Cambodia maps out plan to lure tourists to Khmer Rouge sites

The veranda has collapsed, a lone green typewriter sits unused on a dusty table and only two of the 27 staff are here. But Anlong Veng’s tourism office has a grand plan to lure visitors to the final stronghold of Cambodia’s infamous Khmer Rouge.

It was to this far-flung district in Oddar Meanchey province, about 450 kilometres (280 miles) north of Phnom Penh, that tyrant Pol Pot withdrew in 1992 and where both he and the ultra-Maoist movement responsible for up to two million deaths drew final breath.

Nestled in the Dangrek mountains, Pol Pot’s final hideout just metres (yards) from neighbouring Thailand is reached by an unpaved, pot-holed road, still littered on either side by landmines.

"We are doing research to find out about potential tourist sites," says district tourism chief Sieng Sokheng, flattening out a photocopy of his masterplan that lists the 43 spots so far identified.

"The government regards these places as places suitable for tourists."

One of these is the fenced-off area where Pol Pot spent his last months under house arrest after being captured and put on trial by military commander Ta Mok.

His broken toilet and smashed medicine bottles still lie in the undergrowth.

Nearby are his remains, unceremoniously burned on a pile of tyres after his 1998 death, in a patch now protected with a corrugated iron roof headed by an altar where people have left offerings of fruit, cigarettes and incense.

At the end of the narrow path leading here, where chickens scrabble and bougainvilleas flourish, soldier Yang Phan says two to five tourists, both Western and Asian, tramp here daily. Minibuses occasionally disgorge up to 15.

"We don’t get any profit from them," he says, referring to the vendors at the shanty market of thatch and blue plastic tarpaulins which sprung up to take advantage of the border’s opening in late 2003.

"Of course, we want to see as many people come here as possible, but the road is difficult so I have no idea how they can come here."

An eight-kilometre (five-mile) drive away along the escarpment lies the remains of one of the former homes of "The Butcher", Ta Mok, along with the Khmer Rouge headquarters building, now a concrete shell covered with graffiti.

Today, Ta Mok is one of two former leaders languishing in jail awaiting trial at a UN-backed tribunal for which funding has nearly been raised.

Taking advantage of the stunning views over Anlong Veng and expecting tourism to flourish, soldier Rang Saruon opened a guesthouse next door in 2001.

With hammocks to swing in, chirping birds and flowers in the garden, it’s difficult to imagine the violence this place witnessed: in 1997, Pol Pot’s former defence minister Son Sen was brutally murdered outside the house with his wife and children on his boss’s orders.

"I knew that eventually more foreign tourists would come here and have no place to stay and eat," says 56-year-old Rang Saruon, from neighbouring Siem Reap province.

"It’s a beautiful site, you can see a panorama of Cambodia… and foreign visitors want to see the historical sites, the houses, where the former Khmer Rouge lived."

When he first opened, about 40 tourists per month stayed with him but that has dwindled to just 10 as the road to Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex, has dramatically worsened.

Further along the desolate road shaded by scrubby forest, with no signposts and few people to ask directions, are the remains of Pol Pot’s house and musty-smelling bunker, also perched on the escarpment.

A blue sign marks the entrance to the once-sprawling compound complete with a bricked-in reservoir, but the tourist hordes are a long way from arriving yet.

Tourism director Sokheng is undaunted.

"These are bitter places. Perhaps there are no other places like these in the world and so that’s why visitors want to see these places, see how they lived," he says.

About 200 Cambodian tourists each month come to visit the grave site.

"My guides have told me that some Khmer visitors have expressed their anger but they do not want to do anything to the grave," he says.

"They just say that he deserved to die there and have a grave like that because during his leadership he killed so many people."

Not everybody is thrilled with the idea of developing such sites into attractions, including Youk Chhang, director of the centre in Phnom Penh which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"Memory cannot be commercialised. I’m uneasy about it — it’s immoral," he says, adding that the government should be working on preserving the mass graves across the kingdom.

A kilometre (half-a-mile) down the road from the grave, a different kind of attraction is being built: Cambodian defence minister Tea Banh’s brother and tycoon Ly Yong Phat are throwing up a casino and hotel to attract Thais.

Border market vendors such as Tuot Sokny, who moved here a year ago but has endured thin trade, are pinning their fortunes on this, rather than the macabre Khmer Rouge legacy.

"I’m hoping that business gets better when the road is improved and the casino opens. In (another nearby border town) Osmach, they have a casino and road, and more people come," she sighs.

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