Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 15 – Eddie’s Day Off Trip to Preah Vihear

FORWARD: Donald, Eddie, and I made this trip to Preah Vihear in the middle of January 2011. Beginning February 4 and lasting until a cease fire on February 7 the Thai army and the Cambodian army fired upon each other, with the Thai army apparently damaging part of the temple. Cambodia brought its claim to ASEAN and then to the U.N. There is still sporadic fighting with over 2,000 Cambodian families now described as refugees. Part of the problem is Thailand”s domestic political situation where whipping up national sentiment serves their purpose. As of February 16, the boarder area is still tense.

A fine chill still hung in the morning air as Donald and I stood in front our hotel waiting for Eddie to pick us up. We watched as the locals on motos and bicycles passed us, moving down the street bundled up in their “winter clothes”. We have yet to figure out if the parkas and hats with furry earflaps are really necessary or just a status symbol. For us, knowing how hot Cambodia can become, we were enjoying what felt like an early spring morning. But the temperatures, unseasonably cool into the low 60″s at night, have been causing great problems, illness and death for those not able to afford blankets and jackets as they huddle around small wood fires to keep warm.

At promptly 7:00, Eddie, driving his old Toyota, which up to now could still be considered faithful, made the right hand turn, waved to the tut-tut drivers waiting on the corner and pulled up in front of our hotel. Today, our destination was the Angkorian temple of Preah Vihear. It is located on the top of promontory of the Dangkrek Mountains adjacent to the Thai border, west of the triangle formed by the borders of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. We would follow National Highway 67 north to Anglong Veng, as we had done last year, then turn east. We hoped there would be road signs along the way. If not, by keeping the mountain range on our left, we would have to find it. Not sure if we would have to spend the night, Donald and I filled his backpack with a few necessary items. I packed more than he did as I have a broader concept of what is deemed essential.

Leaving our hotel, driving alongside the little Siem Rep River, Eddie turned right onto National Highway 6. We were heading southeast just as the sun had leaped over the buildings almost blinding him in the early morning brightness. Not knowing where our next meal was coming from, we stopped at a new convenience store aptly named 101 Convenient Store. In the process of becoming a small chain, it was started by a Khmer woman who had returned home after living in the United States. She was attempting to recreate a 7 – 11 and had set up a coffee take out stand and accommodating her customers” needs, she included a selection of teas. We bought canned drinks and water and in lieu of the preferred sandwich stand, we filled up on snacks. For substance, I slipped in a box of dried noodle soup, just add boiling water, and a disc of Laughing Cow cheese. Yes, I have been in places when a triangle of this otherwise inappropriate substance was actually delicious, melted by the sun into a Khmer version of a baguette.

Eddie brought along a small cooler, something impossible to find several years ago, and our next stop was an ice stand conveniently located along the side of the road. The sound of our wheels crunching over the gravel rousted the young man out of his hammock. He wiped the sawdust off a section of a long block of ice, used to retard the melting, and wielding a sharp toothed hack saw, he cut off a chunk the exact length of the cooler. In Cambodia, ice comes in two forms, and it is important to be able to distinguish between that which keeps things cold and that which can be used for drinking. Eddie had just purchased the former. We were now all kitted up and with the Allman Brothers belting out “Ramblin” Man”, Eddie fell into sync with the early morning traffic. Setting his own rhythm and announcing his every move with the honk of his horn, Eddie weaved between the trucks, cars, motos, bicycles, tut-tuts ,and those with questionable common sense walking in the street.

We soon reached the intersection where Eddie turned left onto National Highway 67, a properly paved road built by the Thais that went north to Anglong Veng and on to the border crossing at Choam. We passed small villages such as Ta Pouk, Prod Kuk and Trach, not large enough for a cross road nor a market. Phnom Bac was on our left, a 600 foot mound that Donald and Eddie used as a landmark when flying out of the village. We crossed the Siem Reap River, very narrow and almost hidden by trees and by 7:45, we were driving through the gap in the Kulen Mountains.

