A Change of Guard

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Monday, 23 February 2009

The battle for Prasat Preah Vihear

23rd February, 2009

Illawara Mercury (Australia)

When I decided to take on the eight-hour pilgrimage to the second most important ancient temple in Cambodia, I knew that I was in for an adventure. But I didn't realise that I would be riding into the middle of an international battle field.

Cambodian soldiers, with machines guns slung over their shoulders and grenades on standby, surrounded Prasat Preah Vihear as we approached the 900-year-old Hindu temple on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.

Some sat near the bunkers that had been built behind stone walls while others paraded up and down the street.

I took photos of the grenades and guns positioned on the stone walls in the direction of Thailand.

The sacred site has been turned into a military zone since Thailand attempted to claim the area in a battle on October 15, last year, which left one Thai and three Cambodians dead.

The Thais have stepped up their claim to the area since it was given World Heritage Status in July, last year. (Angkor Wat is the only other temple in Cambodia to be given such status.)

But I was oblivious to all of this before we set off on our motorbike journey from Anlong Veng, about 200km south-west.

Even as we approached the site we had no idea of the tension.

We chatted to Cambodian soldiers over iced coffee in a small restaurant at Sa Em, the last major town before Prasat Preah Vihear. They were friendly and wanted to have photos taken with us.

We rode past army camps just a few kilometres from the entrance to the temple site, and still we did not sense the tension.

It was not until we swapped to a more powerful motorbike and began the virtually vertical climb to the top of Dangkrek Mountain, which Prasat Preah Vihear sits atop, that I began to question what seemed like an exaggerated military guard which we had not even experienced at Angkor Wat, the most important ancient temple in the country.

My eyes grew wide and my heart raced when we passed four grenades perched on top of a wall. Then came the guns, also poised in their stands in the direction of the wild jungle. Soldiers were walking around everywhere.

Still ignorant as to the purpose of their high presence (we couldn't ask anyone as they didn't speak English and we don't speak Khmer), I felt uneasy as we explored the grand temple amongst soldiers keeping their watchful eye on us.

I relaxed a little when a group of soldiers asked to have their photo taken with me and they all took turns using a camera on their mobile phone.

It was not until we descended the mountain and could ask our motorbike driver Dan, who can speak reasonable English, what all the fuss was about that we realised we had been in such a dangerous area.

But in the end, it was just a few more anecdotes to add to what was already an adventurous trip.

Prasat Preah Vihear is one of the most difficult temples to access. It is virtually impossible in the wet season.

Jill and I rode on the back of one motorbike for four hours each way. After a few kilometres, there are no paved roads and we looked like bandits with face masks and sunglasses to keep out the dust. The ride there was tolerable as we passed new and interesting scenery and listened to Jill's ipod, but the trip back seemed like a never-ending punishment as our thighs cramped up and my butt went numb.

But during the journey home I had time to reflect on how sad I felt about such a sacred site being overrun by men in army uniform and guns instead of the peasants for whom it was built. According to the little information I could find on the internet about the conflict, the two countries are supposed to be having talks about control of the temple. Let's hope they resolve the dispute quickly, and without anymore deaths, so Cambodians can continue to follow the pilgrimage of their ancestors.

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