preah vihear province – These days, the road to Preah Vihear temple is a carpet of asphalt, not the rutted dirt track of days past. A taxi ride from Siem Reap City takes about three hours, or you can take the bus that now arrives daily at Sra’em, a town less than 30 km from the temple.
Officials hope the recently built road, the new bus service and other changes will increase the number of tourists who come to this 11th-century temple, which currently attracts between 100 and 200 visitors a day, according to official estimates. These hopes coincide with the recent withdrawal of most Thai and Cambodian troops from the border-hugging temple, where soldiers from the two countries have faced off since July 2008, when Unesco listed the temple as a World Heritage Site.
“I think the number of tourists will increase because the road from Anlong Veng to the temple is done,” said provincial governor Oum Mara, referring to the newly built road, which runs through Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district to Siem Reap City. Mr Mara said a road from Kompong Thom province to the temple is set to be finished in 2012. He said the government wants more investment and more hotels built in the area around the temple.
“In the future, we will extend our support to local investors, and local investors will bring more international investors,” Mr Mara said, adding that the World Heritage Committee was considering the government’s master plan for the area. “We hope that the World Heritage Committee will accept our master plan, so we have funds to develop the area, and it will become like Angkor.”
Along the road from Sra’em to the temple, the government is building a museum focusing on the temple’s history that Mr Mara said will open some time next year. Workers are also busy rebuilding the long and at times precipitous road that winds up the mountain to the temple.
“We are widening the road and making it less steep to enable tour buses to go to the top and also small cars,” said Kheng Sameth, an engineer working at the mountain. He said the new road would be widened from 7 to 9 meters. Construction began about a month ago and is scheduled to be finished within two years, according to Mr Sameth, who said the $8 million project was paid for with a loan from China.
If tourists spend the night in the area after visiting the temple, they will likely do so in Sra’em, a nearby town of roughly 1,100. In the past, visitors could stay in Kor Muoy village, which was at the base of Preah Vihear mountain, but the inhabitants were gradually moved to a relocation village near Sra’em earlier this year as part of an effort to preserve the area around the temple. Now Kor Muoy is no more than a daily gathering of motortaxis waiting to ferry tourists up the mountain.
In contrast, Sra’em has flourished, with a taxi stand and a new market being built earlier this year. Paramount Angkor Express began a once-daily bus service to and from Phnom Penh in October, according to attendant Srey Lin, about the same time the road to the temple was finished. A bus leaves from Phnom Penh at 6:30 am and arrives in Sra’em at 4 or 5 pm the same day, according to Ms Lin. The same journey used to take 12 hours or more, much of it over bumpy, unpaved roads.
Business owners said the number of tourists coming to Sra’em has been increasing, as did Sra’em village chief Hem Pheut. Mr Pheut said the town would see even more tourists if the Thai-Cambodia border crossing on the Thai side of Preah Vihear temple were to open after being closed since July 2008. This was set to happen earlier this month, but the opening was indefinitely pushed back after negotiations stalled, according to officials. When it does open, Cambodian and Thai passport holders who cross the border will have a two-week visa exemption, the result of an agreement signed between the two nations last month.
Despite signs of detente between the Thai and Cambodian governments, the temple remains a conflict zone.
Andy Brouwer, product manager for Hanuman, a tour agency in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that while the new road made tour visits “much more feasible,” the temple needed permanent peace to reach its full tourism potential.
“Until the two sides categorically state that they are no longer squabbling or fighting over Preah Vihear, then it’s always going to remain a potential trouble spot that could go downhill at any stage,” Mr Brouwer said.
Major General Srey Dek, commander of RCAF’s division 3, said yesterday that there was “no tension at all” at the temple, while Chuch Phoeun, director of the Preah Vihear National Authority, said the conflict with Thailand could even prove a draw.
“This is a good place for tourism because it’s a temple that’s close to the border, and also it’s a temple that we used to have some kind of problem with Thailand, so people want to see it,” Mr Phoeun said.