Preah Vihear temple – The border gate remains closed at Preah Vihear temple as a handful of Cambodian and Thai troops continue to lounge about in the dry season heat, napping in hammocks or dealing cards on bamboo tables.
A bed of crinkled brown leaves has nested in the loops of razor wire that engulf the border gate since tensions led to a gun battle in mid October. What isn’t blanketed by fallen foliage is often covered by trash.
With calm having returned since the Oct 15 fight that left at least 4 men dead, so have the vendors at the small market at the base of the temple stairway. All but abandoned several months ago, the market environment is largely back to normal, save one important facet: customers, particularly the Thai tourists and other foreign visitors that largely fueled the commerce there.
With their buyers gone, vendors are having a harder time affording potable water, and with about two months left in the dry season, both residents and soldiers say water is the biggest issue confronting all who live near the temple.
“We are facing problems with water. There are no water resources here; you can’t even dig wells,” said First Lieutenant Sreng So, a Brigade 911 paratrooper stationed near the base of the temple steps, right at the frontline of the disputed border. During the rainy season “there was lots of water, but now it’s almost dried up.”
Troops stationed in sandbagged bunkers directly at the disputed border, often mere meters from similar Thai encampments, are forced to hike through the forest to the disputed Veal Entry, of Eagle Field, area to collect water. Sreng So said Friday that collecting just 30 liters of usable water takes two to three hours.
Atop the mountain, troops are facing similar problems. Soldiers say that the only sources of water on the peak are two 800-year-old manmade pools, but they have pretty much run dry.
On Friday, there were shallow puddles of water darkening the bottoms of the two Angkorian pools, remnants of a two-hour rain that fell at the mountain on Wednesday.
In the larger of the two pools, Staff Sergeant Heang Bunthorn, 39, patiently collected water from a small puddle using the sliced off top of a plastic bottle. There was a larger puddle in the manmade pond, but it was too fetid to use.
“The water is so itchy,” Heang Bunthorn said of the larger puddle. The water in the tiny puddle he was collecting from “has dripped in, so we can use this, we can cook with this,” he said.
A krama wrapped round his head to fend off the midday sun, he slowly skimmed water from the top of the puddle so as to not kick up sediment. He said that it takes about an hour to collect a 20-liter bucket-full of translucent brown water.
Kot Navy, 47, was among the first three vendors to return to the market after the fighting of Oct 15 scared sellers away. A fruits and vegetables vendor at the temple for many years, she said water has been a constant problem for those who live at the Preah Vihear.
“The most important thing is water,” she said. “We have a problem. We don’t have anywhere to store water.”
At present the only way for vendors to get water is to purchase it from Cambodian firms that occasionally truck it up to the temple. Beside her stall, Kot Navy had 250 liters of water which she said cost her about 250,000 riel (about $62.50), a heavy toll given that her sales are down about 70 percent compared to the days before the July closing of the border gate.
“Before it was easy,” she said. “We’d buy water from Thailand which was cheaper.”
Provincial RCAF commander Lieutenant General Srey Dek said by telephone Sunday that military officials were working tirelessly to satisfy the water needs of troops at the temple.
“We are working night and day to bring water for the soldiers until they have enough water,” he said, adding that the military has been stepping up the number of water deliveries.
But beyond the issue of finding water, a stable, if slightly uneasy, peace has returned to the cliff-top temple.
Only 38 Cambodian troops and 38 Thai troops remain in close proximity at the border, according to Sreng So, with the rest having pulled back a few hundred meters to newly fortified positions. No longer does one see troops sauntering around the temple grounds with rocket launchers slung over their shoulders.
Cambodian tourists scramble over the ruins, which have been significantly cleaned up in recent months, and new wooden staircases are being erected so visitors can bypass the treacherous, centuries-old stairs. Although without Thai tourists the ruins are much quieter than they were previously, allowing a visitor to find himself completely alone within temple sanctuaries.
Many vendors have returned and the market is abuzz with activity, even if it pales compared to what one would have found a year ago. Vendors and border police said that more than half of all sellers have reopened their stalls, but they are now struggling to make ends meet.
Mert Sokthy, 35, has been at the market for nine years, selling small sculptures and animal parts, such as pangolin skins. She said that in the days when Thai tourists flooded the market she could make as much as $55 in a day, but now a good day is about $5 in sales. “We can’t sell anything because not to many people visit here,” she said.
Vendor Kot Navy said that in addition to having fewer buyers, vendors have had to lower their prices because Cambodian soldiers—their new main customers—just don’t have the deep pockets that Thai tourists did.
“Here I make less money in terms of revenue,” she said, “but I can’t just sit here and wait for donations…. We want just enough profit to survive.”