlong Veng by another one called from there. So it had to do the way from Anlong Veng to us, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and because of it's load the way back, it could only crawl like a snail .. we arrived in Anlong Veng at deep night, what fun. However, that way I could see the tremendous amount of burning-down the jungle in this area people do preferably in the protection of the dark. You could see all the embers and partially metre high fires quite well during the night. Regarding the road condition: a repair of it is promised for this year (2005), however, most locals seem to doubt it will happen because of the lack of money for such things.
- I could now count a total of 6 guesthouses in the town
- Against the Lonely Planet, all prices (including entrance tickets, room rates, mototaxi fees etc.) seem to have doubled in the area. Negotiate hard, this 100% increase is ridiculous and not arguable by any improvements in the area or the services they provide...
- Still, I was the only western tourist in the area during the three days of my stay
- Prasat Preah Vihear is reachable in a 3+ hour motobike trip by an experienced driver, the road to the mountain is in very good condition now. However, the road from the base of the mountain up to the top is a real nightmare, and from my experiences I can strongly dissuade anyone to move up there even with the guides that offer the ride with their stronger bikes! You really risk your health on a bike there, and the next hospital is far away. On certain parts of the way up and down none of my two drivers was in full control over their bikes. I had to change the one bringing me up since he was drunk as I guessed from the odor emitting from his mouth, he had two accidents with me. They are building a concrete way up there now, until it is finished I would recommend to buy two bottles of water at the base and walk up (est. time: 1-1.5 hrs). Yes, it hurts seeing the perfect, asphalted street on the Thai side when you're on top, and having to watch the styled tourists leaving their tourist minibuses, not having any idea what kind of a trip YOU have behind you... However, visiting Preah Vihear is a 'must', enjoy the stunning views from there (and keep resistant to the offers of real tiger tooth there, for the sake of this rare species). Even when walking up the mountain, the tour is easily possible within a day, especially when both of you start in the early morning hours.
Educational development: The Anlong Veng Project
The Final Chapter: A Cambodia Daily story on the final years of the Khmer Rouge
Two stories relating to Anlong Veng. Courtesy Save the Children Norway.
The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University.
The following newspaper articles were of particular help:
Marcher, Annette. "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." Phnom Penh Post, 3-16 March 2000.
Marcher, Annette. "Visit to Anlong Veng is a trip back into KR times." Phnom Penh Post, 3-16 March 2000.
Sokheng, Vong, and Marcher, Annette. "Anlong Veng makes new friends from old enemies." Phnom Penh Post, 21 July-3 August 2000.
Sokheng, Vong, and Marcher, Annette. "Road to Samrong preferred over Preah Vihear route." Phnom Penh Post, 21 July-3 August 2000.
The Phnom Penh Post internet site is at http://www.phnompenhpost.com
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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2003 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.