The elephant, a relatively inexperienced 20-year-old named Mol, lumbers through the thick bamboo jungle en route from the Khmer Rouge base at Phum Tmey to this village a couple of miles to the south.
Carrying a Khmer Rouge guide and a foreign visitor on a wooden seat roped to her back and an elephant driver astride her neck, Mol dutifully obeys commands to tear down with her trunk spiny bamboo branches hanging low over the jungle path.
But one tangle of branches and vines proves too difficult. Moved to an impatient rage as the elephant labors with her trunk, the driver, a small weather-beaten man in a Khmer Rouge shirt and cap, begins to shout furiously and beat her with all his strength across the forehead with his cane. The elephant makes a confused half turn, and the driver jabs her hard in the ear several times with the end of the cane, causing her to snort in pain.
The elephant, a sort of Khmer Rouge tourist attraction, is employed to carry visitors to guerrilla-controlled villages all less than a mile from the Thai border and stretching about five miles south of Phum Tmey--about as far as most visitors are permitted to go. Mol seems to perform reasonably well, but other transgressions draw similar beatings at several points until it is decided to go the rest of the way on foot.
"We haven't used this elephant for a month," the guide explains after one of the driver's outbursts. "That's why it's so undisciplined."
"You have to be tough with elephants," he adds.
Except for incidents like this, however, there is little to remind one here of the harsh legacy of the Khmer Rouge. For Baung Trakuon and a series of other settlements stretching south along the western Cambodian border toward the hills of Phnom Malai are where Khmer Rouge usually take visitors to show that they really have mended their ways since the horrors of their 1975-79 rule.
Nearly seven years ago, the communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge toppled the pro-American government of Lon Nol and embarked on a radical restructuring of Cambodian society. Imbued by their leaders with a consuming hatred of the government's perceived enemies, the youthful guerrillas were trained to reject parental authority, condemn religion and traditions, repudiate private property, sublimate individual personality traits and constantly watch each other for signs of nonrevolutionary behavior.
Their ideology stressed a return to basics, a rejection of nearly all things foreign and a starting over from scratch in which poor peasants were held up as models and city dwellers denounced as unproductive "parasites."
Virtually all private property was seized, shops were closed, currency was abolished, the eductional system was dismantled and nearly everyone was forced to labor in the fields.
The result was nearly four years of terror, death and economic ruin. The ghastly experiment ended when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in December 1978, captured Phnom Penh the following month and installed a new Communist government utterly responsive to Hanoi.
Facing a prolonged guerrilla war with little or no public support, the Khmer Rouge then announced a "new strategic policy." After a December 1979 congress, the Khmer Rouge declared it no longer sought a "socialist revolution" and invited Cambodian opponents to join the struggle against the Vietnamese.
Leaders acknowledged that "big mistakes" had been made and declared that the new Khmer Rouge would respect individual liberties and allow private enterprise.
To demonstrate this, Khmer Rouge guides here point out what they say are examples of small-scale capitalism at work. They include private plots of land that villagers are allowed to farm, the production of lumber and wood charcoal to be sold or bartered to Thai villagers and a bamboo and thatch shop selling a few Thai products. Another shop fixes bicycles, and a watch repairman works at home.
There are other sights not normally associated with the Khmer Rouge: smiling villagers holding the infants of a post-1979 baby boom, people peaceably going about their chores, a traditional dance troupe practicing for a trip to Tokyo in April.
Yet it is impossible for the imagination to avoid slipping back to other scenes such as the numerous mass graves of Cambodians slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, the photographs of torture victims at the most infamous prison in Phnom Penh and the wanton destruction of temples, houses and buildings in different parts of the country.
Other reminders can be found in the faces of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Many of them encountered on the path south from Phum Tmey regard a foreigner with suspicion, sometimes with scarcely concealed hostility.
It is hard to escape the feeling that these same soldiers--some of them in their mid-20s and still boyish-looking despite 10 years in the Army--might have been among those who brutally emptied the cities, worked people to death in the fields and carried out the mass executions.
Brief interviews with the soldiers reveal little of that past. They avoid saying much about the period from 1975 to 1979. They talk instead about the war against the Vietnamese.
One of them, Roun, 26, married with no children, says he has been with the Khmer Rouge Army since 1974 and was wounded twice in 1979 in attacks on the Vietnamese. He has lived near the Thai border since 1980 and is proud that he never left Cambodian territory, unlike the thousands of refugees still in camps across the frontier.
Roun, wearing a Khmer Rouge uniform but unarmed, is pausing to rest from carrying a large sack of rice donated by the U.N. World Food Program as part of aid to Cambodians living along the border. The rice, along with other supplies including American vegetable oil, goes to inhabitants of villages under the control of noncommunist resistance groups as well as followers of the Khmer Rouge. Roun has to carry the rice on his back during a three-hour trek from the border distribution point to his base in the Phnom Malai hills.
Farther south on the path, in the neighboring Khmer Rouge settlement of Sangke Vea, a meeting of the village vigilance committee is in progress. In a state of heightened alert because of a Vietnamese offensive a dozen miles away, the committee is discussing measures to tighten security against spies.
"Before the Vietnamese attack, they always send spies," explains In Sivouth, the guide attached to the protocol department of the Foreign Ministry of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia is known.
In another precaution, villages have recently dug shallow pits at intervals along the path through the jungle in case porters bearing supplies must take cover from Vietnamese shelling. In the main camp at Phum Tmey, where Khmer Rouge officials sometimes receive visitors, bunkers were recently completed.
But it is apparent that even in calmer times, and despite the new policy, the Khmer Rouge villages are regimented even in places where strangers are automatically suspect.
According to In Sivouth, any Cambodian stranger must have a pass to move from one village to another. And even then, the stranger is followed everywere once he is in the village.
While small-scale trade with Thai villagers is allowed, the Khmer Rouge authorities forbid any transactions destined for the interior, In Sivouth says. Khmer Rouge authorities also disdain the noncommunist resistance groups for tolerating such dealings in their settlements.
"The black-market traffic helps the Vietnamese a lot," In Sivouth says. "It goes to Phnom Penh and Saigon. We allow small trade with the Thais, but we don't authorize traffic to the interior."
It is also clear that whatever they may profess about freedom of religion, Khmer Rouge authorities do not have much time for the faith. No Buddhist places of worship are visible in the villages, and authorities do not seem ready to facilitate any other religious activity.
In Phum Tmey, the Khmer Rouge are evidently embarrassed by a foreign Christian group's donation of thousands of Bibles translated into Khmer. Authorities have promised to distribute them, but they remain in cartons stacked inside wood-and-thatch warehouses.
"The day the Khmer Rouge start handing out Bibles," says a Western visitor, "then I'll believe they've changed."