Many of the visitors to the tin-roofed shrine labeled Pol Pot Cwmation site in Anlong Veng are local men who light incense in the hope that the spirit of the murderous Communist leader will provide them with money for prostitutes. Thais occasionally come too, making the short trip from their border to see the charcoal and ash. But the children who sell jasmine wreaths along Anlong Veng’s dirt streets rarely see visitors from farther away.
That may soon change. The Cambodian government plans to develop this sun-baked, mine-riddled frontier town into a theme park devoted to the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that murdered perhaps 15 percent of Cambodia’s population when it ruled from 1975 to 1979. The planned park is of a piece with Cambodia’s larger effort to capitalize on the atrocities of its past—and to tap into a booming global industry in travel to macabre destinations, known as thanatourism.
Cambodia depends on tourism for about a fifth of its GDP. Its premier attraction is Angkor Wat, the magnificent complex of ancient Buddhist and Hindu buildings, which draws 2 million visitors annually, by some estimates. But hundreds of thousands of tourists also visit two sites in Phnom Penh with a more grotesque appeal: S21, a Khmer torture center that later became a museum; and the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where some 9,000 bodies were buried en masse and where more than 5,000 human skulls are displayed in a glass-and-concrete stupa.