During our drive last year to Anglong Veng, I carefully described the area. We quickly passed villages, Tani, Srea Pou, Prey Khor, just dusty patches in the road. We were in the countryside where stilt houses, some built out of wood, other not evolved past thatch, huddled together, connected by rutted dirt paths that begin and end in nowhere. Nothing seems to have been reinvented and the people continue their struggle with life while traveling in traditional carts pulled by bullocks or ponies. As with most of Cambodia, the land is flat. The forests are still scruffy, the large trees long cut down. Illegal logging continues, but carried out discreetly and trees are processed in saw mills hidden from the road. Large tracts of land are still owned by the rich, maybe bought during the land boom at improbable prices, and cassava seems to be replacing the eucalyptus as this year”s hottest crop. There seemed to be more provincial offices, meaning more government oversight than before. In a manner similar to last year, it was the quality of air that grabbed our attention. Anywhere else, it could have been pollution, but here everything was cloaked in a haze of smoke and dust in places leaving the trees a blurry silhouette against a bleak gray background. The farmers are lighting small wood fires to keep themselves warm but the most insidious culprit is the slash and burn fires set as part of their timeless technique to clear land for cultivation.

By 8:30 we reached Anglong Veng, a place burdened down by the weight of memory. We drove through the center of town, past the roundabout displaying the Dove of Peace Monument, a donation from Hun Sen laden with political connotations. This area was a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, home to the stars of the show, Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, and Ta Mok. From here, this faction of the Khmer Rouge held out against government forces until surrendering in April 1998. As before, we stopped at the Monorom Restaurant, where the tea is preferred to what they consider coffee. Back on the road, which would soon lose its hard surface, we avoided going to the border crossing at Choam and turned east, heading toward Sa Em and our destination, Preah Vihear. When we came to another roundabout, we took it, not sure exactly if this was correct but we kept the mountain on our left side. We passed a red dirt road that headed straight to the mountain and decided to wait for a more properly paved one. Ahead, seen through the miasma of smoke and dust, was the outline of a large settlement with a market full with morning shoppers. Following through on the roundabout, we took the surfaced road heading toward the mountain. There were no confirming signs but we believed we were on the correct road. We passed the Lion Club”s Health Clinic and enclave after enclave of military outposts. These were rather informal affairs, populated with women and children and a few vegetable stands. The soldiers were sitting under shade trees, some armed with AK47s, and other just snoozing.

Eddie slowed down when he saw a driver in a Toyota truck who, upon seeing us, stuck his arm out the window and pointed up with his finger. This was the sign we were looking for as the best way up the mountain is in a four wheel drive. Eddie motioned yes to him and we followed him a short distance down the road and soon found ourselves pulling into a parking lot. It was 10:00, the trip had been billed as three hours, and we had arrived.

Due to its remarkable location, Preah Vihear, translated into “sacred abode”, has played a significant role in Cambodian history from ancient times to the present. Perched on a promontory of the Dangrek Mountains, two thousand feet above the Cambodian plain, it projected Angkorian power into the northern part of their empire, especially during the 10th when a renegade King moved out of Angkor and set up shop in nearby Koh Ker. In the 12th it was associated with Suryavarman II, the ruler who built Angkor Wat. Artistically, it is famous for its intricate three dimensional carvings, done in the style of Bantrey Srei, the temple I have often mentioned that is close to our former paddy landing strip. By the middle of the 15th, the glories of Angkor extinguished, the Thais from Ayutthaya became the dominant power. The center of Angkorian power moved south to what is now Phnom Penh and the Thais took over the Preah Vihear area setting the stage for a border dispute that remains unsolved to this day.

Built out of sandstone, construction on the temple began in the 9th and continued into the mid 12th. As a result, the temple, extending 2,600 feet in length, is an excellent example of evolving architectural and decorative styles. In order to take advantage of its location, this temple was built on the unusual north-south axis, instead of the more common east-west axis, allowing its most important sanctuary to be built closest to the edge of the cliff. Divided into five parts, and separated by gopuras, gateways, it was originally dedicated to Shiva, one of the main Hindu gods and later when the Khmers became Buddhists, it was rededicated to Buddha. Even though so much of it lays in ruins, similar to other Khmer temples, it was built as a representation of Mt. Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods.

