Where the Murder of 2 Million People Ends – Anlong Veng, Cambodia

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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.

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 the left, decapitated by victorious Cambodian Army troops.

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.

Fisherman on Ta Mok's lake in the middle of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng

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.

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 at Ta Mok's Anlong Veng house Cambodia

PICTURED HERE: inside Ta Mok’s Anlong Veng house are simple murals of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear temples, and also a shrine. Meantime, kids are oblivious to recent history. Outside the house is a cage that once housed tigers, alongside a rusted communications wagon. Nearby, families in the wooded lakeside area of Ta Mok’s ruined house picnic and play cards. Teenagers invite me to drink beer.

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.

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

My start point was the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, near the Thai border.

cambodian kids anlong veng

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.

Beyond Anlong Veng, I hired a moto-taxi to take me into the Dangrek mountains on the Thai border.

First stop was the easily accessible spot of Pol Pot’s cremation site. And then, we continued into the jungle along rough trails passing army sandbag positions.

pol pol mountain hideaway and bunker near anlong veng

Only accessible by motorbike, it’s a difficult jungle track to Pol Pot’s mountain hideaway. Today, there’s little more than a concrete bunker overlooking the plains below, and the house floor tiles with a opening into the basement. Nothing remains of the other Khmer Rouge leader’s homes. The KR leadership had chosen this position on the Thai border – just 2 km away, as an escape point if they were overrun by Cambodia National Army forces.

In reality there was very little to see. But I wanted to visit all the same.

I felt weird. Even a little apprehensive about this exploration.

Yet, I felt compelled.

pot pol grave cambodia

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.”

Partly it was historical interest. Partially also, the fact that if the KR had caught me in 1994 – they would have surely murdered me.

My edgy experience of Cambodia 1994 juxtaposes with the safety and sunshine of now – 2014. The bright day, the birds, the silence: barely holding back the darkness of what happened to Cambodia during the Rouge Rouge.

Again I ask myself: Why is human evolution tarnished by so much murderous insanity?

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