preah vihear temple – The road’s better than ever, the tourism office is up and running, there’s been no shelling in nearly a year. And for the handful of soldiers still stationed at Preah Vihear, the tourists this confluence of events draws is the bright point in their day.
“This year, there are more people coming to visit the temple than before. It’s great, it makes us feel less bored. Sometimes, they bring us packs of cigarettes or give us a little money,” said Duong Sokhun, a lieutenant in Brigade 3. Next to him, a pair of soldiers nodded in agreement.
For Lt. Sokhun, who has been stationed at the border temple since July 2008, the temple’s budding tourism industry has been a boon. Tourists offer him food and cigarettes; they slip him money; mostly, they give him fresh conversation and a hint of the outside world.
At any given hour, a few dozen tourists can be seen milling around the battered temple complex. There are the foreign backpackers looking for something off the beaten trail, city dwellers-Cambodian and expat alike-tired of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Mostly there are visiting families-uncles from abroad, whole clans up from the provinces, children clad in miniature military uniforms and wives beaming.
“I think this temple is just marvelous. It’s so very important for Cambodia,” said You Bunthoeun, who works with the Association Francaise de Solidarite organization in Battambang. At Mr. Bunthoeun’s side, his nephew-all starched uniformed and proper carriage-stood grinning. “I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. But there was the war,” he explained.
Steadily, the government is trying to turn the temple into a genuine tourist destination. In the last year, a standardized transportation scheme has been put into place, dozens of heritage department police officers have been posted at the temple, while construction crews steam ahead on the road leading to the top of the mountain.
“Generally, around 200 to 300 visitors visit the temple everyday,” said Hang Soth, director general of the Preah Vihear National Authority.
In the coming months, the number of tourist and heritage police will be nearly doubled from 48 to 80. Ten trucks and about 25 motorcycle taxis ply the road between the tourist office at the base of the mountain and the top as part of a test transportation program, where tourists buy trips directly from authorities.
“It’s just a pilot project. We meet every month with those drivers and police to gather their reaction,” Mr. Soth said.
The road to the temple will be finished by 2013, a better water system is being built, and staffing continues to increase as the temple gradually draws more tourists. Add in enough infrastructure, and Preah Vihear could be a viable second destination for visitors to Angkor Wat. But, for now, the tourism and the temple remain the domain of soldiers.
On a grassy patch that overlooks a Thai base in the distance, a pair of Cambodian soldiers offer their periscope to curious visitors.
“Some of them who visit us make us happy too,” said a senior officer who declined to give his name due to security concerns. Based at the temple since Dec 2009, he has seen his four children just once in the intervening years.
“Sometimes they [the tourists] bring us some cigarettes, sometimes they give us money. Mostly, they make the feeling of missing our families go away,” he said.