January 7, 2011 – 6:25 pm
Perched on the top of a 525m high escarpment on the northern border with Thailand, Cambodia’s Preah Vihear temple has become a source of tension between the 2 neighbours in recent months – a dispute that has been simmering since 1962 when the International Court of Justice awarded ownership of the The Angkor-era temple to Cambodia.
Until very recently, Preah Vihear Temple had been extremely difficult to reach from the Cambodian side, with a treacherous winding climb up a steep, rocky road, assailable only on foot, or by the hardiest of 4WD vehicle or trail bike. Last year the narrow track was improved with some stretches receiving a concrete coating. Now, however, the Cambodian military are in the process of gouging a huge cutting out of the mountainside, and I am sure that soon we will see tourist buses making the ascent all the way to the top.
Preah Vihear temple comprises 5 levels climbing from the north to the pinnacle of the cliff top that faces south over the jungle pains of northern Cambodia. Building started on the temple in the 9th Century, though most of what remains now were built during the peak of the Angkorian Kingdom’s powers from the 11th to 12th centuries.
Having driven with some difficulty up the final stretch of “road” over rough, barren rock, we found ourselves on the level of the second lowest temple where Cambodian soldiers had set up a shelter housing long range binoculars on a tripod through which to observe activities on another peak 800m away in Thailand. They giggled as they allowed me to peer through them, but I couldn’t see any tanks… or even Thai uniformed soldiers… threatening imminent invasion.
First descending to the lowest level we went to inspect the coils of barbed wire, designed to prevent incursions by Thais or Khmers into each other’s territories – an act guaranteed to inflame the situation. Indeed, only one day earlier 7 Thais, including one parliamentarian from the ruling Democrat Party, were arrested by Cambodian forces for illegally crossing the border into Cambodian territory and are presently being held in Prey Say Prison. The extensive tourist market there lies largely abandoned while the border remains firmly closed to Thai tourists.
Climbing through the many levels you pass several libraries, a royal bathing pool and numerous bunkers built by the Vietnamese during the period of occupation in the 1980′s, some of them running into or under the ancient monuments. Once you reach the you the views are impressive – though somewhat changed from my first visit 21 years ago. Then you would gaze out over a blanket of deep green, pristine rainforest, punctuated only by the muffled sound of Khmer Rouge mortars going off in the far distance. Now there are twisting red scars, marking new roads under construction, and and numerous plumes of smoke as more and more forest is cleared to make way for farms and military instalments.
The drive north to Preah Vihear Temple from T’beng Meancheay is now an almost completed, sealed, tarmac road, that promises to be one of the best in Cambodia. After visiting the temples we continued west to Anlong Veng along smooth laterite, from where the roads south to Siem Reap now are all black top. Soon there will be 40-seater buses from Angkor ferrying tourists to Preah Vihear temple in a single day return journey!
The time to visit is now!