Arts, Culture & Media

Cambodia and Thailand at Odds Over an Ancient Temple

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Photo: Jake Warga)

by Jake Warga

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A decades-long border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia could be resolved soon.

Then again, don't count on it.

At the heart of the matter is the 11th-century temple of Preah Vihear. It's in Cambodia, but right on the border between the two nations, and Thailand claims it too.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled in Cambodia's favor. Now the court is expected to rule on the matter again following deadly clashes a few months ago between Thai and Cambodian troops at the border.

The temple of Preah Vihear sits not too far from Cambodia's most visited tourist site – the temple of Angkor Wat. Although an abandoned ruin, it's being lazily fought over.

The Cambodian army is occupying the site, the Thai army, positioned just on the next ridge, shoot at it. The Cambodians shoot back.

Both sides have experienced losses. The temple has changed hands many times since 1907 when the French drew the border, but in 1962 The Hague awarded custody of the temple to Cambodia.

But the solid border on Google maps becomes a dash through the area once you zoom in. I decided to zoom in, see it for myself

My interpreter, I'll call him Chenda, and I arrived to Preah Vihear after a four-hour drive from the tourist Mecca of Seem Reap. I paid in cigarettes to get through the military checkpoints.

After a moped ride up the tall mountain, it was on foot the rest of the way. I talked to the first encampment of soldiers we came to, positioned up an ancient walkway of stones

This soldier greeted us wearing full camouflage, save for flip-flops. He handed me an exploded shell casing

"This one made in America, donated from America to the Thai," he told me.

The US supplies Thailand with arms. Cambodians use old Russian weapons. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Ghosts of the cold war also occupy this site.

The soldier is sad because he lost his brother a couple of days ago during fighting with Thailand. He showed me a 155mm shell. It was made in the US as well.

Up the next set of stone stairs, plants battling through the cracks, I enter a maze of ornately carved walls, I side-step a large pool of dried blood on the holy stone floor. This is where the brother died.

I follow limping drops of blood to where the piece of angry shrapnel must have pierced his flesh in a deafening instant. There's a large crater where it landed. Bullet holes land only on the sides facing Thailand, but shells can land anywhere.

Ancient walls can survive history, but flesh never does.

I climb down into a fortified bunker, the communications room. Because the Cambodians are the same people as the Thai and speak the same language, they're using a landline network so the enemy can't monitor them.

It's Vietnam-era technology with wires sprawling everywhere. A dark green switchbox is on the table, complete with guitar-plug sized patch cables.

It turns out that the radio isn't the only thing from that era, the bunker itself was built by the Vietnamese during occupation.

I asked the soldier manning the radios why he came here, still trying to find out what all the fighting is about. He told me that he came here to protect Khmer lands.

Monks used to have a complex down near the entrance, but it was bombed. So they moved into their ancestors' mostly crumbled stone temple at the very top of the mountain. I asked them if they were worried about being shot.

In 2008 the temple was placed on the list of UNESCO world heritage Sites. But it's more than just belief in international protection, it's a belief that they are protected in the holy site because it's holy.

"All of the bullets will be going away from this area from the spirits, from the gods, by the praying of the monks," one of the soldiers told me. "By praying that it will get full of peace to come live here."

The army sleeps close-by, set-up inside ancient arches facing the temple, it is not a comfortable life. There's a lack of water, small cooking tins littered about, and rice laid-out to dry so it can be used again.

Religion helps fill the cracks of suffering and soldiers come often to pray.

The monk's biggest complaint is the lack of water. Mostly they have to carry it up in huge drums, or pump rain water that's collected in large ceremonial pools.

They're using the same technology to capture water as their ancestors did over 1000 years ago. I asked the monk if he knew anything about the history, of their ancestors. He didn't.

Defending ruins raises the question: Can you destroy a place that's already destroyed? It was abandoned for many reasons: kings loose allegiance, monks can't afford to maintain things and natural resources are depleted.

Squatting in ruins, ignorant of history, is a doomed formula for repeating it. No one I talked with knew the history of the temple, just that it's something they have to defend. So what are they really fighting over?

Tourism is the biggest economic generator today. Cambodia and Thailand have both been trying to build a road to this temple. But I don't see how the two roads, the two countries, will never meet since they drive on opposite sides.

I head back to the comforts of Angkor Wat, to surround myself by fellow tourists and to take a long shower.

Today, Angkor Wat is a temple of commerce, of tourism. A private Vietnamese company leases the land from the government and is making a fortune, charging $20 a day to visit the ruins, an absurd amount in Cambodia.

It's estimated that only 28 percent of that money makes it to the local people, in the form of jobs sweeping-up leaves and litter.

Martin Polkinghorn is an Australian archeologist studying Khmer art. I met him in Siem Reap after I visited Angkor Wat like a good tourist. I asked if he knew what the fighting in Preah Vihear is really about,

"It links into contemporary politics really, and also the politics of heritage," he told me. "The government of Thailand itself uses that as almost a diversion of issues back in Thailand, so they're happy to keep it going and I think the same happens in Cambodia as well. Thai nationalists believe they own the temple and Khmer believe they own the temple."

There's a war going on here in Angor Wat too, but it's harder to see because it's just below the surface: Siem Reap, the modern city serving Angkor Wat is draining the water table below it.

An estimated 1.6 million tourists came to the city last year, and most during the dry season. The area is hot, and tourists love to take showers. Can you hear the ghosts of a civilization?

"There are clear environmental lessons to be learned from Angkor and the collapse of Angkor, certainly over-utilization of the environment," Martin Polkinghorn said. "It's a broader lesson for paying attention to the environment, the environment is a more powerful force than humans can control."

Crews are shoring up the ruins as the ground beneath them is sinking.
The ghosts of history are at work here, but despite their screams, we fail to hear them. I take photos like a good tourist and there are thousands doing the same.

I don't see much point. We all see the place, but no one's listening to it.