AGROUP of soldiers are playing boules in an impromptu sandpit. Like careless backpackers, they have left their kit bags by the walls of the ancient temple. But in their case, the bags contain mortar rockets rather than bottles of water and a copy of the Lonely Planet guide.
This is the Preah Vihear Temple in early February, 48 hours before the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand erupted.
We have just made our way up the new road that snakes up the hill. Still unpaved and under construction, it cuts its way across the old paved, but much steeper, road.
Along the way, construction workers mingle with soldiers. As we reach the top, the military presence becomes more intense, with gun positions dug into the sides of the hill and protected by sandbags. A sign declares: “I am proud to be born a Khmer.” We have reached our destination.
It’s difficult to reconcile watching soldiers playing boules with the escalation of the conflict between two nations disputing ownership of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Lying in his hammock beside his troops, Nob Synath, 39, seems the epitome of relaxation.
“Soldiers always drink in their free time, so we let them play boules so they have less time to drink,” the deputy commander-in-chief of the army’s engineering division explains.
Nob Synath, a soldier since 1989, receives $100 a month, although some of the lower ranks get only $50.
When tension increases, the soldiers are stationed permanently at the temple; when it relaxes, they can return to their garrison at the base of the hill or visit their families. They have been here for a week now.
Nob Synath seems restless, impat-ient for the stand-off to reach the next level. “Sometimes it’s boring, as the war has not yet happened,” he says. “We want to see what happens. We want to test our muscle.”
The conflict has had an impact on tourism. “Around 100 to 200 people a day came here before [the conflict started],” Ngat Arun Nara, a Heritage Protection Police officer stationed at the temple with the soldiers, says.
“Now that the situation is difficult, there are only a few a day.”
Philippe Rigot, 31, and Virginie Des-champs, 29, are two of the handful of tourists at the temple the morning we visit. Despite having read about the conflict in newspapers beforehand, they still decided to brave the journey.
“I’m not afraid, as I don’t think there will be trouble at Preah Vihear,” Rigot says. “Perhaps they would not have let us come here if they thought it was dangerous.”
The Preah Vihear temples, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in July, 2008, were built by a succession of seven Khmer kings over several hundred years.
They were finally completed by Suryaraman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, in the 12th century, and some of the details of their carvings are a match for anything found at Angkor.
The spectacular group of four temples, and the breathtaking views at the top across the surrounding countryside, have made the couple’s visit worthwhile.
“It’s huge – very impressive,” Rigot says. “The view is impressive, too. I felt a little dizzy standing on the cliff top.”
Despite the friendliness of the soldiers towards them, Rigot and Deschamps admit feeling uneasy at seeing such a high military presence.
“It’s a bad sensation to see this,” Rigot says. “The problem is to see the flag of UNESCO and the soldiers together.”
At the very top of the temple complex, a woman sits surrounded by the skins of dead animals and bottles full of animal oil and blood.
She doesn’t want to have her photograph taken and refuses to give her name, as her trade in endangered species is illegal.
The woman’s husband is a soldier at the temple, and her business has suffered from the decline in tourism.
“Sometimes I don’t even have enough money to eat because the situation is so bad,” she says.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY