The metal stairway leading to Preah Vihear temple from the Thai side of the border hasn’t seen much action since Thailand decided to close the border crossing near the temple site in December 2001.
But on Jan 14 thousands of Cambodians made use of a new road that finally gives access to the 12th-century cliff-top monument from Cambodia. The road stretches north 113 km from the provincial capital, Tbeng Meanchey, to the temple site, and was built in the last year.
At the top of the mountain, Cambodians walked through the temple’s ruins and gazed out over the vast countryside to the south. At the closed gate that now marks the Thai-Cambodian border crossing, proud visitors posed for snapshots and peered into Thailand.
“I’d like to have my picture taken in front of the locked gate,” said 24 year-old Keo Sophally. “And I will tell my friends that it is closed and if they want to see the temple they have to come from the Cambodian road.”
Keo Sophally said that this was her first trip to the temple and that none of her family members had been there since before the days of the Khmer Rouge. Previously she had only seen the temple in textbooks that she had studied in school.
“Absolutely, I will come again,” she said. “I will drive up to the top by the new paved road.”
She said that she did not know why the Thais closed the border, but she hoped that it would not open again.
“I wish it would stay closed forever,” she said.
Thailand closed the border on Dec 17, 2001, saying the Cambodian market of the temple was polluting a small stream that runs over the border.
Some officials, however, have said the real reason for the closing was the ongoing dispute between the two countries over ticket sales to the temple.
But last Tuesday, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara stood at the locked gate and chatted with Japanese Ambassador Gotaro Ogawa and other Cambodian government officials.
“How can we pollute this valley when people here barely have en ugh water to drink?” Chea Sophara asked as he pointed toward the empty valley and nearly defunct market.