choam khsan district, Preah Vihear province – After a one-year hiatus, Tang Heng is again hawking animal skins and bone carvings at the mountaintop Preah Vihear temple.
He said the closing of the Thai border, meters away from the 12th century temple’s entrance, had nearly halted the flow of visitors. Tang Heng, 35, moved to Banteay Meanchey province to sell his wares in the meantime.
“There was nothing here,” he said.
The Thai government closed its border at the temple in December 2001, claiming that Cambodians at the site were polluting a stream that ran across its border.
The border reopened at the end of May, and tourists are again streaming across the border. Ticket sales on Saturdays and Sundays are an estimated $250, said ticket vendor Chum Chamrong.
But Tang Heng and other Cambodian vendors at the temple say their worries have shifted. Now that tourists are back, taxes are up.
“If I don’t offer money to the police, they won’t let me up,” said 20-year-old Sek Chanthy, who shoots and sells Polaroid pictures at the site. He said that local authorities force him to pay about $15 a month to work.
“If we didn’t have to pay these taxes, we would make a lot of money. Now it’s day to day,” he said.
Tang Heng said he pays authorities about $9 a month. “This remote area is difficult to live in. The authorities charge so much money,” he said.
In addition, vendors said, the construction of a road up the Cambodian side of the mountain has slowed.
Travelers from the Thai side reach the temple at the end of a newly paved road, but the Cambodian path to the temple is long and potholed.
Tourists from Phnom Penh normally have to spend the night along the way, and then pay about $30 for the journey’s final leg—a 5-km, 30-minute truck ride up an incline of rubble and ruts.
“A lot of tourists come from the Thai side, but not from here,” said 25-year-old Sin Sopath, a truck driver who on average carries about one group of visitors to the temple a day.
Chun Chumrang said he hoped business would be better when authorities finish paving the mountain road. About 100 meters of road has been completed.
“Almost two years people picked up grass and cleaned up this area, and they got nothing,” said Chum Chumrang. “Now, there are still very few people moving through here.”