Cambodia | Contested Heritage

How A Unesco World Heritage Site Became The Flashpoint In A Cambodian-Thai Border War.

Foreign military attachés visit the Preah Vihear temple on 3 March 2011. LEI BOSONG / XINHUA / XINHUA PRESS / CORBIS
01 April, 2011

On 4 February 2011, the ancient Hindu temple at Preah Vihear in Cambodia, virtually on its border with Thailand, was once again transformed into hell’s own World Heritage Site. At least 10 people have died in the following weeks, after Thai and Cambodian troops stationed around the temple began exchanging 105 mm artillery fire and BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, respectively, in three areas adjacent to the temple, and Cambodia claims that a wing of the temple has collapsed as a result of Thai artillery bombardment.

Although they have never been model neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia have been at each other’s throats since UNESCO inscribed Preah Vihear temple on the list of World Heritage Sites in 2008, prompting protest in Thailand and triggering the current build-up of troops along the border. Thailand says the land surrounding the temple is Thai soil (the temple’s main entrance is in Thailand and land adjacent to the temple is claimed by both countries). Cambodia can claim that UNESCO, the International Court of Justice at The Hague (in a 1962 ruling), and a French colonial map dated 1907 say it isn’t.

The February attacks were the fiercest since 2008. After each clash, both countries have accused the other of firing first into populated areas. Despite intense regional diplomatic pressure to lay down arms, the ceasefire at Preah Vihear will remain fragile as long as Thai and Cambodian nationalists keep fingering the dispute to further their own political agendas.

Perhaps all borders are strange. But Preah Vihear is the only borderland in the world in which a 1,000-year-old temple stands at, and as, the nexus of an armed conflict between two of the world’s last remaining Buddhist kingdoms. In the 10th century, the same Khmer Empire that would, in the following 200 years, give the world Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom began building Prasat Preah Vihear—the one true mountain temple among the many manmade Mount Merus of the ancient Angkorian period.

When I visited Preah Vihear in September 2009—slightly more than a year after the UNESCO designation set off a round of fresh fighting on the border—a relaxed, summer-camp atmosphere prevailed in spite of the tension. Soldiers strolled through the market area at the Hindu temple’s base licking ice cream cones or playing cards next to their anti-aircraft guns.

I say the border was “relaxed” because, at the time, three women—an American artist named Farrah Karapetian, myself and our Cambodian tomboy guide, Soluy Loeurt—were able to camp for three days with a group of Cambodian soldiers: General Long Beach and the men of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Battalion 169. I laughed when I heard the name “Long Beach”, thinking it had something to do with the city of Long Beach, California—home to the world’s largest population of diasporic Cambodians. The general was quick to correct me, however, stating that his name suggested his men’s memory of him will be illustrious and long, like a seemingly endless stretch of beach.

The next morning, as we passed a guardhouse, four Cambodian soldiers in uniforms demanded cigarettes and money. Soluy and Farrah shook their heads to show “don’t have” and we sailed past the guard station unmolested, three women in a boundary zone shot through with testosterone, cashing in on the feminine element of surprise.

There was a picnic table in the distance. When we reached the table, Soluy climbed atop, cupped her hands around her mouth, and shouted the Thai greeting “SAWADEE” at the neat rows of black sandbags situated about 50 metres in front of us and stacked in both directions as far as my eyes could see. In front of the sandbags was a trench; behind the bags a Thai soldiers’ camp. Soluy shouted again and we heard someone stir. A soldier dressed entirely in black peered out at us and then slowly clambered over the sandbags, trying his best to appear nonchalant as he strolled toward the picnic bench. Only a few feet away, the Thai soldier crossed a thick line drawn in the dirt between the bench and the blockade. He has crossed the line—literally, I thought.

The line demarcated the border between Cambodia and Thailand. If we crossed this same line, our guide told us, we would quickly reach our ultimate destination.

“How’s that?” I asked.

Soluy grinned: “Because the Thais will shoot you dead.”

The temple rises 525 metres above sea level. To reach its entrance, we ascended for over an hour through the malarial jungle, up a crumbling rubble-pour that at times looked more like a dry streambed than what remained of the ancient stairs.

Our heavenly reward? A boulevard of smooth stone, extending upwards through five levels of massive ceremonial gates called gopuras, entering into the temple sanctuary before finally giving way to a promenade of sky.

The cliff at Preah Vihear was its own society, with a lady selling sweet green tea and Cambodian soldiers waving at Farrah’s large-format camera, which many soldiers before them had—unfamiliar with any camera except a 35 mm—mistaken for a bomb.

Soluy, the 28-year-old daughter of a Khmer historian, was not only our guide but also our apparatus for understanding. She was well aware of her status, and full of aphorisms—what she liked to call “Soluy proverbs”.

“Kim,” she said to me near the temple entrance, after karate-kicking a Cambodian soldier sporting a traditional red-and-white checquered scarf called a krama, a beer gut and a huge rifle, “it is the Indian, not the arrow.”

The soldier, playing along with this once-in-a-lifetime attack from a Cambodian woman, blocked her gamely a split-second before her foot seemed destined to reach his face. Soluy pulled back, jogged a little in place, and then flew toward the soldier again, full throttle; he attempted to stop her kick midair by grabbing her leg and they both tumbled to the ground. At this point, I couldn’t say who was instructing who in the tactics of warfare.

“Kim,” she said to me again, grinning mischievously as she dusted herself off, “it is the arrow, not the Indian—Soluy proverb!”

The backdrop to their mock fight was a chain-link gate, looped in razor wire and shrouded by overgrown vegetation. This is the gate that, until 2008, admitted tourists to the temple from the Thai side, where the Thai government had recently completed a superhighway through the mountains to ferry tourists to Preah Vihear. Before renewed conflict over the temple closed the only Thai tourist portal, visitors to the temple from the Cambodian side had the tragicomic experience of ascending for hours on treacherous motorbikes and then clambering the last few kilometres on foot, through a jungle still peppered with unexploded landmines, only to be joined at the top by hordes of Thai tourists, immaculately free of sweat, having disembarked from airconditioned buses a stone’s throw away on the Thai side.

What happened in 2008 to warrant the gate’s closure became apparent when we paused for our fifth iced coffee of the day at a small restaurant at the temple’s base. To reach the restaurant, we had to pick our way through a rubble field strewn with trash—the remains of Preah Vihear’s former market, which was obliterated by a Thai missile a little over two years ago, not long after the World Heritage Committee added Prasat Preah Vihear to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Now the Cambodian flag flies high atop the fifth gate to the temple, flanked by two powder-blue UNESCO flags. From the vantage of this fifth gate (its image now a national icon; a kind of Cambodian Statue of Liberty, if you will) you can see a modern outpost across the border on the Thai side, Thailand’s flag held aloft in the wind, and the new bitumen highway cleanly snaking by.