Monday, April 17, 2017


The roof collapsed on this old temple building in Preah Vihear
I’m at the ancient Preah Vihear temple site, where Thai troops have recently had gun battles with Cambodia soldiers over control of the temple. There’s no shooting today. So far.

It’s a long climb up the ancient stone block steps, and eventually I reach the top. To Khmer worshipers of old, perhaps this was a metaphorical climb towards heaven.
With sore legs after the climb, I reach the top, The old temple sits on a stone platform, and it’s somewhat ruined. The roof has totally collapsed, leaving immense stone pillars and beams. Some stones are jacked up by strong wooden supports, to keep them from collapsing further. 

The style is obviously the same as the temples at Angkor Wat. It makes me wonder why the Thais would want to fight for this temple, when it was so obviously built for a Khmer king.

As I look around, a Cambodian policeman walks up. I discover that he speaks a fair amount of English; his name is Kuhn. He says there’s no fighting here today, (at least not yet,) so he offers to show me around the temple.

Barbed wire blocks the border to Thailand
From high up on here the hill, I can see well over the line of control onto the Thai side of the border. On the horizon is a vast green plain, eastern Thailand. On a nearby hill, I can make out a couple of Thai civilians walking down a modern paved road that ends at the closed border. No wonder so many Thais used to come here before, they didn’t have to endure the long trip on a nasty dirt road I just traveled. They could take nice air conditioned buses all the way here, walk across the border, visit the temple, walk back to the bus, and be way back in Thailand before dinner. But not anymore, the border is closed due to the recent fighting.

There are few buildings visible on the Thai side, it’s mostly trees and brush.
Kuhn points to a prominent white government border building flying the Thai flag. “Ta Mok’s house was there,” he tells me. This is the third house I’ve seen that belonged to the murderous Khmer Rouge war chief. I wonder how many more houses he had.

From this high vantage point, I can look down on the Cambodian Army’s dugouts and bunkers. Trenches cross over the hill, and out of sight. I don’t see any such fortifications on the Thai side, but they are over there somewhere, well camouflaged.

Kuhn takes me behind the temple, onto a long, wide walkway reaching up the hill. It’s made entirely of heavy stone blocks, and has many more stones than the temple I just saw. It must have been a monumental effort to haul these blocks up the mountains, all those centuries ago.

View of conflict zone. On left: Thailand. On right: path for Cambodia soldiers along trench line.
Continuing up the hill, we reach another temple building, bigger than the first. I discover that Preah Vihear isn’t one temple building, but several, with adjacent shrines and a pool. This place is bigger than I thought.

I explore two more temple buildings, one has elaborate carvings and a collapsed roof above. The other is a stone Khmer style tower. Curiously, a large green tree is growing out of the roof.

Kuhn points out his temporary house off to the side, not 100m from the temples. Between the trees are some lean-tos, and flimsy buildings. “I live there with my wife and daughter,” he tells me.

For years, nobody could live on that land, as it’s a former minefield.

Heavy stone blocks make a path connecting the temples
Back in the 1980’s when the Vietnamese communists occupied Cambodia, many Khmer Rouge fighters were crossing back and forth from sanctuary in Thailand, so the Vietnamese laid more than 2 MILLION landmines along the Cambodian border, known as the K5 belt, where they continue to kill and maim today.

Many of the minefields close to the temples have been cleared, but with the current border conflict, I wonder if they are laying more mines elsewhere. One step forward, two steps back…

Along the wall of this old temple complex, is a tunnel opening. It opens into a large military shelter; an artillery casing sits at the entrance. Close by is another bunker for the soldiers, and parts of the wall were made from ancient stones they took from the temple. Preservationists would be horrified. These were originally built by the Khmer Rouge; this religious site that was sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, became a military base for communist atheists.

A tree grows atop a temple tower
Some of the walls on the last temple building are peppered with bullet holes. This was the last holdout of the Khmer Rouge. Even after the communists laid down their weapons near Anlong Veng, hardliners still held out here. The Cambodian Army perhaps could have beaten them here, but they were restrained, as they didn’t want to destroy the temple. They could have used heavy artillery, but they didn’t; one artillery barrage could have irreparably destroyed the entire temple complex. The last communist holdouts finally agreed to peace with the Cambodian government in 1998.

Looking from up high to the east, I can see far along the Dangkrek mountain chain. Not far away in that direction, the opposite side of the border changes from Thailand, to Laos.

I enter the last highest temple building near the cliff: the Central Sanctuary.

Within are Angkor era carvings and architecture, familiar to me by now. There’s an inner courtyard, with some collapses surrounding walls, and others still intact. Impressive hallways and arched ceilings are made entirely of stone. I wonder how many of the ceilings have collapsed over the years from age, or from the violence of men.

While some stones have collapsed, other temple walls are still standing strong
In the courtyard’s center is the innermost shrine. Much of it is still intact. The intricate decorative carvings have survived, though the colors and paint have faded from time, leaving faded grey and white stone underneath. Ducking inside, I see a Buddhist statue through the shadows. Some old offerings from rare pilgrims are left at its feet.

Walking out behind the last temple, a dirt path leads to bare bedrock on the edge of a cliff, it’s well over 1,500 feet down. There are no trees blocking my view. In front of me is the most amazing view in Cambodia. Far beneath me is a vast carpet of a greenery, a flat plain that stretches to the horizon. Only a couple of dirt roads cut across the green scene. 

From atop the cliff I get a fantastic scenic view of Cambodia
Small dots clumped together by a crossroads are the village houses of Kor Muy, where my driver Shanghai awaits me.

I’m in awe of this view. No wonder the Thais are fighting them for it.

I bid goodbye to Kuhn, and mount a motorbike taxi for the trip down the mountain. On the way down, we pass a convoy of government officials on their way up, with journalists in tow, carrying cameras and camcorders.

Soon I’m down the mountain, and the motorbike driver drops me in Kor Muy. Word is going around the village that while I was up by the temple, there was another border incursion by Thai soldiers. The conflict here isn’t over yet.

I find Shanghai, and we head back to his muddy car. He fills his old Toyota Corolla’s radiator with water, and we start the long drive back to Anlong Veng.

Landmine warning sign. Stay on the path, or your next step might be your last.
After the long journey, I’m back at my hotel, and I flip on the news. CNN is reporting, “Tensions along the Cambodia – Thailand border”. They are saying that 100 Thai troops crossed ‘briefly’ into Cambodian territory. The Thai government says that the situation is 'calm', and denies the border breach.

It’s calm all right, as this time there wasn’t any shooting. Fortunately.

Two weeks after I leave Preah Vihear, fighting erupted again near the temple. When the shooting stopped, 2 Thai soldiers were dead, and 9 were wounded. 12 Cambodian soldiers were injured.

As Cambodia is a country still recovering from several wars, I really hope that the Thais will finally leave them in peace.

*NOTE* - The events described above took place in 2009. Violent conflict between Cambodian and Thai soldiers in the region surrounding the temple has continued to occur sporadically in the years since then.