The project aiming to turn Pol Pot’s place of death into a site for healing

Anlong Veng was the final stronghold and place of death for Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Today, it lacks sites formally commemorating its significance in Cambodian history, but a design firm, along with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, wants to change that

DaeWha Kang
April 15, 2021
The project aiming to turn Pol Pot’s place of death into a site for healing
The end of the Anlong Veng Trail. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design. Illustration: Mir.

As the sun rises over the lake at Anlong Veng, sunbeams catch the swaying rice in the fields, the roofs of small houses and a fisherman out with his nets. 

The view is a picture of natural beauty, an idyllic scene of rural Cambodian life. But there is more to this picture than meets the eye, and a dark history just below the surface of an otherwise bucolic scene of rural life.

This is the final settlement of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime. The lake was built with forced labour, and the rice fields were part of a relocation and reeducation programme that resulted in large-scale deforestation across the entire region.

The Khmer Rouge regime was characterised by mass imprisonment and the deaths of up to two million Cambodians. On this anniversary of Pol Pot’s death, we consider the most recent developments in Anlong Veng, and the future legacy of the grim but important sites of this last chapter of Khmer Rouge history. 

Over the last four years, the Ministry of Tourism and the inter-Ministry Committee on the Development and Preservation of Anlong Veng Historical Sites have worked to establish a new master plan vision for the region with assistance from the Documentation Center of Cambodia, as well as my studio, DaeWha Kang Design. This vision is built on the principle of “Healing the Landscape and Healing the Society”. 

The Documentation Center has been working already to develop Anlong Veng into more of a responsible tourism destination, and over the past four years we have developed our master plan to pull together a unified vision.

My design firm is now approaching this concept with a long-term framework for urban development across the entirety of the 50km-long Anlong Veng district. It will address the urgent need to preserve important sites of Khmer Rouge history, provide equitable and inclusive socioeconomic development of the area, and reverse some of the ecological damage that threatens the future of the residents. 

The first phase is the Anlong Veng Trail, comprising fourteen historical Khmer Rouge sites identified by the Documentation Center of Cambodia along the way from Anlong Veng village to the top of the Dangrek Mountains. Until now, the sites have been isolated historical locales without a cohesive narrative or experience. We have conceived a winding “golden thread”, a physical trail linking each of 14 currently unlinked historical sites of the Khmer Rouge era from one end to the other through village and agricultural hinterland. 

As currently envisioned, the trail will be planted with native trees and encouraged to grow into a dense, biodiverse jungle akin to what had been in Anlong Veng before the mass deforestation during the Khmer Rouge regime. 

The golden thread has a strong cultural resonance in Cambodia. Wrapping it around one’s wrist at a temple brings good luck and positive energy for the future. We imagine not just a linking thread physically connecting the sites, but a healing thread that creates transformation and positivity even as it preserves a dark history. 

Anlong Veng Lake today. Photo: Ouch Makara
Khmer Rouge dam construction site, August 1978. Photo: Gunnar Bergström/DC-Cam Archives

Khmer Rouge history is an important, if painful, part of the history of Anlong Veng. Our approach is to develop the area not by erasing the memories of violence and trauma, but by transforming them from places of suffering to places of regeneration. Historical sites will be carefully protected and framed within an educational context, but also transformed with new functions that support the process of healing and developing society. 

So far, we have secured initial Anlong Veng District Administration support for the project but there are still a few more steps before the comprehensive project is funded with a target completion date. In the meantime, the administration is working with us on two of the 14 points that will make up the trail: The Pol Pot grave site and the cliffside overlook. The completion of these will be an early milestone for the master plan as a whole.

The structure is not a memorial or monument to Pol Pot, but includes design elements to protect the site while leaving it in its exact original form

DaeWha Kang Design is now developing schemes to preserve and frame Pol Pot’s Grave. 

The structure is not a memorial or monument to Pol Pot, but includes design elements to protect the site while leaving it in its exact original form. Drawing on the beautiful and brutal story of the palm branch, fronds that provided a source of shade in traditional Cambodian society but were used by the Khmer Rouge to cut the throats of their prisoners, we have designed a columned steel structure to sit above the grave, preventing erosion and damage while leaving it in exactly its original form. Nearby, a reflection garden provides a place for visitors to sit and discuss what they have learned on their journey along the trail. 

The other site, the cliffside overlook, would eventually mark the end of the journey of the longer “golden thread” of the trail, bringing visitors to this high place to watch as the sun sets on Anlong Veng. A new protective balustrade allows visitors to safely approach the edge and contemplate the past and the future as they look out over the trail they have walked. 

