Competing for the highest grades of brutality and stupidity in societal experiments of the 20th century must be the notorious Khmer Rouge.

This Maoist inspired return to Year Zero flipped Cambodia on its head. Suddenly a society without money, private ownership and urban living; replaced by an agrarian peasant society which saw cities evacuated and forced rural communes of slave labor. Extermination of intellectuals, monks and artists. And the country’s borders closed to the outside world.

fisherman on Ta Mok Khmer Rouge-built lake Anlong Veng Cambodia

Fisherman on Ta Mok’s lake in the middle of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng in north-western Cambodia. This lake was dug with forced labour on orders of Brother #4 of the Khmer Rouge leadership. The trunks of dead trees – drowned by the lake’s formation form an eerie skeletal monument.

During this heinous social experiment an estimated 2 million people died from KR brutality and malnutrition. Big numbers when you consider the KR only ruled Cambodia during the years 1975-79; ousted from power after they antagonized Communist Vietnam into an invasion of Cambodia that forced the KR into a decades-long insurgency. The civil war and the KR only ceased to exist after the death of it leader, Pol Pot, in mysterious circumstances in 1998.

Kids at Ta Mok's Anlong Veng Cambodia

Kids at Ta Mok’s Anlong Veng house; obilivious to recent history.

As a young backpacker I first entered Cambodia in 1994. Khmer Rouge guerillas actively targeted foreigners; killing 7 that year. Only a handful of cities were securely under Cambodian Army control and much of the countryside was off-limits. It was an edgy place to travel.

Kids + interior murals and shrine at Ta Mok's house in Anlong Veng Cambodia

Families often gather in the wooded, secluded lakeside area of Ta Mok’s ruined house to picnic and play cards. Teenagers invited me to drink beer. Here inside remain simple murals of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear temples and also a shrine. Outside is a cage that once housed tigers, alongside a communications wagon.

I recall back then at Angkor in 1994 – gunfire across the rainforest. And later in the evening, learning that KR guerrillas had attacked at the Roluos group of temples. Murdering a number of Cambodian kids within the army perimeter of the Angkor temple zone. (The full Angkor story may emerge in an ebook later. Meantime here’s an archive from that era: The killing of a country – Phnom Penh in 1994).

pol pot's grave and ruins of jungle mountain hide-out anlong veng cambodia

On the Khmer Rouge trail … TOP LEFT: the jungle track to the ruins – only floor tiles remain –  of another KR leader’s mountain house. TOP RIGHT: Cremation spot of Pol Pot – Brother #1 of the KR. “Oddly enough, a Thai lottery winner has erected a spirit house on the site in honour of the former Khmer Rouge leader, who, he claims, appeared to him in a dream with the winning numbers.” BELOW LEFT: Overgrown ruins of Pol Pot’s mountain hideaway – all that remain are the front concrete bunker and a basement; BELOW RIGHT: Entrance to the basement amid a few floor tiles of his house.

Since 1994 I have returned to Cambodia numerous times but only on my most recent visit (in 2014) did I finally set off to explore the Khmer Rouge legacy in north-western Cambodia.

anlong veng cambodia

Stylized lake scene at Anlong Veng; Kids spy the foreigner; Mountain viewpoint from Khmer Rouge positions looking towards Anlong Veng on a hazy summer’s day. The KR leadership had chosen this position on the Thai border – 2 km away, as an escape point if they were overrun by Cambodia National Army forces.

My start point was the former Khmer Rouge town of Anlong Veng, not far from a remote stretch of the Thai border.

people at insect food street stall in anlong veng cambodia

Market street stall restaurant in Anlong Veng. Note: the fried insects available.

Today ex-Khmer Rouge and their descendants still dominate the area. The town is quiet, with some modern facilities. There’s no tourists, traveller cafes, souvenirs stalls or even a 7-Eleven store. Locals stare at the stranger. Kids gather. Adults seem shy. But they are friendly when I say, “Hi”, smile and wave. I am a novelty.

khmer rouge buddhist shrine near anlong veng cambodia

On route to the Thai border and Khmer Rouge mountain stronghold is this shrine to the KR spirits. Note: the headless stone-carved soldiers on right, later decapitated by victorious Cambodian Army troops.

Beyond Anlong Veng I hired a motorbike taxi to take me into the Dangrek mountains on the Thai border to visit Pol Pot’s cremation spot. Then into the jungle along rough trails passing army sandbagged outposts towards the remotest KR sites, including the ruins of Pol Pot’s mountain hideaway.

There was not much to see. But I wanted to visit all the same.

I felt weird. Even a little apprehensive about this exploration. Here I am making a journey to the resting place of Brother Bastard #1.

Yet, I felt compelled.

Partly it was historical interest. Partially also, the fact that if the KR had caught me in 1994, they would have surely murdered me. So on this day, the dark edginess of 1994 juxtaposed with the safety and sunshine of 2014. And I stood at Pol Pot’s cremation site: bewildered, empty, astonished, angry, sad, numb.

And I ask myself … Why is human evolution tarnished by so many examples of murderous insanity?

Travels in Cambodia – 2014

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