siem reap town – With the influence of the Khmer Rouge on the wane, officials still have one more enemy to contend with before they can safely re-open the historic temples of Phnom Kulen and Preah Vihear.
“We would like to open [Phnom Kulen] to tourists, but the problem is mines,” Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay said last week.
Phnom Kulen, the mythical birthplace of the Khmer Kingdom, had been fought over by government and rebel troops since 1979.
But with the Khmer Rouge military influence reduced in the last few months, and its leadership on the run, government troops are firmly in control of the mountain many consider sacred, Siem Reap provincial Police Chief Tan Chay said.
Safety, however, is another matter.
“Mines are laid along the road. If someone strays off the road, they will step on a mine,” Tan Chay said.
Preah Vihear, the 10th century mountain-top temple on the Cambodian side of the border with Thailand in Preah Vihear province, is also heavily mined. On Friday, the Council of Ministers issued a statement calling for the opening of the site. The temple—about 145 km northeast of Siem Reap town—was firmly in Khmer Rouge hands until two months ago, when defections led to the unraveling of the guerrilla movement’s grip on the area.
So Mara, director-general at the Ministry of Tourism, said he had talks in Bangkok with Thai authorities in May about opening a new border checkpoint at Preah Vihear.
He said the ministry is anxious to open both sites to tourists.
“We’re planning to work together with all the competent ministries to make sure that safety is provided,” he said. But the No 1 problem is mines, he said.
Cambodian Mine Action Center officials said last week they are working on plans to demine the former Khmer Rouge territories, but have not begun operations yet.
Toan Chay said there are no funds or plans to begin demining along the road or in the forest surrounding Phnom Kulen.
The mountain, which is located 28 km northeast of Angkor Wat, features a 900-year-old reclining Buddha and “the River of a Thousand Lingas.” The lingas, which are phallic symbols representing the Hindu god Siva, are carved into a sandstone river bed, where a few centimeters of crystal clear river water covers them.
Tan Chay said looting by soldiers, both rebel and government, has taken its toll on the temple. In 1996, his officers pursued looters who had stolen a 1.2 meter high Buddha from the sight, but they escaped by transporting it by armored personnel carrier into Thailand.
If tourists were to visit, they would have to abandon motorized transportation and walk the final 5 km due to the poor condition of the road, Tan Chay said.
Although tourists will not be permitted to visit without government approval, Cambodians are making pilgrimages to the site, he said. On May 10, about 20,000 people held a ceremony there without incident, he said.