Friday, April 10, 2009

Dangrek dallyings

I wondered whether someone was suggesting this as a memorial to Ta Mok, the one-legged KR Butcher
During my recent brief visit to Anlong Veng, en route from Preah Vihear to Banteay Chhmar, I took the opportunity to take the new paved road to the top of the Dangrek Mountain escarpment, and I've already bought you the latest photos of Pol Pot's cremation site. On the way to the top, the road is split by a massive boulder and some damaged statues hewn out of the solid rock stand as a reminder of the control that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas exercised over the area for so long. The heads have been chopped off and the statues are looking worse for wear after government soldiers apparently took a dislike to them. Shrines at the site allow locals to pay their respects to their departed comrades. At the top of the mountain, the track to Pol Pot is on the right and that in turn carries onto the squalid market and then onto the border crossing with Thailand, known as Choam Srawngam. Taking a badly rutted road parallel to the mountain's cliff-face, after about four kilometres we came to a lovely open spot with gorgeous views over the plains below. I'd stayed a night there half a dozen years before and nothing had changed, especially the stunning panorama. The six wooden bungalows there, costing $7.5 per night, now have en-suite bathrooms. Nearby, in the undergrowth, lie two more reminders of the Khmer Rouge regime, the overgrown walls of another of Ta Mok's homes, this one built for a quick getaway into Thailand when the going got too hot, and a building that doubled as both a radio station and a prison at different times. We returned to town to grab a bite to eat at the Phkay Preuk restaurant and to visit a couple of guesthouses, to see the best accommodation on offer at the Monorom and Sokharith, before heading further west and a night in tented accommodation at Banteay Chhmar.
Two more broken statues are a fading reminder of the Khmer Rouge control of the Anlong Veng area
This female soldier, hewn from the solid rock, is carrying rice stalks on her head
Two young attendants at the boulder shrine, half-way up the paved mountain road
The border crossing at Choam Srawngam, close to Pol Pot's cremation site and a squalid market
This building was used as a radio station and prison detention cell by the Khmer Rouge
The gorgeous views from the cliff-edge viewing spot that used to belong to Ta Mok
The drop from this rock ledge is not recommended
The heavily-wooded slopes of the Dangrek Mountains as they role into Cambodia
The plains of northern Cambodia stretch for many kilometres into the far distanceA visitor pays her respects to this Neak Ta spirit statue on the cliff-edge

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Devoid of life

A view of the man-made lake from the 1st floor of Ta Mok's house
The main building at Ta Mok's residence, which contains the wall-paintings, two upper floors and a basement
Ta Mok's townhouse and the eerie man-made lake that surrounds it are completely devoid of life. Perhaps fitting for a man believed to have the blood of thousands on his hands when he died in 2006, cheating justice as did the former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot seven years earlier. Whatever the residents of Anlong Veng may say, Ta Mok will be recalled as a brutal KR commander, who perhaps mellowed in his later years whilst in the comfort zone of his northern Cambodia fiefdom, but the history books will paint a very different picture of The Butcher. If plans for a museum in the former KR stronghold take root, it's important that the image it creates of Ta Mok is a clear one, not fuzzied by time or apparent reverence. Today the dam and lake he created, by drowning the blackened tree trunks that jut skywards, is a constant reminder of the death wreaked by this man throughout his life. But speak to one of his former charges in the town and you'll hear a very different story. Ta Mok's house is a regular stop on the Anlong Veng 'KR tourist circuit' that is just about all that is going for the place, though with its close proximity to the border with Thailand, the town has certainly prospered in the six years since my last visit. Sturdy tree trunks form the inside struts for Ta Mok's house, there's a profusion of western-style toilets, ceramic floor tiles and a small shrine with a few dusty incense sticks and a badly-eroded sandstone lion are all that remain, surrounded by the amateurish wall-paintings on two floors. Outside, and on three sides, the lake is deadly quiet and a lasting legacy left by the military chief of the Khmer Rouge.
The errie lake, devoid of life, surrounding Ta Mok's townhouse
Dead and blackened tree trunks are a reminder of the forest that once covered this area
At this time of year, grass is on show, but in the wet season, the whole area is under water
A desolate and apocalyptic scene in Anlong Veng
The two upper floors of the larger, main building, used primarily as a meeting place
One of the western-style toilets favoured by the one-legged KR military chief Ta Mok - I imagine it's easier to sit than squat if you have one leg
A rusted and broken truck - it looks like a prison wagon - inside the Ta Mok residence

