preah vihear temple – A blast of color cut through the swathes of camouflage uniforms around the heavily militarized Preah Vihear temple last weekend as a group of ladies wearing a mix of blue, yellow, and pink sarongs and comfortable pants strolled past machine-gun bunkers.
In more certain times, they would have passed for tourists; though there haven’t been many of those as a nine-month military buildup drags on and they may become even rarer following the latest bloody fighting at the temple Friday.
However, the colorfully dressed women strolling along the road near the front line at Veal Entry are engaged in their own informal tour of duty, and are part of a small detachment of army wives—and a few children—who now live on the mountain, and keep the home front safe as their husbands deal with the border.
“I came here to either live or die with my husband,” said Lay Mom, as she unpacked an assortment of fresh vegetables from a plastic bag and rearranged packs of cigarettes and other consumer knick-knacks —single-sachet shampoos, soft drinks, tins of condensed milk—on a bamboo platform that served as her battlefield mini-mart half-way up the mountain near Veal Entry valley.
The 46-year-old housewife from Banteay Meanchey province has been at Preah Vihear mountain for almost as long as her soldier husband has served here, and is one of at least 30 other women who have set up home—and several vending stalls to keep busy and earn a bit of money—near their men-folk.
Mrs Lay Mom’s two sons, 15 and 17, are with their grandmother in Banteay Meanchey, and she intends on staying as long as her husband is stationed at Preah Vi-hear, though she admits that she isn’t one for fighting.
“I was so afraid I ran into the trench and was shivering,” she said of last Friday’s hour-long battle, motioning to nearby foxholes and log-and-sandbag dugouts.
In the early 1970s, journalists wrote mournfully of the rag-tag gaggles of wives and children that followed the army units of General Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic into battle against North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces. Underpaid, if paid at all, the families of the poor soldiers of the failing Republic had nowhere else to go, so they stayed close to their men as they marched into battle.
The situation is a lot different on Preah Vihear mountain, where the frontline wives are far safer and more comfortable, and have spotted good business opportunities by setting up shop where there are hundreds of frequently bored troops with money to buy cigarettes or perhaps even splash out on a bar of soap.
A second roadside shop, fashioned from rough-hewn wood and bamboo near Veal Entry and operated by a young army wife swinging in a hammock, sells strong Vietnamese-style coffee, served in a tall glass with sweet milk and a generous amount of crushed ice—a prized commodity that is still transported by refrigerated truck on the bumpy road, a more than two-hour drive from Anlong Veng town.
Colorful sarongs are one thing, but some of the women at Preah Vihear are as experienced at soldiering as their serving husbands, said Major General Srey Dek, chief of RCAF operations at Preah Vi-hear, who estimated that between 20 and 30 wives are with their husbands, though he added that there were no children accompanying them.
“Some soldiers’ wives fight even stronger than their husbands, and some can even fire B rockets,” he said, using the model number for RCAF’s shoulder-fired grenade launchers. This isn’t the first conflict that the women had been present at either, Srey Dek said.
“During the days of fighting,” he continued, referring to the country’s civil war, “they were staying with their husbands. They are former Khmer Rouge and government soldiers. They are former women fighters and sometimes we [men] couldn’t fire as fast as they do,” he said.
Nine months in, RCAF wives are not the only people drawn to the conflict at Preah Vihear.
A relative business boom has developed amid the military build-up at the once sleepy, crossroads town of Sra Em, located around 12 km from Preah Vihear mountain. Last year, before Thai troops laid claim to the land around the temple, Sra Em had little more to offer than one guesthouse and one small family-run restaurant.
Kao Lung, Choam Ksan district governor, in which Sra Em is lo-cated, said he has proposed making Sra Em the district’s main town.
Two guesthouses are in operation, and a third is under construction; a new market is also being built, and several restaurants are doing good business in Sra Em, said Kao Lung, noting that the current district town, 25 km away on the road to Tbeng Meanchey, isn’t so thriving.
“From my personal observation, Choam Ksan district town is quiet and the population is crowded at Sra Em,” he added, estimating that more than 5,000 people have moved to the area since last year, bringing the nonmilitary population to some 30,000 people.
“When there are more [military] forces then the food consumption increases, so people can do good business,” he said.
And there are other anomalies at Preah Vihear: The Khmer-speaking ethnic Khmer troops of the Thai army who chat with Cambo-dians soldiers during the long per-iods of calm between their short, deadly clashes. The post-fighting jocular meetings between Thai and Cambodian commanders, and for at least two soldiers last week, the chance to become spectators in their own battle.
RCAF private Jon Oun, 36, was hunkered down behind sandbags in front of the temple market when Friday’s clash broke out. As Thai rockets and mortars targeted the rickety, warren-like marketplace, setting it ablaze, Jon Oun put his AK-47 rifle to the side and took out his Nokia cell phone.
Pointing his phone in the direction of the plumes of smokes rising from the market, he took aim and squeezed the phone’s video record button.
“I took the risk,” he said Satur-day, opening the phone’s video files to look at his handiwork as jittery soldiers gathered around him, all the time looking up at the Thai lines on a nearby ridge. Another RCAF soldier came out from be-hind some other sandbags saying that he, too had recorded the market fire, but that it was lost or stolen after the fighting died down.
“But the shooting was much louder than that,” Jon Oun said, as he strained to listen to his Nokia’s unclear rendition of the battle.
“I wanted to share this with my relatives,” he said of his video, which he said is now an important part of Cambodian history.
Placing the phone back in the pocket of his combat trousers, Jon Oun and the troops around him then turned to matters of more immediate importance, such as the lack of clean water and an inability to hunt down a decently cooked meal now that the market has burned down.
“Even though we have money, we can’t buy anything to eat,” he said, grumbling that it would be back to army rations of dried noodles and tinned sardines.