Jaillan Yehia

Would You Take Your Shoes Off At Pol Pot’s House?

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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Flips flops outside Pol Pots house.

Flips flops outside the last Khmer Rouge stronghold – removed out of respect or habit?

Like everyone else, I take my shoes off and leave them in the pile before entering the last place Pol Pot ever lived, out here in the Northern Cambodian district of Anlong Veng, nestled against the Thai border.

But this small and typically Asian behavioral detail, usually meant as a form of respect, is going against every fibre in my body, as I struggle against the urge to replace my flip flops with a huge pair of imaginary boots and trample through a place which is already sending shivers down my spine. 

The site isn’t much more than a few dusty outbuildings, a couple of mindbogglingly creepy cages, and two outside squat toilets. For the last living quarters of the Khmer Rouge commanders who decimated an entire country and murdered anything from 1.4 to 2 million people, there’s little quantifiable here to see, but somehow it feels fitting that it’s so haphazard and unrevealing – as everything you take from your visit boils down to how you feel, and what you know about the men who lived and ‘worked’ here, if plotting genocide can be considered work, and the legacy they left behind.

Ta Mok's House

The main building, seen from the outside

I’m just passing through this ex-Khmer Rouge stronghold, a real frontier town with a wild west vibe leftover from its days as an inaccessible mountain area making it perfect for fugitives. I’m on my way back from visiting the quiet temple complex at Preah Vihear, a disputed hilltop temple on the Cambodia-Thai border which, having been fought over for years, now experiences an uneasy peace allowing visitors to slowly and cautiously return.

The ongoing conflict and presence of armed forces mean the temple is not on the main tourist trail, so in turn even fewer make it to this rather obscure and macabre site which is en route back to Siem Reap.

For those who do visit the Angkor Wat style temples at the UNESCO Heritage Site of site Preah Vihear, an anti-pilgrimage to the muddy lakeside house of the Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok, known as Brother Number Five or The Butcher, and the place where Pol Pot was finally placed by his rival under house arrest, holds obvious interest.

Ta Mok's House

The lake overlooked by Ta Mok’s House

Perhaps if this becomes a road more travelled then one day the Cambodian government will license the site in a similar move to the controversial privatisation to a part-Japanese Government owned company of The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, the most well-known memorial to Khmer Rouge victims.

But there are no audio commentaries, leaflets or even English-language signs here for now; it’s a simple $2 ticket bought from a guard hanging around outside and you’re left to fend for yourself and mentally delve into Cambodia’s 1970’s atrocities.

With little or no information available we discuss our bewilderment at the motivations of the Khmer Rouge amongst our own small group of Western and Cambodian travellers. We probably utter the same platitudes countless people have before and will again about the unfathomable nature of dictatorship and mass murder, and feel unspeakably sombre at the thought of what ordinary Cambodians suffered and our powerlessness in the face of it.

Ta Mok's House

The floor tiles inside the main house

But for some reason I come back to wondering about the tiny insignificant detail about the shoes; I desperately want to ask someone if these are the original floor tiles and if my bare feet are making contact with the same floor as the bare feet of one of the most evil men in history, a man spoken of in the same pinched tones as Hitler.

I later find out that the tiles are original and are the only things not to have been looted from the house, and somehow this small human detail is what haunts me the most.

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