In 1954, the French granted Cambodia independence and as the French forces were withdrawn from the northern part of Cambodia, the Thais moved in and claimed Preah Vihear as their own. This sent the Cambodians scurrying to the International Court of Justice at the Hague, presenting their claim to the temple and requesting a decision. By 1962, the Court declared that Cambodia had “sovereignty over the region of the Temple of Preah Vihear.” The Thais gave the temple back but maintained that the line of demarcation between the two countries had not been officially set.

When Cambodia petitioned UNESCO to declare Preah Vihear a World Heritage site, a distinction given in July 2008, the Thais responded by protesting. Even though these demonstrations were linked to internal Thai politics, the border dispute heated up and by mid July, the Thais had amassed 1,000 troops, supported by artillery, around the temple. Cambodia responded in kind and starting in the summer of 2008 the military standoff devolved into intermittent skirmishes lasting from five to fifteen minutes with nominal causalities taken on each side. Today, the Thais have withdrawn their soldiers but have closed access to the temple from their side of the border. Cambodia is claiming bragging rights on the increase in the number of tourists visiting the temple. According to their figures 17,000 visited the temple in 2009 and 86,000 visited in 2010. These numbers are hard to believe since there was fighting there between January and April 2010.

The Lon Nol American backed government army retreated to Preah Vihear and from the escarpment, made its last stand against the Khmer Rouge. By May 1975, a month after the fall of Phnom Penh, Khmer Rouge soldiers scaled the cliffs and this last government hold out fell in defeat. In late December 1978, Vietnam, tired of the Khmer Rouge cross border incursions, invaded Cambodia. By January 7, 1979, they had defeated the Khmer Rouge and established a Vietnamese backed government. Remnants of the Khmer Rouge army and their top leaders fled to this area. With a kind of perverse symmetry, it is from the vicinity of Preah Vihear that the Khmer Rouge staged their last fight before surrendering to government forces in December 1998.

During the fighting between the Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians fled their country. Those seeking refuge in Thailand, were placed in refugee camps. However, by June 1979, the Thai government was tired of footing the bill. The army rounded up 42,000 Cambodian refugees, loaded them on to buses, drove them up to Preah Vihear and at gun point forced them down the 2,000 foot cliff. Those who were able to make it to the bottom were greeted by land mines set by the Khmer Rouge and many only made it to safety by walking over the bodies of the dead. In total 10,000 people died or were left unaccounted for. This act of brutality perpetrated on an already traumatized group of people succeeded in gaining world attention and the U.N. and Western countries stepped up to take part in financing the refugee centers.

Until recently, there was not a mile of paved roads in Preah Vihear Province but due to their advanced infrastructure, it has been easy to reach the temple from the Thai side. Donald and I visited here several years ago when we were traveling in eastern Thailand touring Angkorian temples built during the height of their power. However, from the Cambodian side, until the new roads, which presently are in various stages of completion, only the most intrepid travelers, riding dirt bikes in the dry season, had the chance to succeed. If they did arrive, there were no expectations of accommodations. It is only since 2005 that the land mines and unexploded ordinances have been removed from the mountain side. Prior to that a traveler had to hire a military man as a guide to walk with him through what had been a former battle zone. The once used Pilgrim”s Path had been taken over by thick jungle, requiring the guide to hack his way up the mountain side, an arduous two hour climb, straight up.

It was not exactly a welcome center but covered parking was provided and we were immediately met by a bevy of young women attempting to sell us cigarettes. They kept saying “boom, boom, boom, boom”. At first this sounded a little strange until we realized they were not referring to the old Asian “boom boom” but to the sounds of gun fire and we were expected to buy their cigarettes to hand out to the soldiers on top. Passing up this opportunity, we were interested in how much the ride to the top would cost. “Ket loi”, how much we asked and thinking we understood the cost, we got into his truck. I sat in the cab and Donald and Eddie sat in the truck bed on a woven plastic mat which I am sure did little to absorb the bounce from the road. And as he grinded a few gears, looking for first, we were off.


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