These two sites will hopefully be the first steps in the journey of this project. 

Pol Pot’s grave today. Photo: Sout Vichet/DC-Cam Archives
Pol Pot Grave interpretive site. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design

I am a Korean-American, and my long-term dream is to design cities of healing and environmental restoration in North Korea when it finally opens. I am not a stranger to violence – my grandfather was a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and both of my parents survived the Korean War as small children. It might be that this is the source of my endless search for healing, peace and timeless beauty. 

I met Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, when I was Zaha Hadid’s design director of the Sleuk Rith Institute – his new archive and school for the Khmer Rouge genocide. The Anlong Veng Trail is a project that we dreamt up together at the time when he started doing outreach in the area and created the Anlong Veng Peace Center.

The work my studio has done with the Documentation Center of Cambodia until now has been on a volunteer basis. I was inspired to contribute because of the opportunity to use my expertise in architecture and urban development for a project of healing.

Youk’s vision is for a three-way collaboration every step along the way, pulling together the Cambodian administration, local non-governmental organisations and international allies to expand the project’s reach and impact.

As development pressure increases in the region, the “golden thread” of the Anlong Veng Trail will not only preserve important historical sites – it will also secure access to nature, biodiversity, recreation and cultural facilities for local people even as cities grow around it.

Anlong Veng regeneration vision. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design
Cliffside overlook. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design

This vision is founded on the belief that just as the violence of the Khmer Rouge was a total violence perpetrated on people, society, history, and environment, any reconciliation and healing must be equally holistic. From this founding principle, the trail provides a roadmap for preserving history, healing the landscape, and transforming the social and economic fabric of Anlong Veng. 

The journey begins at sunrise on the lake. Those who are able will walk the trail, while others may be pulled on bicycle rickshaw by their guides, who are from this place, either former Khmer Rouge or their descendants. Everyone receives a special map and a seedling tree as they set out on their three-day journey. 

As they walk the trail and learn first-hand about the historical sites, each person will plant their young tree in a designated location, becoming a participant in the healing of the landscape of Anlong Veng. The process of learning about history and the process of healing the landscape are brought together into a single, powerful experience.

Tree planting on the Anlong Veng Trail. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design. Illustration: Mir
Anlong Veng Trail: A golden thread and 14 Historical Sites. Copyright DaeWha Kang Design

Our longer-term vision for the trail’s potential expands on these holistic ideas of regeneration through remembrance.

A place of violence to women, where Son Sen, a former factional leader’s wife and daughters were raped and murdered, can be transformed into a women’s centre for training and counselling. The Cheung Phnom warehouse, where land mines were stored and built can be transformed into a site where people manufacture crutches, wheelchairs, and bicycles. 

Today, 25% of Anlong Veng’s population has physical disabilities from landmines and the long guerrilla war. Through this process of transformation, a place that injured people and took away their mobility can be transformed to a place that gives people jobs through enhancing mobility and rehabilitating society. In this way, the restoration of historical sites will be paired with the establishment of new education, new industries, and new livelihoods for a more prosperous local population.

With time, saplings planted by visitors will grow into dense jungle, winding through the agricultural landscape of the region. Sleeping two nights on the trail with their local guides, the visitors will have a more visceral experience of life in the jungle, as the Khmer Rouge might have done. Early in the pre-dawn hours of the second night, they make the climb up the gentle slope of the Dangrek Mountains toward the Thai border. There, in the darkness before the dawn, the final day begins at the cremation site and grave of Pol Pot. 

A short walk takes them to the edge of the cliff, where Pol Pot and his lieutenants built a house and strategic headquarters. This building has now been converted into the Anlong Veng Peace Center by the Documentation Center of Cambodia. As they watch the sunrise over the landscape far below, they can contemplate the journey they have taken. The trail can be seen as a winding thread of lush forest erupting from the flat, agricultural landscape. This is a moment to reflect on the violence of the past and the hope and transformation that the future holds. 

Together with its partners, the Documentation Center of Cambodia is already using the clifftop house as a place to conduct peace and human rights education for young generations in Cambodia and students from abroad. Another key historical site by the lake is used as a museum. Tree planting programs are underway. 

Much energy and effort has gone into documenting the tragedy of millions killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. These first small steps we take towards bringing the Anlong Veng Trail to life take us towards documenting the millions of survivors. We hope their stories will help to heal the nation.

DaeWha Kang is the founder of London-based design firm DaeWha Kang Design. More information on DC-CAM and their work preserving the memory of the Khmer Rouge era can be found on their website.

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