The chants of worshipers led by saffron-robed monks fill a makeshift temple, covered by a thatched roof and adorned with ceramic Buddhas. Nearby stands all that is left of the old Buddhist temple that was once the main feature of this village, 25 miles north of Phnom Penh.

A smashed and decapitated stone Buddha overlooks the heap of ruins, and a spired pagoda in an adjacent cemetery lies toppled and broken on the ground. According to residents, the temple was blown up in 1977 by the Khmer Rouge Communists who ruled Cambodia from April 1975 until they were overthrown by Vietnamese invasion troops in January 1979.

As part of the recovery from that period, Buddhist temples are being rebuilt here and all over Vietnamese-controlled Cambodia, financed by the alms of a religious revival. But the reconstruction effort has a long way to go. For the desecration at Ampil Bei is but one tiny facet of the awesome destruction wrought across the land by the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge experiment aimed at a radical restructuring of Cambodian society and the creation of a new citizenry completely responsive to the leadership's brand of Communism. To achieve this, the old sources of authority were systematically broken down, and heavily indoctrinated youths, many of them illiterate peasants, were recruited as shock troops of destruction.

So it was that families were forcibly split up, the educational sytem dismantled, currency abolished, shops and markets cleaned out, pagodas destroyed and urban populations evacuated to work in the rice fields. To drive home the point that the old authority was no more, people such as professors and bureaucrats were sometimes made to pull ploughs like oxen, and Buddhist monks were publicly defrocked, tortured or killed in temples to show that no god could save them.

Many other people were simply exterminated. For the heavily armed youths who made up the Khmer Rouge vanguard held the power of life or death over their compatriots, and much of the population was considered expendable.

This legacy of death and ruins makes the Khmer Rouge an easy target for propaganda by Vietnam and the protege government it installed in Phnom Penh in 1979. The evidence is widespread: besides the smashed pagodas, many houses, markets, offices, banks and other buildings lie in ruins, the targets of seemingly wanton violence in the name of an ideology that remains little understood.

While some of the ruin could be the result of war, much of it is so systematic and thorough that battles alone could not have caused it.

"I used to be a bonze Buddhist monk at this temple" said Am San, a toothless 78-year-old worshiper at the makeshift Ampil Bei temple. "Then there were 10 houses for bonzes here, but they were all destroyed."

"Before 1975 there were 40 bonzes here," he added. "Now six are left."

Am San said that during the Pol Pot regime, "bonzes were tortured in the cemetery." He said he was forced to work in the fields where he was "punished like the others." Since then, he said, he has felt unable to return to the monkhood, although he remains a devout Buddhist.

At times, there seemed to be a madness to the destructive methods of the Khmer Rouge.

The wreckers sometimes signed their handiwork with inexplicable touches. For example, in the provincial capital of Kompong Chhnang about 50 miles north of here, a number of magnificent old houses on tall pillars were razed except for the ornate stone staircases that once led up to them. For reasons known only to themselves, the Khmer Rouge demolishers left these standing. Now the steps lead nowhere, serving as strange monuments to the senseless ruin.

Moreover, new evidence of the human destruction keeps cropping up as Cambodians discover the secret sites of mass graves containing hundreds, often thousands of skeletons. Many of the remains are still manacled or bound with wire, their skulls split or smashed by blows from axes, sledgehammers and other implements.

Today, estimates of the number of Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge rule usually range from 1 to 3 million, the later figure representing the claim of the current Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh.

Western aid officials in the capital generally accept 2 million as a "realistic" death toll, a figure that seems to tally with official population estimates before and after the four-year period. One Western official concerned with this issue believes that of this number, probably a couple of hundred thousand Cambodians were executed. The majority, he says, suffered and died of overwork, malnutrition, illness and lack of medical care under the drastic regimen imposed by the Khmer Rouge.