Dodging bullets on the Thai-Cambodia border

Dodging bullets on the Thai-Cambodia border

The recent ceasefire between Cambodia and Thailand allows a former UN official to recount his two trips, 17 years apart, to the hotly contested Preah Vihear temple

Preah Vihear temple-Cambodia historyThe current ceasefire makes it easier for tourists to visit Preah Vihear, but be aware that military action could restart at any moment.In 1993, I was part of the first group of foreigners to climb up to the Preah Vihear temple from the Cambodian side since the French in the 1960s.

Cambodia and Thailand have been in conflict over the beautiful, and strategically located temple for centuries.

A 1962 World Court ruling gave the 11th-century Hindu temple, perched on the edge of the Don Krek Mountain cliffs, to the Cambodians, whose country occupies the flat rice-bowl landscape some 1,500 feet below.

In 2008, UNESCO named the temple a World Heritage site, further cementing its status on Cambodian soil and eventually leading the two sides to begin fighting over the prized real estate.

The current round of armed conflict, which began February 4, has left several people dead and the temple damaged.

Even though a ceasefire has been announced, the chance of violence flaring up again is high. That's a shame, because I have fond memories of the place and returned recently with my family. 

Locals and landmines

My trip to the temple in 1993 was as a UN official based in the village of Cheom Ksan, in one of Cambodia's most remote areas. I had the mandate to register, educate and poll any potential Cambodian voters who called the Preah Vihear temple home.

That New Year's Day mission, with Pakistani UN peacekeepers and my Cambodian election team, had the goal of registering the few Cambodians who lived up on the top of the cliff among the ruins to vote in the historic June 1993 election.

After a sweaty hike up hundreds of overgrown ancient Khmer stone steps, with landmines on either side, we "summited" to a shocking sight -- there were swarms of Thai tourists, who could drive right up to the border, only a few meters from the temple, for a day of sightseeing.

While we were grateful for the ice-cold Diet Cokes for sale at the temple entrance, none of which we had down in the Cambodian villages below, and we registered a few voters, I hiked back down knowing what a tinderbox this could become with a proper spark.

With landmines on either side, we ‘summitted’ to a shocking sight -- swarms of Thai tourists.— Brooks Entwistle, former UN official

Return to Preah Vihear

Ironically, it was a flare up in 2008 that enabled me to go back to the Preah Vihear temple last November, 17 years later, with my three young daughters and wife in tow.

Over the last two years the Cambodian government has built an impressive network of roads around the border areas, with the help of Chinese construction companies, in order to move troops and resources quickly to the frontier.

The trip north from Siem Reap to the Preah Vihear temple, a journey that took several bone-jarring days in a UN jeep (or a Russian-piloted UN helicopter ride) when I was there, is now totally doable.

I had regaled my daughters with stories of how remote and exotic my village and the temple were, but as we drove up perfectly paved roads that I remembered as rutted out ox cart paths, I thought I was in for a major paternal credibility test.

Thankfully, my village was still well off the main highway and still just a series of paths.

I was able to find one of my original UN team leaders, Phalla, (many others had perished during the Khmer Rouge occupation of the village not long after the UN pulled out, or had been killed by land mines) and the young girl, Somaly, whose parents had rented me a room in their traditional home on stilts and now run the village's only guest house.

It was an emotional reunion, and my daughters, who were born in Hong Kong and New York and have grown up in Mumbai, asked if we could move there given all the space, greenery and live animals wandering the village paths.

Ancient history meets modern warfare

Leaving the village behind, we headed west to Preah Vihear temple where my stories of an Indiana Jones-esque hike up the cliff in 1993 were called into question as we were able to drive up a recently built series of switchbacks whose sole purpose was to provide easy military access to the sliver of land that the Cambodians hold at the top of the cliff.

On that peaceful day in November, we were the only tourists as my daughters walked playfully among the ruins and between the Cambodian army trenches and the Thai bunkers across the valley.

They explored this pristine temple, far removed from the crowds around the over-run temples at Angkor Wat, and we gazed over the edge of the cliff with my former home Cheom Ksan in the distance.

After proving to the girls that the stone steps were still there and that the road did not exist on my previous trip, we hopped in the bed of our 4x4 pick-up and had a roller-coaster ride back down the mountain, again struck by how close the Cambodian and Thai people and soldiers were living to each other.

Tour Khmer Rouge remnants

To close the adventure loop, we headed west again to Anlong Veng, the final resting place of Pol Pot and the last Khmer Rouge redout.

This was the only area that the UN could not get into in 1993 and was the village from which the Khmer Rouge launched a last ditch attack on Cheom Ksan 10 days before the historic election. That attack was rebuffed by the UN Pakistani soldiers who protected our outpost and team.

In Anlong Veng you can tour the home of Ta Mok, the one-legged Khmer Rouge general who created havoc in the district next door both while I lived there, and for five years after I left. Other sites include Pol Pot's grave and various grisly Khmer Rouge last-stand reminders.

From Anlong Veng it is a two-hour drive south back to Siem Reap, finishing a 14-hour loop of seeing some of Cambodia's most remote and historically significant terrain.

Brooks Entwistle is India country head for a major financial services firm based in Mumbai who served with UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority For Cambodia) in Cambodia from 1992-93. Brooks and his wife Laura are very involved in Room To Read (www.roomtoread.org) and one of the goals of the trip was to give something back to the village in the form of books and a library via RTR.


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