By: Michelle Tolson

Pictures of ancient Preah Vihear Temple are heavenly. When talking about the temple, many Cambodians become just as mystical. Though not too many have made the trek yet, they do have opinions. 

“I hear it is so beautiful,” said a tourism worker in Siem Reap. Of course he had been to his city’s famous temples but felt certain Preah Vihear’s sunrise and sunset were “more beautiful” than Angkor Wat’s and planned to travel to see it.

Cambodians’ access to their famous temple has been hard won from their perspective. While UNESCO ruled that Preah Vihear was a “Cambodian” World Heritage site in 2008, armed border skirmishes broke out after Thaialnd proclaimed otherwise. On November 11, 2013, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Cambodia, supporting its intent to develop the region into a tourist site and bring in much needed revenue. 

While the ruling has not generated armed confrontation, bitter words have been expressed on the Thai side and armed Cambodian guards continue live on site at the temple. The area awaits any significant tourism development which would bring international visitors, though it is accessible. Western embassies such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom still advise against travel to Preah Vihear.

There is little information published on travel to the temple, but online forums mention taking shared taxis, minivans or buses from Siem Reap to neighboring cities, such as Anlong Veng or Preah Vihear city (both said to be 100km from the temple), and then motor bikes or shared taxis to Sra Em town, which rests just 20-some kilometers from the base of the temple.

The iconic national symbol, resting on the border of Northern Cambodia, has been disputed by the Thais. This is attributed to the changing border demarcations over the years which included a stint where Cambodia lost sovereignty over their world famous Angkor Wat. A deal brokered between former colonialist power France and Thailand, returned to the temple to the Khmers, but Preah Vihear temple, which pre-dates Angkor Wat, remained contentious.

The temple became especially emotionally charged during the Khmer Rouge years when refugees fled the country across the heavily mined Dangrek Mountains. Dith Pran, whose story was featured in the movie the Killing Fields, famously survived the passage across Dangrek but lost a young boy entrusted in his care to a land mine. 

Thousands more died when Thailand forcibly repatriated refugees back across the mountain at Preah Vihear, which to this day is still infested with land mines. Eyewitness accounts claim those desperate enough to try to return were shot by Thai soldiers, according to the CWC International organization, which represented war crime claims made by Cambodians.

Cambodian-American Reacxmey described this when interviewed for a story on the “Vietnam War” in 2013 and its impact on Cambodians. 

Reacxmey recounted a childhood of fleeing from one side of “Land Mine Garden” to another after her family was ejected from refugee camps which continued past the much-documented Preah Vihear incident in 1979. 

Therefore, it is not a stretch to understand why the temple holds a powerful place in Cambodians’ hearts.

While there this past week, I only saw one other Western traveler, a young Australian bicycling his way around Southeast Asia. There were a few carloads of visiting eastern Asian travelers, namely Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and of course domestic tourists.

The countryside has a beautiful untouched feeling as development is sparse and the population density low. The tree-covered mountains are a rich dark green, a rarity in a country that has lost much of its original forest. Signs at the base of the mountain in English and Khmer implore viewers to respect the forest. 

At the base is also where you will buy a ticket for transport up the newly built Cambodian-side road to the temple. It costs $5 round trip by motor bike or $25 in the back of a truck. On a bike, it’s a bit bone-jarring traveling up but the views are striking (though I’ll admit to being spooked on the steep descent).

Once you arrive at the temple, the families of soldiers can be seen living on the grounds. The wives informally sell soda and other drinks, or food. The children run around playing. When they saw me, they assertively demanded “loi,” grasping my hand and pointing to my palm to get their point across.

Roth, owner of Angkor Park guesthouse in Siem Reap (not to be confused with Rotha the motor bike driver), told me, “Do not give them money. Once you give them money, you kill their future life. They won’t want to work.” 

She knows, having made the trip herself as her husband is a guard at the border. She suggests, if people want to help the children they bring learning materials instead of money. Indeed, research by Project Childhood Prevention Pillar, posted on Child Safe Tourism, notes that, “Almost all tourists (95 percent of those surveyed) encountered local children and many interactions left tourists feeling sad, guilty, concerned and disappointed” because they are not sure how to respond.

“If you really want to help the children,” Roth said, “help their families.” Soldiers make just $80 to $150 a month and run low on supplies. Warm wraps or scarves for when the weather is cooler are needed. 

“Sometimes they get cold at night.” Plastic rain jackets are helpful too, which cost about $1 each. The travel forums mention locals bringing cigarettes and money to the soldiers, which Roth says is common as well. Some foreign travelers describe these as “bribes”, but Cambodians see it as supporting soldiers on a hardship post.

As I made my way up the pathway, I met a border policeman who was monitoring the Thai side through his telescope and he showed me a look. While I could only make out a distant Thai border post on a hill, he assured me there were people there.

Was everything okay?

“Everything is okay. No problems now,” he said.

The temples are striking, resting on the mountaintop and overlooking inspiring views.

There are various alters to offer incense and a donation to the temple. In one temple, I witnessed an orange-robed monk blessing a family’s son. As I tiptoed past to put in my donation, the father suddenly reached his arms through the window to capture the blessing on his smart phone. The monk did not flinch, as after all, he was a modern monk himself, just in his 20s.

When I came to a lookout point with amazing views, I joked with a group of soldiers who were in a jovial mood.

After mentioning I was a journalist there to write about the temple a soldier nodded and said, “I understand!” Then he took a deep breath and dramatically gestured with a flourish to the tree-covered hills to one side: “Cambodia!” He then pointed to the more developed side: “Thailand!”

Michelle Tolson blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement