PREAH VIHEAR TEMPLE- Ever since the Thai government closed the border crossing that leads to this temple just inside the Cambodian border, this has been a quiet place. But last week, the 12th-century cliff-top monument was as busy as Angkor Wat.
Some 10,000 people, according to the believable official estimate, took the newly built road to see the temple and celebrate their heritage.
For the first time, it is now possible to go by land from Phnom Penh to the temple in a single day. A 10- to 12-hour drive will deliver you right to the temple’s foot.
For officials and ordinary citizens alike, the road—like the temple—is a symbol of national pride and defiance of Thailand. When the Thais closed the border in December 2001, the visitors said proudly last week, they thought they could choke off tourism to the site—but Cambodia has proved them wrong.
On Thursday morning, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara signed a partnership agreement with Preah Vihear provincial Governor Preap Tann.
“I want to thank His Excellency Governor Chea Sophara and the people of Phnom Penh very much for coming right away to help and support us,” Preap Tann said at the ceremony. “We are a remote and poor province…. Now I have a good partner to help Preah Vihear develop for the future.”
It was Chea Sophara who, a year ago, decided something had to be done about the temple’s situation. He began taking rice to the small community that once lived off tourism here, and he raised money from private sources to build a road from the Preah Vihear provincial capital, Tbeng Meanchey, to the temple—a distance of 113 km that once took eight hours, much of it navigable only by motorbike.
The road is now nearly finished; a few bridges need to be built to ensure that it remains accessible in the rainy season. It leads through a desolate landscape of dry scrub brush, dotted occasionally by thatch-roofed huts, to a base camp below the temple. A four-wheel-drive vehicle or a steep two-hour hike will take you up another new link to the temple itself.
Municipal officials said last week that they didn’t know the total cost of the road.
Making the temple accessible also required removing 1,137 land mines and 437 pieces of unexploded ordnance—legacies of the fighting over the years by Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese and Cambodian government forces over the site, said Ny Ra, Halo Trust’s regional demining supervisor. The sides of the road up the mountain and the area around the temple are still marked off with pink ropes and red signs that warn, “Danger: mines!”
Steep stairs lined by naga balustrades lead from the Thai border to the first temple structure. A stone path leads to three other sanctuaries, each larger and more impressive than the last. All are topped with the temple’s one-of-a-kind pediments—elaborately carved triangles with flourishes at the bottom corners, utterly distinct from the lotus towers of Angkor.
The path culminates, at the fourth sanctuary, at the edge of a steep cliff that faces southward into Cambodia. The temple, a former monastery, is thought to face away from this dramatic view because its inhabitants were supposed to concentrate on internal contemplation, not external beauty.
Last week, the causeway was lined with brand-new banners of the Cambodian flag, and was choked with people. They came from all over Cambodia on trucks and motorbikes, in mini-buses and Landcruisers. Their tents, hammocks and mats covered every square centimeter of the temple, the surrounding area and the base camp.
“I have wanted to see this temple for years, but I never had a chance because there was no road and there were land mines all around the area,” Buth Yoeun, 58, from Kompong Thom town, said at the temple on Wednesday.
Buth Yoeun said she was struck nearly speechless by the sight of the temple complex.
“It is sad that our ancestors could build this but later generations could not protect it,” she said. “I want to give a message to the younger generation: This is our last opportunity to preserve it.”
The visitors heard by word of mouth that the Phnom Penh delegation was inviting all Cambodians to come along and celebrate. Kul Ching, 76, of Tbeng Meanchey, whose son is a border guard at the temple, heard about it from her neighbors. “I was born and live in the provincial capital, but I could never come here before,” she said. “Now I am very out of breath from climbing up the mountain. But I am very happy when I see the temple.”
Since the border closing, just 20 to 40 people per day, mostly students from Phnom Penh, have visited the temple, border guard Commander Un Radin said. Before the road was in place, that trip was an arduous two-day journey for anyone who couldn’t afford a helicopter.
From the temple’s base, the slick, black surface of the empty Thai road to the border is visible. When the border was open, as many as 1,000 tourists a day made the three- to four-hour trip from Bangkok to see the temple.
Thailand closed the border on Dec 17, 2001, saying that the Cambodian market at the bottom of the temple was polluting a small stream that runs over the border. However, other officials have said the real reason for the closure was the ongoing dispute between the two countries over revenues from ticket sales.
Currently, admission is free, and Chea Sophara said at the signing ceremony that money was not the point of reopening Preah Vihear.
“I didn’t come here looking for profit,” he said. “This is not a place for me to collect money from tourists. What I want to do is to show the young generation our national heritage that was built by our ancestors.”
Chea Sophara has promised a school, hospital and radio station to the people of the area. Antennas for radio and mobile phone access, constructed early last year right next to the temple, were relocated to the base of the hill after cultural officials expressed dismay at their location.
Last week, radio reception was working, but cell phones could not get a signal.
Plenty of people seem to believe the governor’s promises and are willing to take a chance on the temple’s future. Sao Phan, a 44-year-old mother of four from Kompong Cham province, moved to the base camp last April to set up a stall selling food, drinks and cigarettes.
“I was a farmer, but I didn’t have enough land. I heard that this place was developing, so I decided to move,” she said.
Since then, Sao Phan’s family has depended on the municipality’s support. They get 20 kg of rice per family per month, while the residents at the temple site get 50 kg per month.
During last week’s ceremony, Sao Phan said she made 50,000 to 60,000 riel ($12.50 to $15) per day.
In Phnom Penh, Chea Sophara has been criticized by some for leaping to the rescue of Preah Vihear when his own jurisdiction has its own share of impoverished residents. Nourith Pagna, 21, a Phnom Penh law student, said he didn’t agree.
“I think Phnom Penh can wait, while here we have to take our only chance to help,” he said. “We can put off some development of the city because the people there are still better off.”
Asked why he chose to intervene in a matter so far outside his jurisdiction, Chea Sophara said: “I am happy to do it, because I cannot be blind when our people face difficulty.”
For the temple area’s residents, forces far beyond their control have for years caused their fortunes to seesaw back and forth, leaving them weary and skeptical.
Four years ago, Ham Pha, 44, from Kandal province, moved to the military base here as a soldier. “When I came, this was all trees and jungle,” he said. “We had to cut the trees to build our houses.” He remembers two fellow soldiers who lost limbs to land mines.
As tourists began to trickle in and the market was established, Ham Pha and his wife, Heng Hor, 39, set up a food stall. For a while, Heng Hor recalled, things improved steadily; and then everything stopped.
“Business here has been quiet since the border closed,” she said. “It will be quiet again after this. If it wasn’t for the support from the city, we would leave.”