Preah Vihear Temple, a Century-Old Argument

Sat 12 February 2011

Preah Vihear temple has been in the news lately as Cambodia and Thailand exchange gunfire. Prasat Preah Vihear is significant both as an archaeological site and a longstanding point of contention between the two countries. Although the recent outbreak was sudden, it’s another in centuries of disagreements.

Prasat Preah Vihear is one of the most famous temples in Cambodia. It was built in the late 800s C.E. by King Yasovarman, one of several hill temples he ordered to be constructed. Construction was popular with kings of that era, leading up to such grand projects as Angkor Wat. This era in my Cambodian history book is a litany of temple construction. It’s hard to know whether the kings were moved by piety and vanity, or whether the buildings are the only primary artifacts that survive for historians to write about.

Preah Vihear is Our Temple

Cambodia and Thailand have argued about rightful ownership for a long time. The current border, determined by France and Thailand in 1907, put Prasat Preah Vihear on the Cambodian side. Thailand retook it in 1954 when France withdrew, and Cambodia sued for ownership before the International Court of Justice. In 1962 the court voted 9-to-3 to give it back to Cambodia. Ownership is a matter of national pride and patriotism to both countries, so that didn’t settle the matter. In 2000, Cambodia and Thaliand signed a Memorandum of Understanding. They agreed that they do not agree, and proposed a plan for re-surveying the border.

Despite the Memorandum, there are occasional shooting disputes. The most recent follows the arrest of seven Thais who strayed into disputed territory. Five were tried and released with suspended sentences, and two were sentenced for espionage. Some newspapers say that it was a deliberate provocation by the Yellow Shirts, a Thai nationalist political faction. They sound akin to the Tea Party - riling up patriotism by saying the administration is a bunch of pantywaists who are soft on foreign policy. You can find newspaper articles that proclaim all sides of the story, with equal and opposite claims about which country started it, which side is using illegal munitions, and how many casualties have been suffered.

I visited at New Years with some hospital staff and their families, before any of this had happened. The Preah Vihear province is on the northern edge of Cambodia, near the area where Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia come together. We hired a van from Siem Reap, and arrived after a five hours drive through the countryside.

It was sunset when we arrived, so we waited until morning to sightsee. Before setting out, we bought cigarettes and ramen at the market to bring to the soldiers. We had to ride up the mountain in pickup trucks. There were soldiers and the odd policeman strung all along the road. Many of them were involved in road construction. The mood seemed alert, but not tense. We passed soldiers on road crews, soldiers schlepping things, soldiers hanging around. We passed a soldier kicked back in a hammock alongside a machine gun pointed at Thailand.

On our way up, we handed out the noodles and cigarettes. We knew that there would be soldiers all the way to the top, so the adults doled things out slowly. The kids in our group had a blast throwing noodles. They went through theirs and wanted us to hand over our goodies. I let them have some ramen, but wouldn’t let them touch the cigarettes. Not that the kids were going to smoke them, but I was conflicted enough about giving cancer sticks to soldiers.

Much stranger to me than this weird Mardi Gras was the presence of women and children. They live on the mountain with their soldier husbands and fathers. My first thought was, what happens to them if fighting breaks out? My second was to wonder if that encourages the soldiers to keep a cool head, since the stakes are higher. Hopefully they’ve left the area bye now with the other refugees.

At the top we piled out and ambled over to the temple. Vendors offered incense, candles, water, and cigarrettes. At the temple entrance there were the usual guardian lion statues and pots bristling with incense. Some of us stopped to offer our own sticks.

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Prasat Preah Vihear is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That means it’s a ruin, but an important one. The buildings are tumbledown and open to the sky. Some sections are hidden under scaffolding while they’re stabilized and restored.

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It’s surprisingly accessible for an archeological site. You can walk through most of the temples, but you have to pick your way around sprawls of limestone blocks. Every so often we passed a stern-faced soldier standing in a room, but there were no barriers to keep us out.

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The temple has three complexes connected by long cobbled roads. The walkways are as worn down as the buildings from rain and visitors. The square cobbles are rounded and nibbled like a pan of cinnamon rolls.

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Only two rooms are still in active use, both at the last complex. One is a little side chamber with high walls and wild acoustics. A soldier demonstrated how the sound reverberated if you thump your chest. It was like standing inside a drum. If you’re sick, you can pound the sickness out of your body. (“And it’s facing Thailand, so the illness falls on them”, someone explained, half-joking. Makes me wonder what the Thais say in their temple.) In the heart of the last building there was a large shrine to Buddha. Many of our group lit candles and incense and prayed. I dropped a donation in the box and made a wish for peace. It seemed like they could use some. Even during the quiet time, it was clear there were longstanding bad feelings. When we were finished, a monk chanted a blessing and sprinkled water on us.

We returned to the entrance gate, which sits at the top of a long stairway. Thanks to the road shortcut, we didn't have to climb up it when we arrived. At the bottom was a collection of small buildings with more soldiers. They end abruptly . The border is strung thickly with razor wire and landmine warning signs around a former crossing point. If you can see in my blurry photo, the entrance has been swathed with razor wire. Beyond it a stairway leads to Thailand.

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We walked through the camp back toward our pickup point. Our guide pointed out a Thai soldier hanging out with some Cambodian soldiers. Our guide said they pay social calls back and forth from time to time, and some of them are friends. It was a strange contrast to the razor wire.

Our last stop was at Wat Keo Sikha Kiri Svara, a modern little pagoda with a full complement of monks to bless visitors. It was a small, quiet place. Later I saw it in the news. Someone raised a Cambodian flag, although it’s officially disputed territory. Thailand demanded it be removed, took exception and raised their own flag nearby.

Cambodia and Thailand will bring the dispute to the UN Security Council on Monday. Whatever they decide, it won’t resolve the larger arguments. I'm glad I had the chance to see it when I did.

Category: Sightseeing

Tags: cambodia /