sign in a cave in Laos

31 August 2008

Cambodia's Kampong Puoy lake - BT

Cambodia's 'Lake of Tears' both sad, serene

Dark past: Known as Ang Teuk Kampong Puoy, northwest Cambodia's lake, constructed by the Khmer Rouge regime, stirs up sad memories for many. Picture: Liz Price

Sunday, August 31, 2008

KAMPONG PUOY Lake is quite a beautiful place, with limestone hills edging the lake on two sides. However this place is known as "the lake of tears" due to its terrible past. The lake is situated in the Banon district of Battambang province, in northwest Cambodia.

It is a manmade lake, and now the reservoir supplies water for irrigating crops. Known as Ang Teuk Kampong Puoy, the lake is a popular recreation site for locals, but it stirs up traumatic memories for many older people.

The lake has a gruesome history. Many people died here. The dam and reservoir were constructed by Pol Pot's forces during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge and was responsible for the killing of millions of Cambodians and causing misery to millions more. From 1975-1978 he led an insane regime. He implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist peasant-dominated agrarian society. The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975 and forced the entire population to march out to the countryside and undertake slave labour. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. Educated people, leaders and also minorities were targeted.

During this period hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, whilst thousands more died of famine and disease. It is not known exactly how many people died. Estimates vary between one and three million. Thousands were killed in the "killing caves", some of which are at Phnom Sampeu between Battambang and Kampong Puoy.

The xenophobic government was toppled in December 1978 when the Vietnamese invaded and installed a new government. The Khmer Rouge were driven into the remote forests where they continued guerilla attacks.

To construct Kampong Puoy Lake, Pol Pot's group forced thousands of starving people to toil for four years with no modern equipment and little food and the threat of execution. They used simple tools to dig the earth and mud. Countless thousands (maybe ten thousand) died in the struggle to complete the 6km long and 1.9km wide dyke, which holds over 90 million cubic metres of water.

It is hard to imagine the terrible hardship those people endured, their suffering, pain and starvation. Some locals say that Pol Pot intended to drown his enemies here. They were to be invited to attend the inauguration and would be drowned by setting off explosive charges.

Today the lake is an invaluable resource for local communities. The waters feed a series of canals which irrigate rice fields in three districts. The lake fills up during the rainy season, and still has water even in the dry season.

Locals come here, especially at the weekends, to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, and to swim and eat with their families. Splashing and laughter has replaced the droning propaganda and human cries of distress. However not many people like to bathe in the waters, as the dark depths are still a reminder of the lives lost here during the Pol Pot regime.

Many people who survived the Pol Pot command now live overseas, especially in the United States and France. Some go back to the lake to remember their time during the Pol Pot regime when they were working there.

For many visitors the clean water, boat rides, and fishing are the main attraction. You can rent a boat for about $1.40 an hour. Bird watching is a popular activity for a few people.

As you arrive at the lake, a bevy of food sellers accost you. I was there during the lotus season, and there were dozens of people selling lotus heads for the seeds.

There are a few simple food stalls on the road which runs alongside the lake. Some sell fresh fish. A popular delicacy is Trey Damrey or elephant fish. However some people won't eat it as superstition says the fish is the re-incarnation of a spurned wife!

The name "Kampong Puoy" comes from a nearby mountain, although it is also a kind of vegetable which grows in rice fields here. The lake is about 36km from Battambang. On the approach to the lake you pass through small villages. Small limestone hills dot the landscape.

Continuing along the road you come to a wat, and there are a few caves on the hill behind. One cave has a resident monk, and people come to get his blessing. Below this cave is Gemstone Cave which has a nice calcite stalagmite that gives the cave its name.

The place is certainly beautiful, and is a significant symbol of a nation on the mend from a terrible past.

The Brunei Times

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