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Preah Vihear temple on a road less travelled

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090506_17.jpg

REGIONAL CAMBODIA

by Stephen Westwood

Visiting Prasat Vihear makes for a memorable experience

 

AFP

Monks and tourist climb the steps to Preah Vihear temple.

THE Preah Vihear temple (Prasat Preah Vihear) is not overrun with foreign tourists. In fact, we were unfortunate when the pickup we were in got called back from halfway up the mountain to collect two foreigners, the only others I saw there.

 

Still, they didn't hang about too long, and I had the privilege of exploring the site with my Cambodian friend Pia and her parents, who had so graciously arranged our trip to Preah Vihear province.

A memorable afternoon followed. The teetering mountain temple, with grand staircase approaching from the north, can barely be sighted from the frontier settlement at the southern base of Chuor Phnom Dangkrek (Dangkrek mountains).

As long as you are not an opposition politician, you can get a ride up the escarpment along switchbacks of new concrete and visit both the temple and the troops guarding it.

The soldiers potter about, fetching water from the ancient reservoir, hanging out their washing and waiting.

As long as you are not

an opposition politician, you can get a ride up the

escarpment.

Pass lintels magnificently carved with Vedic apparitions and follow a damaged lingam-lined causeway. Then descend a series of stone staircases to the north, watched by antique lions, some of them so weathered they look half-melted.

At the bottom of the steps, there is a small market serving the soldiers and the trickle of mostly domestic visitors.

A few metres beyond, garlands of razor wire choke the tiny crossing into Thailand.

A couple of affable Cambodian army regulars tend to this garden of bright steel, the old foe out of sight for now - although from the temple peak, movement was visible in Thailand on the broad, industrial tourism-sized road leading to the closed border.

Turbulent past

The temple was only reclaimed for Cambodia, or re-annexed by the French colonial administration, in 1907, after some centuries of rule by Thailand (then Siam).

There are things you shouldn't say among these peaks  - Pia tells me  - at the risk of bringing a deadly curse on yourself.

Indeed, some terrible things have happened in the area.

In 1979, the Thai army forced thousands of Cambodians to walk a bloody path down from the Dangkrek mountains through miles of heavily mined territory, shooting those who refused or struggled -all in the name of repatriation.

The Vietnamese army, embarking on an ignominious 10-year occupation, retrieved the survivors and walked them 112.6 kilometres to Kampong Thom.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, awarded ownership of the temple to Cambodia, stating that the 1907 map clearly showed Preah Vihear as being in Cambodia. This judgement is the legal foundation for the world's recognition of Cambodian sovereignty over the site.

Thailand eventually reluctantly handed over the temple but didn't withdraw from the surrounding land, in contravention of the 1962 ICJ judgement, claiming the border has never been officially demarcated.

After peace returned to Cambodia with the extinction of the Khmer Rouge as a military force in 1998, the Thai and Cambodian governments agreed to stop their dispute over the temple in the interest of commerce.

The ownership dispute reappeared in June 2008 after UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to Prasat Preah Vihear.

Hence, the Cambodians' garden of razors: no tourists from troubled Thailand until their government and army relent.

Lift your head to mount the staircase again, and you can spy sentinels in the form of mighty seven-headed naga at the very top, glaring north, guarding the bones of the temple.

At this monument, it is hard not to think about Cambodia's near-mortally wounded national identity. Then it is hard also (for me, anyway) not to ponder the derelict state of the ideology of nationalism and nation-states, even of the ideology of internationalism, that simply cannot keep up with the realities of globalisation. 

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