ta moan temple, Oddar Meanchey province – After 20 years guarding the Ta Moan temple complex and its surroundings, Nark Vong laid down his arms in 1996 along with other Khmer Rouge in the area. Now he’s back at Ta Moan, called on by the government to head the military operation at the disputed temples.
“I’m used to fighting with Thailand along the border,” Nark Vong, now the deputy commander of RCAF Region 4, said Friday from the Cambodian camp near Ta Moan temple. “I was not surprised [to be the commander]. I know this area and I am not afraid of Thailand,” he added.
Thai troops first locked Cambodia out of Ta Moan in late July and established a camp 30 meters further into land claimed by Cambodia. At the time, Nark Vong was stationed at an RCAF base in Siem Reap province’s Srey Snom district when he got a call to lead his unit of 235 troops to Ta Moan, where he said they joined 20 border police already stationed at the small and crumbling Chan temple, about 900 meters downhill from Ta Moan.
On Aug 5, Nark Vong said, he sent 100 Cambodian troops trekking up the steep ascent to the temple, which winds up a rocky ledge through thick, wet jungle. The entrance of the Cambodian troops into the area prompted the Thai soldiers to pull back from the temples, albeit just a few meters away.
Twenty Cambodian military personnel now occupy the site of the former Thai camp, stationed on a swath of large, smooth rocks. One young soldier wearing Converse sneakers patrolled the camp with a rocket launcher perched on his shoulder. Several cooking fires boiled pots of soup and rice.
But despite that initial withdrawal, Thailand still has retained control over the three Ta Moan temples, even though Cambodia claims ownership over two of them. Cambodia may have 10 heavily armed guards stationed at the entrance gate to the temples, but it is Thailand that holds the keys. Visitors from the Cambodian side currently can only gain access to the temples on weekday mornings.
On Friday afternoon, Thai tourists at the temples seemed to find Cambodian troops across the locked gate as worthy of a photo as Ta Moan itself, its cream-colored stones stacked behind them.
“It’s big,” said one Thai tourist, shouting across the divide as she described Ta Moan Thom, the largest of the three temples.
Giving her name only as Tuk, the woman said she had traveled from Bangkok that day to visit the temples for the first time in her life. With Cambodians locked out, she and three other Thai tourists were left alone inside the complex all day Friday, she said.
Tuk said she hoped Thais and Cambodians could one day visit the temples together, but added that for now it’s best to keep the entrance gate from Cambodia locked to prevent possible clashes.
“On Monday, you can come in the morning,” she shouted before clicking another photo of Cambodian troops, then turning to have her picture taken with two Thai soldiers.