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Artwork of The Butcher

Ta Mok's former townhouse in Anlong Veng is a tourist stop for Khmers and foreigners alike
Some of the wall-paintings on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's main residence in Anlong Veng
With the Khmer Rouge trials underway in earnest, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders who won't be up for public scrutiny is Ta Mok, the infamous one-legged KR commander, known for good reason as The Butcher. He died in custody in 2006. His personal fiefdom in the final years of the Khmer Rouge movement was in and around Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. He ruled it with an iron-fist (just ask Pol Pot, oh sorry, you can't) as well as a deft-touch, judging by the schools and a hospital he apparently set up. I was there a couple of weeks ago and visited his large house in the middle of town, which is one of the main sights on the Anlong Veng 'tourist circuit', as well as his tomb and his retreat on top of the nearby escarpment. At the townhouse, which he built in 1994, the now-bare rooms reveal little of the man or the movement except a series of almost primitive wall-paintings that remain, surprisingly unscathed by graffiti. When his stronghold was overrun by the army they collected over sixty pieces of ancient Angkorean sculpture and transferred them to the Angkor Conservation depot in Siem Reap. Large sandstone blocks stolen from various temple sites still litter the yard of the townhouse. The paintings on display show an elongated Preah Vihear on the ground floor, Angkor Wat, a map of the country and an idyllic view of the Cambodian countryside. These rooms once hosted the KR hierarchy in the death throes of a movement that finally came to grief in 1998, including the trial and death of their former feared ruler Pol Pot. You can find many people in Anlong Veng who recall Ta Mok's memory with reverence, you can find a lot more that wish he had survived to face justice at the current trials. But fate is sometimes not that kind or just.
The painter of ths 1st gopura at Preah Vihear was a little limited on providing perspective in his artwork
Presumably Preah Vihear was a favourite temple of Ta Mok - it was certainly a temple that was in KR hands for long periods
Ta Mok collected sculpture from various temple sites, most likely including Preah Vihear
The 5th gopura at Preah Vihear shown in its mountainous location in this wall-painting on the ground floor of Ta Mok's townhouse
Perhaps important strategy decisions were taken using this wall-painted country map on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's home
One of two Angkor Wat paintings, this one a little worse for wear on the ground floor
A second Angkor Wat impression - remind me not to employ this artist for my own room
An idyllic countryside scene that never existed under the Khmer Rouge - they would've killed all these animals for their meat

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not on trial

A mock-Angkorean temple stupa being erected to house Ta Mok's remains
With the Khmer Rouge Tribunal beginning again yesterday with the trial of Duch, it reminded me that last week I visited the final resting place of one of the most feared Khmer Rouge hardline leaders, who never managed to make it to stand trial for crimes against humanity, dying in custody whilst awaiting the formation of the Tribunal in July 2006. Ta Mok, The Butcher, Brother No 5 or Chhit Choeun to give him his rightful name, was the one-legged chief of staff and feared during the KR regime of the 70s and later ruled the northern part of the KR territory, operating out of Anlong Veng. To some of his followers he is remembered fondly, by others he's remembered with a cold chill as a murderer with the blood of thousands on his hands. As the KR began to unravel in the late 90s, it was Ta Mok who ended Pol Pot's command of the KR by placing him on trial, with the former Brother No 1 dying soon after during his house arrest. Almost a year later, in March 1999, Ta Mok was finally arrested and placed in custody awaiting trial. He never made it. And with his death, many felt robbed of justice. However, in Anlong Veng, Ta Mok is recalled with a degree of affection, owned a large house in the town which is open to the public to visit and his stupa, in the pagoda of Wat Srah Chhouk, is in the process of being upgraded, at the cost of his family, in a mock-Angkorean style. You can see the work being undertaken, which began four months ago, in these photos. More pictures from Ta Mok's house will follow soon.
The cement coffin of Ta Mok at Wat Srah Chhouk, just off the road towards the border
Ta Mok is recalled fondly by many residents of Anlong Veng
Tiles from the stupa roof are being glazed before being affixed
Setting the tiles in their mould before glazing takes place

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