Monday, September 13, 2004

Pol Pot's Grave

Jackie and Co. arrive in the big four wheel drive super deluxe Pajero, and we go hurtling up the mountain to the north of Anlong Veng. Following us are another three four-wheel drives, full of more Khmers of various political persuasions.

Anlong Veng sits in the far north of Cambodia, right on the Thai border. It was one of the last last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge (KR), and Pol Pot stayed here until his death, apparently of natural causes, in April 1998.

The road runs due north out of Anlong Veng township, over the spillway and up the hill. At about the 6 kilometre mark we start to climb, and the road deteriorates rapidly into a stoney, muddy mess. And up we go, bang! bang! bump! lurch!

The mountains all along the Thai border form a spectacular barrier, rising straight up for maybe 1000 metres from the flat Anlong Veng countryside. It gets cooler and cooler the more we rise, and the forest gets denser and denser. Like the mountains around Preah Vihar, this is beautiful country, lush, green, dense and full of mines.

And like the road up to Preah Vihar temple (see previous post), it'd be almost impossible to cycle. You'd end up pushing or carrying the bike most of the way, and some of the rocky outcrops, along with the mud in the wet season, would be dangerous to get over with a bike on your back.

No, better to be sitting in the back seat of a four-wheel drive Pajero with Fat Boy Slim booming out of the car speakers.

It's easy to see why the KR picked this spot. You could defend it with a pea-shooter and a bad attitude. It's a natural fire-base, with vertical walls and jagged, rocky bluffs vaulting up through the foliage. The KR planted mines literally everywhere, and few have been cleared, but it's cool as long as you stick to the main dirt road and tracks.

Up at the top we drive past the Thai border post and straight on to the Khmer Guest House we have hired for the night. Jackie and Co. are on a country wide tour, and I'm happy to join in. It sure beats peddling for a couple of days.

I settle down into my own deluxe room, clean up and come out for the BBQ just on dark. There's so much strange food rolling off the fire it's unsettling. Baby crocodiles, turtles, and of course the usual beef, pork and chicken on a stick. Just as well I'm not wearing my World Wild-life Fund tee-shirt.

Any chance of a panda on the menu, Jackie?

Apparently you gotta go to China for that. I make a mental note: Go to China.

We wash it all down with copious amounts of beer and whiskey, and by this time I'm totally stuffed and wobbly on my feet, along with everybody else. Khmer hospitality is pretty good, but I might have over-done it a bit.

And I tell you, baby crocodiles, way to go!

Apparently they retail in Phnom Penh for twenty bucks a pop, and we're eating them like there's no tomorrow. They're about 30 centimetres long (12 inches or so) and taste a little like veal, only better. They've been skinned and gutted, and are served up looking a little like Australian flying foxes, which I must say I haven't eaten, yet.

I take my fourth crocodile over to the hammock that's strung between two trees that stand straight up by the edge of the cliff. The hammock is so close to the cliff face that it hangs over if you swing too far out. I check to see the ropes are tied securely and climb in, finish the crocodile and throw the leftovers over the edge.

There's something wonderful about physical objects falling, arching and spinning under gravity, down, down almost in slow-motion. The grace, the line, the motion. What a beautiful thing.

Maybe that's why I became an animator, unlike Mr Pot, who became a despot, but who knows?

I light up a joint, and find that if I turn to the left I can't see the ground, only the big, big drop under me, going down, way down into the blackness, into Cambodia. It's sure is spooky out here.
Maybe Mr Pot himself sat on this hammock and looked out over the Cambodian countryside? Maybe he dreamt of a better society? Maybe he just thought about women? Maybe he should have embraced the world of animation where we welcome idiots, and you can play out your diabolical fantasies without inflicting undue harm on humanity.

But whatever, it's a million dollar view, and if Mr Pot did lie here, I can understand why. I'm with you at least on this one, Mr Pot.

By now there's a half moon rising, and I can see for maybe 100 km south across the Cambodian countryside, lights twinkling in the towns, big clouds rolling across the horizon, and far away in the distance an aeroplane on it's way east to Saigon. Beautiful, inspiring.

Maybe not so inspiring anymore for Mr Pot, nor for the wild-life we're devouring, but what the hey, I'm in Cambodia, with generous friends, and there's no need to be rigid and a social pain in the arse.

The next morning we take an early breakfast of coffee and left-over barbequed turtle. I'm not so keen on the turtle actually, as it's soft and squishy, and tastes neutral. No, I'm definitely a crocodile man.

I ask Jackie about when we're gonna visit Mr Pot's grave, and she tells me it's on the way out, not far from the road, and we'll stop and take a look.

After Pol Pot died, they took his body and cremated it on a rubber tyre, and buried him in a grave about 50 metres from the roadside. Apparently there's a little mound of dirt, with a tin covering, and a few sticks to mark the spot.

When we get there we find it's behind a newly built house, and is off limits to tourists. Oh well, it's all a bit macabre anyway, and I don't want to push it.

The Khmer's have an uneasy relationship with the Khmer Rouge, and it's a complicated issue. Truth and reconciliation? Bring 'em all to justice? Maybe, maybe, but just as maybe it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with living, building up the economy.

One of the things you learn out here, on the ground in South East Asia, is that things look different than they do at home, and if you sit and listen to the locals long enough, be they from Cambodia, or south Vietnam, or north Vietnam for that matter, your hard won geo-political clarity starts to look a trite simplistic.

Me? I don't know where I stand anymore, on a lot of issues. It depends on where I'm physically standing, but I'm very clear about the fact that Mr Pot was a numbskull of the first order, but how to deal with his legacy, I really don't know. And in the end, despite what the Western know-it-alls say, it's up to the Cambodians.

And the Khmers naturally don't want to keep stirring the Khmer Rouge pot.

This is not the prism through which anybody wants their native country to be seen, and the sooner the world moves on, the better, although I'm not helping much, standing there on the road beside the new house, banging off photos, and asking everyone to smile.

Half way back down the hill we stop at the Khmer Rouge rock carvings. This really is an odd phenomenon. The KR weren't known for their generous arts funding, but somebody took the time to carve a number of statues of soldiers into an enormous rock that straddles the mountain road.

There's about six soldiers, life size, in two seperate clumps, dressed in KR military fatigues and carrying AK-47s. A couple of the heads have been knocked off, whether by angry Cambodians, or Thai antiquities dealers, who's to know? Somebody has also put some offerings at the feet of one of the statues, a few flowers and incense sticks, so make of that what you will. Yep, it's a complicated world.

I take a bunch of photos and we head back down to Anlong Veng.

Yeah, it's been an interesting couple of days, and Jackie and Co. are off to Siem Reap for a few more days sight-seeing, but I decline the invite. I've been there before, and it's time to get some cycling done.

I set out a couple of weeks ago to ride the Cambodian-Thai border, the back-woods, and this I'll do. But I tell you, when my cycling days are over, I might buy a Pajero.

Tonight I stay in Anlong Veng, and tomorrow I head to Trabaeng Meanchay, or maybe Sisophon, depending on the weather.


Anonymous said...

Great, creative writing! I felt like I was THERE. But where are the photos? I'd really LOVE to see them. Why don't you post them?!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. Going there myself soon, looking forward to it even more now...