Quite possibly the most interesting and easily the most dangerous place we have been thus far on this trip was Prasat Preah Vihear, an ancient Hindu temple on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Here is a link to help you better understand the issue. Of special interest is the timeline of recent events; we were there on April 12, 2011. Below is a brief summary.

The temple was build by the Khmer Empire between 900-1100 AD. It took about two hundred years because the had to quarry the rock from several miles away and lug it up the mountain to form a 600m long temple complex along the cliff. The mountain range that it rests on has long been the border between Thailand and Cambodia. For the last hundred years these governments have disputed exactly where the border is relative to the location of the temple. The last time it was drawn up, the officials were directed to place the border along the watershed line of the mountain, putting the temple in Thailand territory. However, for reasons unexplained, they deviated from that line only where the temple stands so that it is in Cambodian territory. Because the Thai government took 50 years to complain about it, international bodies and courts have consistently sided with Cambodia on the issue.

Regardless, every once in a while fighting breaks out, usually because the soldiers posted on the border get bored and play pranks on each other that inevitably lead to shooting but officially because the two governments still argue on the exact border location (it varies by about 500 feet). The Thai government wants ownership of pretty much every inch of land surrounding the temple except for the cliff face that overlooks Cambodia so that they can completely control who visits the temple. Cambodia is holding on the steep mountain dirt road so that they can continue to maintain a military presence and are furiously at work to develop the road; meanwhile the Thais enjoy easy access and have already built a large highway that ends about a mile from the temple.

As we visited this temple during our stay in Cambodia (it is closed to everyone from the Thai side due to the fighting, but Cambodia has no rules against going. People just don’t go), we drove up the mountain from the Cambodian side and spent time with the Cambodian military stationed at the temple.

Kristof and I along with our guide/couchsurfing host Rady drove up to the military post at the bottom of the mountain. I guess a group of guys with friends in the military have a monopoly on driving people up the road to the temple and charge $20 a trip, a pretty steep fee from what we had seen in Asia so far. We sat in the back of the flat-bed truck and bounced around all the way up the dusty, busy road.

This is the approaching view of the temple from below the mountain on the Cambodian side.

The base camp.

Aerial view of the drive up.

Road view. They’re working as fast as possible to make this a high speed road.

When we arrived the first thing we did was have Rady facilitate the “fee” we paid to the ranking officer on duty, about $10 for the two of us. As part of the deal we also bought cartons of cigarettes to pass out to the soldiers we saw and talked to. A carton cost $5, so each pack was fifty cents. We split a carton and walked around passing them out.

Rady translated as some of the soldiers told us their stories. Most of them earn less than two dollars per day but the pay is somewhat consistent and it’s more than what a lot of people in Cambodia make. Besides the poor pay the soldiers face many hardships. They get very little food to eat and are responsible for their own footwear, something most of the soldiers can’t afford. we saw many men on duty wearing flip-flops or walking barefoot. There is also almost no medical care for the soldiers at the temple and many are afflicted with curable diseases and infections. They’re honor-bound, though, and just deal with their problems, or take it out on the Thais whenever they get out of line.

As we passed out packs of cigarettes we walked along the bunkers at the edge of the hill, the outermost posts of the Cambodian army. These bunkers are from where the soldiers have been shooting at each other. One of the soldiers pointed out the closest Thai military post on the other side of the small valley, at the top of the ridge to my left.

Here is a closer look at the Thai outpost. This valley is the disputed area. In the middle are a couple areas where buildings sometimes get worked on by either side before fighting erupts. The soldiers told us they recently shot some Thai soldiers who were trying to build in the middle of the night. The Thai soldiers heard the calls for them to stop and instead mooned the Cambodian bunkers. The Cambodian soldiers opened fire and killed three Thais. No journalists were there to account for this (or put it on the Wikipedia timeline).

The bunkers are made of bags of cement or bags of sand piled up to form a crawl space and a hole for the guns and missile or grenade launchers. This side faces the valley.

The inside is very cozy, and by that I mean cramped and uncomfortable. Probably very hot, too.

Next to the missile laucher bunker they keep a stockpile of rockets. Kristof mentioned he didn’t think the US military would be so quick to point out to tourists where they keep their ammo and how the bunkers are situated.

At the end of the bunker ridge we arrived at base of the temple. The temple runs uphill north to south along the mountain cliff, overlooking the Cambodian plains to the east. Further north on the other side of the valley is the the Thai outpost. As we walked south the temple entrance turns into stairs that overlook everything.

At the top of the first stairway a captain armed with an AK-47 stood guard and kindly accepted my last pack of cigarettes.

Rady had the idea of posing for pictures with the gun in front of the temple. After a brief photoshoot I had this gem on my memory card. I showed this to someone who pointed out the the hose from my hydration pack adds an interesting touch to the picture of me leading a Cambodian insurrection.

Behind where the captain was posted we came upon the entrance to another section of the temple. Within the last few years the Thais bombed this section and severely damaged it. Some stones fell down and some lean precariously. The Cambodian government filed an official petition in international courts about this particular damage.

Here is a better angle of the damaged building. The women lounging around could best be described as “camp-followers.” They aren’t exactly prostitutes but they aren’t exactly girlfriends of the soldiers either. They’re just kind of… there.

The captain showed us a spot where a journalist was killed by a Thai sniper a few weeks before when he was trying to take pictures during a firefight. We stood on the spot with the Thai outpost in the background, believing that the area is safe in the daytime.

The upper levels of the temple had more buildings and less damage. Having the whole temple to ourselves, with the accompaniment of an armed military guard, was a very memorable experience. In juxtaposition with the military tension and surreal relaxed but constant threat of death the temple is very serene, quiet, and peaceful. Everywhere I looked (other than behind me at the military) I was alone walking amid thousand-year-old ruins, relics of an ancient dynasty and temple to its mystical gods. It is too difficult to transcribe the feeling onto this blog. It was simply awe-inspiring.

At the very top of the temple the corner of the cliff overlooks a vast expanse of Cambodian plains. Twenty meters to the west of the back building the bunkers start up again. It seems the serenity is contained within the temple grounds.

Over the last month the fighting has intensified; however this month steps have been taken to cease fire and work toward a solution. Any solution would require one side to make big concessions that would be too unpopular with their people. These concessions will not happen and so the tension will remain. As long as the border is only populated by underpaid soldiers and no third-party observers the fights will continue to break out, soldiers will die and the temple will be further damaged. I believe that it is just a matter of time before lasting peace is achieved, driven by both the desire to preserve the temple and the interest both sides have in tourism revenue from temple tours. Until then I think we’ll just have to wait. And occasionally visit, weather permitting.