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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Day Hiking to Preah Vihear's Ancient Ruins

Day Hiking to Preah Vihear's Ancient Ruins

CHOAM KSAN, Preah Vihear-New Year's day started at 4 a.m. to the intrusive blare

of Cambodian wedding music. I tried to go back to sleep but could only manage a light

doze in which I dreamt of sneaking up to the loudspeaker and ripping out its wires.

The next thing I knew there was a light tapping on my door. It was UNTAC District

Electoral Supervisor Brooks Entwistle. Time to get up, he said. Muesli power breakfast

was already on the table.

He had fruit loops, and soon we were off on our mission, or rather his mission with

me tagging along-to climb a 2,260-foot Dangrek mountain peak to find out how many

Cambodians at Preah Vihear temple needed to register to vote.

Preah Vihear temple is just about as far as you can get from Phnom Penh and still

be in Cambodia. In fact it was once part of Thailand until Prince Norodom Sihanouk

took the Thais to the International Court of Justice and won it back in 1962.

The Thais have an access road going right to it, but getting there from the Cambodian

side requires a two-hour hike up steep cliffs. No foreigners have done it since at

least the Lon Nol era, or maybe before that.

The temple dates from the days of King Suryavarman I (1002-1049), one of the earliest

Angkor rulers who extended Khmer-dom into what is now Thailand and Laos.

It was going to be a big day. First we had to pick up U.N. Military Observer Maj.

Paul Wenck of the U.K. Scots Guard (pssst, he's not really a Scot but a Brit) and

Civilian Police Officer Ben Ayirebi of Ghana, who were still clearing cobwebs from

their brains from the big Choam Khsan New Year's Eve bonfire party just a few hours

before.

A Pakistani military team wanted to reconnoiter the area and protect us in line with

UNTAC's new "protect-the-election-team" policy, and it was a good thing

too because the Pakistanis are in the wonderfully civilized habit of carrying around

the most delicious piping hot tea with them on field missions. They treated us all

to cups and cups of it.

Just before 7 a.m. the convoy set off west on a safari-like route through the wilds

of Cambodia, where instead of giraffes and lions, there were the rusted carcasses

of trucks and the partial remains of mine-clearing vehicles that had all met an explosive

end.

The cratered route that disappeared into undergrowth and riverbeds at times and required

the most adroit driving skills was once a real road.

Along the most heavily-mined areas where spiky-leafed scrub bushes grow, evidence

of telephone poles not yet chopped down for firewood popped up every few hundred

meters. This was once civilization before the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge fought over

it.

We were not far from the land of Ta Mok and his Khmer Rouge crew, and soon a tired-looking

troup of soldiers in Khmer Rouge uniforms trotted past on foot.

"Hey, maybe they'll capture us and you'll get an exclusive," Brooks joked,

as I wondered what I would ask the one-legged butcher himself. Hmm.

"Maybe they'll just kill us on the way back," said Leah Melnick, an UNTAC

electoral communications official who came up from Phnom Penh to check out the folks

in the field.

When we arrived at CPAF (Cambodian People's Armed Forces-Hun Sen army troops) Battalion

96 guarding the base of the temple mountain, however, just about everybody was wearing

Khmer Rouge uniforms, oddly enough.

"It's one hour up the mountain," they told us. They lied.

"Stay on the path," they told us. They weren't kidding. One of their buddies

stepped on a landmine and lost both legs going up a few months back, they said. Plus

Khmer Rouge guerrillas have a training camp half-way up and 10 kilometers west.

We loaded up on water and food and at 10 a.m. started hiking on a thin demined trail

through tall yellow grasses that scratched our faces and pricker bushes that snagged

our clothes.

An hour later we were still on flat ground-what used to be a road to the base of

the mountain judging by more car carcasses-still looking up at the peak we were supposed

to have already reached. Maybe the Khmer guys sprint.

Soon we hit steps. Brown sandstone, 11th century steps. Straight up through the forest

or jungle or whatever you call it. Oh my god. Who put these here?

Ben decided the only way to make it was to kick in his engines and barrel up, grunting

four-letter words with every huff and puff.

The Pakistanis-fit soldiers that they are-and Brooks who's from Colorado and climbs

really big mountains just for fun anyway, made it up effortlessly.

I decided the only way to make it was to stop and have a look at the scenery every

five minutes. (Lots of lichen on that rock there. What kind of bullet is this? Hey,

is that an 85 mm shell? Oh, look at the big fungus.)

"Brilliant," said Major Paul, because British people say things like that

when they stop to look at scenery.

Another hour later we hit a clearing at the top of the tree line where the path became

lined with razor wire and reinforced bunkers. I take back what I said about being

the only foreigners to hike up in ages. Obviously Vietnamese troops had been here.

"Extraordinary," said Major Paul, because British people say things like

that when they see something interesting.

Straight ahead were the temple ruins, and coming up on it we could see the outlines

of moving hats. Lots of hats. Lots of hats being worn by Thai tourists. Lots of Thai

tourists. Thousands of Thai tourists. Oh my god, how did they get there?

We bought drinks and collapsed, hot and sweaty in the shade of the temple wall, except

for the Pakistanis who kicked in their adrenaline reserves and started sightseeing.

"Look at those people. They look like they just came out of the jungle,"

joked one Thai woman of our group, with no idea she was right or that we could understand

her Thai mixed with Khmer.

The walk had made one of our number pensive.

"This is like a metaphor for the border. For the Cambodians it's always a long,

hard struggle. For the Thais, this is a drive-in. This is a Khmer temple. For Khmers

they have to risk their lives to see it. For the Thais, they can just drive up."

We looked out over the Preah Vihear cliffs into Cambodia and wondered where exactly

in 1979 the Thai military had trucked between 40,000 and 45,000 refugees up from

border camps near Aranyaprathet and forced them down the cliff at gunpoint.

Untold numbers of refugees were killed trodding on mines in June1979, falling to

their deaths, being trampled in the melee or being shot to death as they tried desperately

to climb up again into Thailand.

One of the Cambodian vendors up top, Sam Ninh, was so happy to hear we had come up

the Cambodian side he gave us free electrolyte drinks which perked everybody up.

"I'm very happy UNTAC is coming here to help us," he said.

Brooks and his interpreter Sokha from Site 2 scouted around and found about 25 to

30 vendors and the families of government soldiers who stay in thatched huts on the

mountainside who needed to register to vote. He quickly made plans to hike back up

a few days later and set up a registration site.

"It'll be totally awesome," he said, because Americans say things like

that when they're excited.

Ben-whose proficient Khmer after seven months in country could put anyone to shame-went

around getting his picture taken with every Thai tourist who asked him, adjusting

his blue beret every time.

An older French couple who had come on a tour from Bangkok said they paid twice to

get through the border-100 baht to the Thais going out, 100 baht to the Cambodians

coming in.

The tourists, studiously ignoring the piles of unexploded ordinance, the bunkers

and the marked mine fields all around the three tiers of the elongated temple ruins,

left evidence of picnics at every turn.

"How surreal," said Major Paul.

Like a true Colorado camper-"pack it in, pack it out"-Brooks did his good

deed for the day. With a passion some people reserve for their enemies, he crammed

his backpack full of discarded soda cans, water bottles, plastic bags and other junk

littering the site.

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