Aug 08 2011
Thanks in part to the Chinese laying roads across northern Cambodia, access to parts of the country that previously would have involved an epic trip are now no more taxing than the negotiations to hire a car. If you’re based in Siem Reap, this opens up sites including the renowned Preah Vihear and Beantey Chmar temples, Kulen National Park, and Anlong Veng.
Anlong Veng is a small town, only 140km away from Siem Reap, and 15km from the Thai border. The road there takes you past Banteay Srei then Srei Noi, at which point it gets depressing in the extreme. Where only recently the roads were flanked by dense, green forest, now there is only a stubbled, blackened empty landscape. Someone, somewhere, has an awful lot of merit to make up, though they clearly won’t struggle to find the cash to do so. Driving there not long after fighting broke out between Cambodia and Thailand in February 2011, it was easy to feel that Armageddon had already passed through here.
The town is made of three main roads: one to Siem Reap, one to Preah Vihear and one to Choam. But, despite all the exits, there are a number of reasons to stay, including Anlong Veng’s place in Khmer Rouge history, and the prospect of some spectacular views. The government has been hoping to cash in on its history for some time, with limited success. In town, the Monorom Hotel, on the left side of the road to Choam about 200m up from the roundabout, is the swankiest you’ll find, and has rooms from $8. A room with fan is $15. Other guesthouses in Anlong Veng are available should the Monorom be full!
You are now deep in former Khmer Rouge country, though this is not to say that everyone around you is an old cadre. After regaining control of the province in 1998, the government opened up Oddar Meanchey and gave away land to those who didn’t have land elsewhere in the country. Khmer immigrants account for about 60% of the population. This is the Cambodian ‘frontier’ in more ways than one.
With thoughts of atrocities rattling around your head, the town can feel a little unsettling, a sensation compounded by the stark landscape as you get to the northern edges of town. As though someone has randomly stuck the fingers of a giant skeleton into the ground, eerie, dead trees litter the fields to the east. You’re also now approaching Ta Mok’s house on the right side of the road: that’s Ta Mok, real name Chhit Choeun, a.k.a. Brother No. 5, a.k.a. Ta Mok The Butcher. If you’re feeling strong, take a moment to think about how truly awful you have to be if even those nice chaps in the Khmer Rouge call you that.
If you keep going for another 15km on that road, you’ll eventually come to Choam, and the Thai border. This is about to become another Pailin by the looks of it as plans for a giant casino go ahead. More interestingly to the non-gambling or sleaze addicted, there is Pol Pot’s burial site, and the guesthouse at Poi Ta Roun, another one of Ta Mok’s old houses about 3km down a dirt road.
There’s not much to say about the burial site, per se. How do you mark the grave of a monster (who escaped trial)? With a giant monument declaring “Never Again” (because we all know that’s a lie), or do we let the megalomaniacs rot in the obscurity they deserve? Perceptions are built on perspectives, and everyone will have a different view of where Saloth Sar now lies. Go see it to find out what yours is.
Just by the burial site is a small village that takes the frontier theme and supersizes it. It looks like a set from a Mad Max movie: there’s a dank mud road, lean-tos made of 40 different materials that hang on by the barest thread, litter strewn everywhere, guys in army gear, snotty kids and wary women. You need to go through here to get to one of the best viewpoints in Cambodia at Ta Mok’s old house, and no doubt one of the reasons the Khmer Rouge held out here for so long.
The guesthouse has a number of chalets with some pretty basic accommodation for about $6 a night. Pack mosquito spray and a torch. Lights go out at 22:00. Watching the sun go down here is fabulous, and worth the grotty digs. During the rainy season, watching storms in the distance is breathtaking. This is truly a wonderful spot.
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