There’s yet more trouble on the border, this time at Ta Krabey and Ta Moan, disputed ancient temple sites about 150km west of Preah Vihear temple where the last episode of fighting occurred in February and when at least eight people were killed. Already several soldiers have lost their lives at Ta Krabey and rockets are being fired over the border but it’s not clear in which direction, nor who started the conflict this time. The dispute at Preah Vihear had been on going since July 2008. The border is unclear in many areas between Thailand and Cambodia and temple sites are places of great historic interest, coveted by both sides for their archeological value and for their potential to attract tourism. Artillery and gunfire will hardly do that however. Nor will the landmines extensively planted in the border areas.
Easter Sunday morning I travelled with my friend Oly back from a medical meeting in Battambang where we had been giving a presentation on VSO’s work in Banteay Meanchey province, mine from the perspective of a new, short-term volunteer. Oly has to continue his journey beyond Sisophon to Thmar Puok, just 15km from the Thai border. He has been in touch with VSO in Phnom Penh, with other volunteers in the troubled area and with his Kmai colleague in Thmar Puok and he decided it is safe enough to continue his journey home. The dispute is north of Banteay Chhmar.
Ancient temples were the chief attraction when I went to Siem Reap for Khmer New Year. Friday I rose at 5am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat and spent several hours exploring the various ruined and restored temples throughout the park. After a short siesta I returned to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng. The latter temple is perched on a hill to the west of Angkor Wat and is approached by walkers on a anticlockwise spiral climbing path or by elephant riders on a clockwise path. Meeting somewhere near the summit, the excited riders and walkers joined for the final hair-raising climb up steep stairs to the temple platform that would have health and safety inspectors tearing their hair out! To the east was a long bank of cloud which already hid the setting sun from view but the mood of the spectators seemed unaffected by the disappointment and continued chatting, taking photographs and offering at the shrine without thought of descending the dangerous steps amongst the crowds in the gathering gloom. I escaped before the rush, jogged down the pathway (I was not one of the rich elephant riders) and found my tuk tuk driver ready to join the traffic already building for the return to Siem Reap.
It is impossible to convey the scale of this ancient site. There are literally hundreds of temples, bridges, causeways, moats and terraces. It was once the centre of the Angkor Empire which stretched across modern-day Thailand and Cambodia, and parts of Laos and Vietnam as well. It must have teemed with human life during construction and occupation, which lasted for hundreds of years. Carved bas reliefs similar but vastly more extensive than at Banteay Chhmar stretch along wall after wall from ground level to third and fourth storey height and in many buildings it is possible to climb onto the higher levels which are not well protected from possible fall.
The Angkor Park is also vast, and flat and full of trees. Many people live there although new building is not allowed and traditional wooden houses are difficult to maintain because of restrictions on building materials and modifications in the parkland. In contrast, restoration of the temples is happening all around, chiefly with foreign money and expertise. Many of the old stone walls and buildings have been damaged by tree roots but these now add to the charm of the ruins. Many statues and bas reliefs were damaged either deliberately by the Khmer Rouge or accidentally during the fighting of that period, while souvenir hunters and dealers in artefacts have stolen others.
The temples of Preah Vihear and Ta Krabey are in danger of the same kind of damage if the border dispute is not permanently settled but it’s hardly surprising it continues considering the vested interests of both sides and the ill-defined border in the thick jungle and mountains of the area. I guess the problems of keeping the sides apart are not much different from those between England and Scotland in the days of Hadrian and Wales in the time of Offa. Methinks we need both a wall and a dyke here. There’s certainly plenty of earth and stones about …