Sunday, January 22, 2017


A Cambodian soldier looks for Thai soldiers in front of a bunker at Preah Vihear
I'm about to head into the disputed territory of Preah Vihear temple, in remote northern Cambodia. This is no longer a visit to an old war zone, there has been fighting here only days ago between the Cambodian Army and encroaching Thai soldiers. This historic place was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, and both countries claim this centuries old temple.

There hasn't been any shooting yet today, so I'm about to head up. As I prepare to leave nearby Kor Muy village, I am quickly mobbed by desperate motorbike drivers offering to drive me to the top. There are few visitors with the recent fighting, and they are all anxious for my business. After negotiating a price, I’m on my way up.

We start motoring up the mountain, and I’m surprised to see we’re climbing a new, well made road, a rarity in this remote region. It’s not even blacktop, it’s concrete. I bet it was paid for with UNESCO money, though at some points it looks so steep, that I wonder if any vehicles have flipped over backwards on the way up. Now I know why there are no taxis here, only motorbikes.

As we curve around a switchback, I spot sandbag bunkers, manned by Khmer soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and light machine guns. They look tense; all of them are peering into the jungle, and the mountain directly across from us. They are looking for Thai troops; perhaps some of them have infiltrated the Cambodian side of the border again. The jungle in front of us is so thick, it would be easy for them to stay out of view.

After the fighting, the market was rebuilt by temple stairs
My driver slows, and as we are out in the open on the road, I realize we're dangerously exposed. The soldiers in front of us are in bunkers, so if shooting starts we would be a sniper’s easiest target.

Fortunately, with their eyes searching for infiltrating Thai troops, the Cambodian soldiers don’t bother with us, and we continue on up the disputed hill. I'm glad; I don't want to be here if another firefight breaks out.

We finish our climb without incident, and soon I find myself at the bottom of an ancient temple stairway, with remnants of destruction nearby. There used to be a small guest house only steps away. It did not survive the recent attack by the Thai military; most of it burned down. Conflict is nothing new to Preah Vihear; this old temple has been occupied by several different armies over the centuries. 

The first temple was built here over 1000 years ago in the 9th century by the Khmer Kingdom. Over the next two centuries, larger temples were built by succeeding kings. It was originally a Hindu temple, and much like Angkor Wat, it is now used mainly for Buddhist worship.

Thousands of Khmers died from landmines when they were forced across the border by Thai army
Later the French took over Indochina, and with Cambodia as a colony, the French gave Preah Vihear to Thailand, which took over the temple in 1958. An outraged King Sihanouk protested to the World Court, who awarded it back to Cambodia in 1962. But the worst period of conflict here was just beginning. 

When the Khmer Rouge took overran Cambodia, some of that war's last shots were fired here. Government troops held out in the temple longer than anywhere else against the communists. While the capital of Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, the Cambodian Army Lieutenant in charge of Preah Vihear continued to defended for days after, including an attack on April 21. They held it another 2 days, until this ancient hill also fell to the communists.

Surrounding me at the base of the long temple steps, is a small rebuilt market. I walk past one table selling meat, it has pigs feet, and a pigs head for sale. A group of ducks are on adjacent grass, preening themselves. Most of the shops here were destroyed by the fighting with the Thais. The rebuilt stalls are now tables under umbrellas and temporary shelters. The Thais still claim that this market land where I’m standing is actually Thai territory. Never mind that the temple steps are only a few steps away, or that the current unused border post is even farther away towards Thailand. A blue sign in the temple reaffirms Cambodia’s claim. “Preah Vihear is Our Temple”. Another says, “Determination to protect Preah Vihear forever”. Even more serious, are the many signs all around the area, warning of landmines.

The front line: rolls of razor wire cover the border crossing stairway to Thailand
Here back in 1979, there were even more landmines here, and they were killing civilians, not soldiers. Back then masses of Cambodian refugees were fleeing across the border, and the Thai dictator Kriangsak Chomanan decided that Thailand had enough refugees, and he ordered the forced return of 42,000 refugees back at the border here. Thai soldiers shot some refugees during their return, and pushed some refugees over nearby cliffs. Thousands more died as they were forced to cross the deadly minefields surrounding the temple. Between 3,000 – 10,000 refugees died. 

Thailand was never held to account for this crime against humanity, and there is no historical marker to remember the dead. It remains one of the most horrific cases of forced repatriation in world history.

I shuffle around the market, getting curious looks, as I’m the only foreign visitor here today. Three lady vendors are seated chatting, with one of their sons wandering nearby. A few Cambodian soldiers walk about the stalls, but they don’t earn enough money to buy anything. The marketplace gets few customers now. With no Thai tourists, the vendors are struggling to get by.

I buy some crackers at a stall, my weak attempt to support the local economy. I ask how much, and the Khmer vendor answers, “20 Baht.”

She wants Thai Baht? The border with Thailand has been closed since the fighting here, and she thinks that I have Thai money. Strange.

Stepping away from the market, I walk right into the conflict zone.

Here there are many trenches, fox holes and military bunkers dug into the earth. Rolls of razor wire are laid in front of them. A Cambodian flag flies from a small flagpole, sitting almost at the line of control. A lone soldier stands atop a bunker, looking for any encroaching Thai soldiers. Beyond the razor wire is thick brush; somewhere beyond is the Thai Army, staring back at us. All the land surrounding me is in dispute. There are sandbags everywhere, with the trenches stretched both directions. It looks as though the Cambodians are getting ready to fight World War I.

A Khmer soldier and local boy in the market
“Hallo! Hallo!” I hear, and I spot a soldier waving me towards him. I’m invited into a primitive shelter.

I find 5 Cambodian soldiers inside; one who speaks a smattering of English seems to be a Non-Commisioned Officer. He offers me beer. This is the liveliest group of people I’ve seen up at the temple yet, they are joking and drinking. Their commander has joined them; he’s a Captain. He’s the drunkest of all, and  
it’s only 10:30 in the morning. The Cambodian Army is not known for its discipline.

He offers me what looks like homemade wine in a clear bottle with no label. I decline the offer. I don’t want to offend their hospitality, but I consider it an extremely bad idea to drink with drunk soldiers, that have loaded guns.

I leave the shelter, and walk back along the trench towards the temple. It’s a relaxed mood here, as opposed to the bunkers and machine gun nests I saw on the road coming up. Most soldiers here are not carrying their weapons. Some in the bunkers are lounging in hammocks, right next to their loaded machine guns.

Nearing the temple, I go to what used to be the border crossing. Before the shooting started, Thai Buddhists were allowed to cross the border to visit the temple, without a passport or visa. But that’s over; now rolls and rolls of razor wire are rolled all the way up the border crossing steps. A young Khmer in a straw hat shuffles around in front of me, staring at the barbed wire. Perhaps he works in the market. The razor wire ends at the now closed gates, marked simply “IN” and “OUT”. There will be no Thai tourists crossing this border today, or for a long time into the foreseeable future.

Up the hill, not 150 yards away, is a shelter that is now an armed Thai bunker. Long dark sandbags line the front. The interior is dark, so I don’t see any Thai soldiers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there though, they are probably watching me right now.

As I turn to walk back, I pass one of the frontline Khmer bunkers. Leaning against the wall is a handheld rocket propelled grenade launcher, and five rockets, all ready for trouble.

I sincerely hope that those rockets will never be fired. There have been too many senseless deaths at this temple already.

I head for the temple. At least there are no weapons in there.

*NOTE* There has been fighting at Preah Vihear several times over the years since this visit to the temple. Sadly, the conflict continues. 

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