Preah Vihear, the most impressive temple complex in Cambodia outside of the Siem Reap monuments, has been virtually closed to tourists for nearly two months.
Based on recent reports, that may be good. As recently as Jan 21, an argument between Thai and Cambodian soldiers stationed near the mountaintop temple erupted in gunfire.
No one was hurt, and both sides are claiming the other started it. But it’s clear that, while the argument continues, both countries are losing tourism revenue and stalling plans to develop the area. Meanwhile, a small village of Cambodians near the temple entrance has been left with little food and no way to make a living.
Chea San, deputy police chief for Preah Vihear province, said Tuesday that the Thais claim the January flare-up occurred after Cambodian police challenged Thai soldiers to a shootout.
Cambodian police say the two groups argued in front of the temple, and that Thai soldiers fired about 30 rounds from a machine gun into the air.
Disputes at Preah Vihear are nothing new. Thailand and Cambodia have quarrelled over the temple for more than 40 years. The problem is the temple’s location atop the Dangrek mountain range that marks the border between Thailand and Cambodia.
Both countries have claimed the temple, a conflict resolved in 1962 when an international court ruled in Cambodia’s favor. But the dispute continues, based on a quirk of geography: The temple is on Cambodian soil, but entrance is easier from Thailand.
Approaching from the Cambodian side is difficult. The area is still mined, and visitors must scale a steep hillside.
In recent years, about 300 Cambodians have built a small village near the entrance, where they sell food and souvenirs. Last December, Thai authorities accused the villagers of polluting a stream that runs into Thailand and closed the border crossing that serves the temple.
“We have had virtually no tourists since the checkpoint closed,” said Preah Vihear province First Deputy Governor Bun Sovann. He said ticket revenues were no higher than $600 to $800 per month before the closing. That is dwarfed by ticket sales for the temples at Siem Reap, which last year earned $7.2 million, according to Bun Narith, director-general of the Apsara Authority.
Var Kim Hong, director of the Joint Border Committee at the Council of Ministers, said no talks on Preah Vihear have been scheduled between the two governments and none are planned.
Chuch Phoeurn, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, said a group met last week at the Council for Development of Cambodia to discuss proposals from Sokimex to invest in both Preah Vihear and the Sambor Prei Kuk temples in Kompong Thom province.
The Preah Vihear project reportedly would include a hotel, a golf course and other facilities. Sokimex President Sok Kong said it is only a proposal at this point.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara recently visited Preah Vihear. “I learned that people living near the temple were having trouble getting food or medical supplies,” he said, adding that some friends are going to provide them food, clean water and a school.
Chea Sophara has also agreed to build a 113-km road from Tbeng Meanchey to the temple.
The road would be a much better Cambodian route for visitors and perhaps eliminate the need for a Thai-Cambodian joint operation. A rough road should be completed by Khmer New Year, he said.
(Reporting by Jody McPhillips, Thet Sambath and Kay Kimsong)