Cambodia Determined to Find Own Route to Development in Preah Vihear

preah vihear temple, Preah Vihear Province – It used to be easy to visit this spectacular mountaintop temple on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.

As many as 1,000 tourists a day boarded buses in Thailand, traveled on smoothly paved Thai roads, walked up the steps and started snapping pictures.

Until last Dec 17, when the Thai army closed the border at Preah Vihear, claiming Cam­bodian vendors living near the temple were polluting a stream that flows into Thai­land.

The border has stayed closed ever since.

Sure, tourists can get to the temple from the Cambodian side. But unless they rent a helicopter, they face a couple days of spine-jolting rides through former Khmer Rouge battlefields followed by a three-hour climb up a mine-infested mountain.

Now a road crew from Phnom Penh is build­ing a new highway north from the provincial capital of Tbeang Meanchey so people can get to the temple from the Cambodian side.

It may take as much as two years to finish the road, but Cambodian officials say they don’t care: they are fed up, and they no longer want another country controlling access to such an important symbol of Khmer heritage.

Dirt-poor Preah Vihear province stands to lose thousands of tourist dollars for every month the temple remains closed, but the Cambodian officials say it is worth the wait.

“The Cambodians and the Thais have argued over the Preah Vihear temple for years,” says Long Sovann, second deputy governor of Preah Vihear province.

“The Thais were very surprised that we did not care” about the border closure, he says with a grin. “They are surprised that we are so strong and are working so hard on development.

“But if we don’t take care of the temple, we are afraid the Thais will look down on us and our heritage.”

Others are more blunt. “They are collecting money from our ancestors, and I don’t like it,” said Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, who is sending men, money and equipment to Preah Vihear to build the new road.

Thai embassy officials declined to comment on the situation.


Preah Vihear is potentially a money machine second only to Angkor Wat, and both countries know it.

Before the border closed, despite few development or promotion efforts, the Cambodians and Thais were splitting annual ticket receipts of at least $130,000, with Cambodia getting 70 percent and the Thais 30 percent.

But Thai interest in the temple has always been a sore spot with Cambodia. The countries have argued for years over who should control the site, which Thai soldiers occupied several times before the World Court ordered it returned to Cambodia in 1962.

The issue arouses strong passions among many Cambodians, who consider Preah Vihear an important symbol of Khmer sovereignty.

It doesn’t help that most quarrels at Preah Vihear erupt between soldiers from each country posted at the border, who rarely wait for diplomatic instructions before reacting. Since the border was closed, gunfire has erup­t­ed at least once, although no one was hurt.

Twice during the past decade, the two countries have tried to cooperate to run the site as a tourist destination. It seemed like a good idea: Cambodia had no money, and Thai tourists were eager to visit.

The first attempt, in 1992, fell apart when the Khmer Rouge regained control of the mountain. The second lasted from 1998 until last December, but the relationship was always volatile.

Cambodian officials who work too closely with the Thais do so at their peril. When former Ministry of Tourism general director So Mara signed a joint-operation deal with Thai­land last year, he was denounced by parliamentarians and fired, and the deal was voided.

Oblivious to the tension, tourists flock to Preah Vihear whenever they can. When it reopened in 1998, up to 30,000 people a day


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