Cambodian bastion of genocidal Khmer Rouge a tourist destination that offers rich rewards
- See the spot in Anlong Veng where Pol Pot was cremated, and his mountaintop retreat and that of ‘The Butcher’ Ta Mok, with their sweeping views
- See too the hardscrabble shacks of some ex-guerillas, 20 years on from their surrender, and the garishly decorated casino
Anlong Veng, on Cambodia’s border with Thailand, is not particularly easy to get to – which is why it made such a good stronghold for the Khmer Rouge leadership long after their genocidal regime was toppled. Today, it offers rich rewards to visitors seeking to better understand Cambodia’s recent history.
The modest town and its surroundings were the last bastion of the fanatical Maoists who ruled the country, then called Kampuchea, between 1975 and 1979, and subsequently waged a bloody guerilla war that only ended after the death of their leader Pol Pot in April 1998 with the surrender of the remaining senior leaders in December that year.
Hugging the Dangrek mountain range which forms a natural border between northern Cambodia and Thailand, Anlong Veng was once virtually cut off from the rest of Cambodia by thick forests and a lack of roads. Access for the Khmer Rouge came via unofficial border crossings from Thailand, and the Thais readily accepted the valuable hardwood logs that the Khmer Rouge sold to help finance their existence.
The Choam/Chong Sa-Ngam border has officially opened, and offers a far quieter land crossing than the alternative – the bustling town of Poipet to the west. On the Cambodian side of the border, advertising signs for mobile phone brands, money transfer agents, and a handful of restaurants line a dusty road.
Just 100 metres from the border are two of Anlong Veng’s top attractions; they could not be more different, but both demonstrate the changes the area has undergone in the 20 years since the Khmer Rouge surrendered and were rehabilitated.
Towering over the cremation site is the Sangam Resort and Casino. The on-site spa, Japanese restaurant, and lavish landscaped gardens and water features stand in stark contrast to the dust and poverty outside its high walls.
The casino is a sad place. Smelling of stale tobacco smoke and resplendent with the garish carpets that seem to be compulsory at border casinos across Southeast Asia, the gambling here is a 24-hour affair.
Expensive Mercedes limousines with Thai number plates sit next to more modest Thai-registered vehicles and a smattering of Cambodian military vehicles and vehicles with Cambodian number plates, suggesting that the ban on locals gambling in casinos in Cambodia is not strictly enforced, as Kemara, the owner of the only other accommodation near the border, notes.
“The casino has brought jobs other than farming for people here, which is good, but some 80 per cent of local people have lost money there. It’s bad for us,” says Kemara, who asks us to use only his first name.
His guest house and restaurant offer fantastic views of the flat expanse of northern Cambodia. It is next to another legacy of the Khmer Rouge – the mountain home of Khmer Rouge senior commander Ta Mok, known as “The Butcher”.
“The changes in Anlong Veng since Pol Pot’s death have been huge. There are more people now, and very few trees compared to before,” says Kemara.
The thick forests that once helped to protect the Khmer Rouge from the encircling Cambodian military have largely thinned. Looking south from atop the Dangrek mountain range, only patches of green now dot the landscape, while mostly brown squares of farmland extend to the horizon.
The sunrise from Kamara’s basic US$8 rooms is a sight to behold. In addition to the clear defensive advantages that the ridge offered, the beauty of the setting – denuded as it is now – has endured; it offers an almost bird’s-eye view over the patchwork of fields and remaining forest stretching to the horizon.
Ta Mok’s modest mountaintop home now houses the Anlong Veng Peace Centre. Newly erected information boards paint a vivid picture of the cruelties and destruction the Khmer Rouge wrought during their brief reign over Cambodia, and the bloody fighting that book-ended it.
Many stayed in Anlong Veng, and their small farmsteads line a dirt track hacked through the forest that leads east from Ta Mok’s house to Pol Pot’s mountain hideaway.
With the exception of a few large cashew and rubber plantations, life as witnessed from this narrow track carved from the former forest is one of simplicity and hard work. Faded signs announce the successful clearing of landmines, near patches of cassava and vegetables vying for space amid charred tree stumps that surround the dusty gardens of one-room shacks.
The Khmer Rouge banned money after taking power in 1975 while their vision of Cambodia as a self-reliant agrarian utopia took hold, but the current sights of satellite TV dishes, solar power arrays, motorbikes and piles of plastic garbage are reminiscent of rural scenes across the country.
It is hard to imagine these farmers and shopkeepers as wide-eyed young soldiers seeing cars, fridges and televisions for the first time when they marched, victorious, into Phnom Penh in April 1975.
Not much remains of Pol Pot’s bunker-like house, which included a reinforced basement. The site offers similar views to those Ta Mok enjoyed. A nearby artificial lake, vivid pink and red lilies floating near its banks, adds to the bucolic calm of the setting that is at odds with the deeds of a man held responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.
With images of the Buddha on display and spirit houses outside many homes, it appears that the persecution of Buddhists and war on religious belief that followed the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power is long forgotten. The shift is evident at a shrine on the main road between the border and Anlong Veng town.
Carved into the side of a large granite boulder are the remains of three statues 1.5-metres high and clad in military uniform; one has a backpack holding rocket-propelled grenades. All are missing their heads and show clear signs of being under attack. This melding of Khmer Rouge iconography and Buddhism is surely unique in Cambodia.
The road through Anlong Veng holds a number of other reminders that this part of Cambodia was once under Khmer Rouge control. Signs to Ta Mok’s town house, to former ammunition factories, to model rice fields or warehouses all highlight the organised and structured life the guerillas made for themselves.
Ta Mak’s town house, on the bank of a lake, stands in isolation to the north of Anlong Veng town. Built from concrete and giant tree trunks from the now vanished forest, it shows how confident the Khmer Rouge were that they could hold on to this part of Cambodia. Simplistic murals of Angkorian temples on the inside are a surprise, and offer a colourful insight into how Ta Mok saw his position in Cambodian history.
He died in 2006 before he could face trial, but Christmas 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the surrender of fellow senior leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “Win-Win” memorial to himself was unveiled in Phnom Penh to commemorate the occasion.
For border guard and lifelong Anlong Veng resident Mony, who also prefers to use only his first name, the celebrations in Phnom Penh, which included a fireworks display, did not reflect the local mood concerning the anniversary.
“It wasn’t a big day up here,” he says. “It is only something for the big guys far away in the capital.”
The nearest international airport is Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. From there, the most reliable option is to take a taxi, or shared taxi. Arranging a motorbike tour of the main sights in Anlong Veng costs about US$15 a day, but more if heading all the way to Pol Pot’s house.
Cambodian riel and Thai baht are the currencies of choice, and it is good to carry smaller-denomination US dollars since you are so far from a major tourist area.