Preah Vihear province
Above the din of military trucks and SUVs rolling past on their way to Preah Vihear temple, off-duty police merrily clanking beer cans shout: “Kampuchea! Preah Vihear!”
Outside the restaurants, however, a quiet tension is brewing as the International Court of Justice this week hears rival claims from Cambodia and Thailand to disputed land surrounding the temple in a case many here fear could reignite vicious military clashes.
Opportunistic small-business owners such as 30-year-old Pich Tong have bet their fortunes on a tourism boom in the nearby town of Sra Em, the final gateway to the 11th-century Hindu temple.
During the recent years of peace, the gamble has paid off, but Tong and others are only too aware how quickly this could change.
“People here are worried the fighting would start again like in 2011 and 2008. If Cambodians and Thais start fighting, no tourists will come,” he said.
“The government should discuss with the Thai government about the matter – there should be no more fighting.”
Dozens of soldiers were killed and tens of thousands left displaced when tensions flared in 2011. However, the tourist dollars have begun flowing in since the fragile peace deal that was brokered to end the standoff.
Like many others in Sra Em, Tong, a former tuk-tuk driver from Siem Reap, has watched the restaurant he set up with his wife and daughter in 2012 flourish into a lucrative venture.
Tourist and border police captain Chan Dara, 38, said that during the Khmer New Year holiday, about 2,000 domestic tourists were expected to journey to the temple up the 525-metre cliff lined with armed personnel that leads to its entrance.
“We still have to protect our border and the tourists,” Dara said.
Tourist arrivals to the temple skyrocketed by 79 per cent last year, with almost 100,000 visitors coming to marvel at the Angkorian ruins, according to statistics from the Preah Vihear provincial tourism department.
Like Tong, the Cambodian government is looking to capitalise on the booming interest in the temple, which has grown sharply since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said plans are in the works to recreate an ancient Angkorian-era highway connecting Preah Vihear to that other great jewel of the once mighty Khmer empire, Angkor Wat, and beyond.
“Tourists from Laos would be able to visit Preah Vihear and reach Siem Reap easily with the new highway,” Khon said.
The highway would stretch all the way up to Wat Phu, a famous Khmer temple in Laos, he added.
These plans, Khon said, are central to the government’s strategy of lifting the economically struggling province out of poverty.
“We don’t have many hotels and resort accommodation in Preah Vihear yet, but in the next few years, there will be a lot more.”
But even the humble foundations of tourism that have already been laid in Sra Em and at the temple itself represent remarkable development, said archaeologist Professor Thuy Chanthourn, who has studied the temple for more than a decade.
“In 1997, there was nothing, no market, no town, just the temple and landmines,” he said.
This emerging prosperity in Preah Vihear hinges on the maintenance of a fragile peace that was brokered midway through 2011, ending fierce clashes and leading the Cambodian government to call for the ICJ to intervene.
Despite the détente, the dispute over a 4.6-square-kilometre area surrounding the temple has remained a powerful lever primarily harnessed by Thai opposition Democrat Party-aligned “Yellow Shirts” for nationalistic traction.
Just last week, Yellow Shirts massed on the Thai side of the border protesting Cambodia’s claim to the land, while others have called on the Thai government to reject the ICJ’s ruling if it turns out unfavourable.
Chanthourn worries that if the ICJ rules in Cambodia’s favour, the Yellow Shirts’ rumblings could spark a fresh conflict that would not only derail tourism development at the temple but could result in damage to – or even collapse of – the ruins.
Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, from Kyoto University’s Centre for South East Asian Studies and a former Thai diplomat, said the ICJ’s decision was a near foregone conclusion and that could spell trouble.
“The level of confidence [in Cambodia] has been really high, since Cambodia is the rightful owner of the temple – logically speaking, you cannot just have the temple; the land around it would belong to you as well.”
While Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was “in a unique position to be able to control the situation” having significantly improved relations with Cambodia, Pavin warned that she may not be able to control Yellow Shirts backed by elements of the armed forces.
For his part, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been doing his best to ensure that Cambodians resist any provocations, last week calling on the public and armed forces to “keep cool during the oral [ICJ] hearings”.
Speculation over whether or not the two increasingly friendly governments will be able to keep a lid on ultra-nationalistic sentiment during the court rulings remains fierce, but Minister of Tourism Khon is not riled.
“We have no problem. Preah Vihear has belonged to us for a long time.”