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.
“One-hundred and twenty pieces!” owner Panhavuth Long had told me over a late-morning breakfast of coffee and fried noodles on my first morning at Memoria. He had bought the property several years ago from the local commune chief. After it was deemed safe for development, he opened Memoria in August.
Quoting the exact number of life-threatening objects that used to be in the ground was not out of character for Panhavuth Long. Like other Cambodians I’ve come to know since moving here in 2012, he seems to have filed away certain distances and dates in his memory, available for retrieval at a moment’s notice. He can cite the precise number of kilometers 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 morning we chatted, Panhavuth Long explained in unusually honest detail the gamble inherent in trying to lure visitors to his resort. It’s set a six-hour drive northwest of Phnom Penh, in Pailin province, on Cambodia’s northwest border with Thailand. Pailin is slowly sloughing off its reputation as, well, take your pick — dusty, remote, war-torn, pitiful, malaria-ridden, regrettable, better left alone, etc. About 70 percent of the residents today are ex-Khmer Rouge fighters and commanders, Panhavuth Long said. The hill above the Memoria pool was once an artillery depot. Barrels of tanks once stretched out over what is now a line of sun chairs.
A stone-lined path connects 16 spacious bungalows situated around a small pond with a raised mound in the middle. Banana and frangipani trees and vegetable gardens bloom beside the stones. The resort is 20 minutes from the Thai border, 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.
The Khmer Rouge 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.