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Mines and dust

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Recently (April 2009) there has been fighting on the Cambodian Thai border as a months old standoff between the countries over the 900AD Preah Vihear temple has boiled over. I decided to travel by moped, with a guide, to the temple to get the layman's view of what this is about.

We set off from Siem Reap at dawn. Two of us, one Cambodian, one British, on two mopeds with two small backpacks. We drove north out of Siem Reap past the awe inspiring Angkor temples and onto the dirt road that leads north up to Anlong Veng. I had checked a few of the real-time travel advice sites like Journeywatch.com, prior to our departure. Besides a mention of the possibility that shooting could start with little warning in the Preah Vihear area there was nothing to suggest that the situation was any worse than normal that day. We weren't going to reach Preah Vihear until the following day anyway so things could change.

We motored all day up the rutted and badly potholed dirt road until we reached Anglong Veng, just before sundown. We checked into a small, dirty guesthouse and, feeling saddle sore from so many hours on small bikes, we decided to go for a walk through the centre of the village. Many of the shops on what loosely fitted the description of a highstreet were open and selling food. We stopped at one of the shops and bought some local tortoise meat (sorry tortoise, they told me after I'd started eating..), rice and vegetables. The locals seemed friendly although I had been warned that the village had been Pol Pot's final stronghold - until fairly recently people from other parts of Cambodia hadn't dared to come here - so it was unwise to enter into any political discussions on the evils of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot was revered here as the Great Uncle.

After dinner, and politics carefully skirted, we returned to the guesthouse and to our basic rooms. Still, all the hours on the moped that day made the thought of a plank bed for the night seem appealing. After many hours of mosquito swatting and a fitful sleep I awoke the next morning to a glorious dawn. I walked outside the guesthouse as soon as I woke up and witnessed a huge orange sun ascending over the wild Cambodian bush, the Dangkrek ridge glowing with a red hue to the north.

After a breakfast of boiled eggs, sweet tea and some local sight-seeing to visit the house of the last Khmer Rouge leader, Ta Mok (he was in prison in Phnom Penh), we packed up, started up the mopeds and got back onto the dirt road going north. It wasn't long before we were cruising along with orangey brown plumes of dust swirling out in our wakes.

After a lunch stop at a crossed roads in the middle of nowhere, we continued on our way to the temple. By now the road had turned east and we were riding along the bottom edge of the impressive Dangkrek escarpment. Both sides of the road had minefield warning signs, so we didn't venture off the track, even when stopping to answer a call of nature.

After some hours we reached a junction in the track and turned northwest towards a small settlement at the foot of the ridge that led up to the temple. Having got to the settlement Sothy, my guide and interpreter, told me that we need to leave our mopeds here because we would have to ride up the escarpment on heavy chain motorcycles. The heavy chain was needed because the hill was very steep. We saw some Cambodian Army soldiers at this stage but they didn't seem too bothered about the presence of a tourist. So we got on the back of two heavy chain bikes and rode up to the top. It was then that we had our first glimpse of the magnificent Preah Vihear temple.

At first glance the temple is more ruined than many of the temples closer to Siem Reap, but there is no disguising its Angkorian style and design, though in keeping with the sheer creative genius of that era 1000 years ago, the temple is totally unique. The main temple sits on the top and edge of the Dangkrek ridge. From it there are spectacular views over the vast forests of northern Cambodia. Running north and down the ridge towards the Thai border, there are a series of lesser temples, processional staircases, terraces and ornamental ponds. One can see why such a treasure would cause a dispute though quite how it could be claimed not to belong to the descendants of the Khmer empire, the Cambodians, it is hard to understand.

There were soldiers at various places in among the ruins. They all carried AK47s, rocket propelled grenade launchers and other weapons. On a hill very close by and north of the temple, there flew a Thai flag. I assumed this was where the Thai soldiers were based. We eventually spent a night in the Preah Vihear area. Nothing happened, no gunfire, so it was sad to hear subsequently - a few weeks later - that violence had errupted and the settlement had been burnt down. The rest of the journey was just as interesting, back through the Koh Kae temple area, that if it wasn't for the mines, could almost match Angkor for its array of unique temples.

It had been a trip I will never forget.

permalink written by  Trout58 on April 9, 2009 from Siem Reap, Cambodia
from the travel blog: Flashpoint: It's only a Temple!!
tagged Cambodia, PolPot and PreahVihearTemple

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