Thursday, July 27, 2017

Seeking bliss in war-torn territory

Swimming along the bottom of the saltwater pool at the Memoria Palace & Resort, I open my eyes and look at the neat blue-and-white tiles spread out before me, trying to square the pristine sight with what I’d heard a few hours earlier about the land beneath the water: It used to be chock-full of mines.

A Buddhist stupa next to the restaurant at the Memoria Palace & Resort, built in a remote and formerly war-torn part of Cambodia. Photo: Joseph FreemanA Buddhist stupa next to the restaurant at the Memoria Palace & Resort, built in a remote and formerly war-torn part of Cambodia. Photo: Joseph Freeman

“One-hundred and twenty pieces!” owner Panhavuth Long had told me over a late-morning breakfast. Like other Cambodians I’ve come to know since moving here in 2012, he seems to have filed away certain numbers in his memory. He can cite the precise number of kilometres from Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s outlying provinces, figures drummed into him in school. It’s the same with history. One common way of referring to the Khmer Rouge regime, which took power in April 1975 and caused the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians, is to cite how long it lasted: “Three years, eight months and 20 days.” And so it is with the land mines – which, by the way, have been cleared.

The resort is a six-hour drive northwest of Phnom Penh, in Pailin province, on Cambodia’s northwest border with Thailand where the northern end of the Cardamom Mountains peter out into green farmland, watersheds and a river where Cambodians look for precious gemstones. The region was once full of them. At the entrance to the center of Pailin town, authorities have constructed a fountain statue of an enormous red ruby.

About 70 percent of the residents today are ex-Khmer Rouge fighters and commanders, who held on and battled it out in the local foothills before cutting a peace deal with the government in 1996. As part of the agreement, the government carved a territory for former regime members to live in out of a province next door. This is Pailin, which looks very weird on a map, like a patch applied to torn jeans. Some members of Phnom Penh’s younger generation think that Pailin is in Thailand, when they think of it at all.

But the disconnect runs both ways. After eating breakfast, Panhavuth Long asked a woman at the entrance where she’d bought the palm fruit assembled before her. “In Cambodia,” she replied, meaning not in Pailin.

Though Panhavuth Long is committed to hiring children of the defeated revolutionaries, he says that the lack of education - only recently did Pailin get a high school - and an upbringing in times of conflict means that the teens’ skills are limited to “farming, cutting trees and maybe fighting”.

Panhavuth Long is not a businessman by trade. In his day job, Panhavuth Long is a court monitor for an international nonprofit that keeps an eye on the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a UN-backed court set up to try the regime’s senior leaders. But the area’s combination of history and natural beauty, with its waterfalls and wildlife and legacy of war intrigued him, and he bought the property several years ago from a local commune chief. It opened in August after it was deemed safe for development.

On our last night, we traveled to the border and several dingy casinos where the game of choice was, for some reason, baccarat. Out of boredom, I walked across the apparently unmanned border checkpoint, waved from Thailand at my alarmed co-worker, and walked back. On the return ride, the sky was pitch black. I wondered whether I should be worried that we were in a place where most people probably know how to operate an automatic weapon. It was a stupid thought. I was more likely to die in a traffic accident than at the hands of someone who’d forgotten that the war was over.

Joseph Freeman is an editor at the Phnom Penh Post in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.