Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 1

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
My day traveling to Preah Vihear is one of the most interesting and grueling of my trip, and so my description of the events is going to be a lot longer than most posts. I’ll be splitting this up into two parts. Today will be a general overview of the temple, its history, location and a summary of the events in the area as of today (yes, things are unfolding there as I write this). Tomorrow I’ll describe what I experienced and what my day was like. It is important to get a background to understand what is happening and exactly what I was getting myself into.

History of Preah Vihear

If you are like me, you probably never heard of Preah Vihear until recently, either from the news or from my blog. It isn’t one of the big sexy ancient sites like Angkor. It is difficult to get to and few tourists, especially from the Cambodia side, make the trip. Preah Vihear came to my attention when it was listed at a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. When I was in Siem Reap, I knew I had to try and make the trip there.

Preah Vihear temple was contemporary to many of the temples of Angkor. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries during the reigns of Suryavarman I & II in the Khmer Empire, it was dedicated to the god Shiva. (Buddhism is a recent importation to SE Asia, having been adopted around the 15th century. Prior to that Hinduism was the dominant religion.)

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple
Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple
Preah Vihear is on a hill overlooking the plains of Cambodia to one side, and Thailand on the other. It is a location with a stunning view. From the temple you can see Cambodia unfold below you. You can easily see why it was chosen as a location for a temple. It was an important temple in the Khmer Empire, but never quite on a par with the temple of Angkor. Architectural styles are similar to what you will find in Angkor. The temple is aligned north-south rather than the normal east-west due to the alignment of the mountain.

Modern Conflict over Preah Vihear

The modern conflict over Preah Vihear began in 1962 when the International Court of Justice awarded possession to Cambodia. Unfortunately, it never resolved the status of several square kilometers of land in the area around the temple. Thailand considers the issue of the area around Preah Vihear unresolved and claims it. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing special about the land in question. It is forested with no particular resources. The conflict seems to be one of national pride and territorial grabs. (I should note that the US and Canada still have five outstanding territorial issues. I’d put the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia to be like the US and Canada fighting over the Machias Seal Island)

Thai flag across the border
Thai flag across the border
The Thai didn’t take the ruling too well. Rather than lower the Thai flag which flew over Preah Vihear, they dug up the entire flagpole and moved it to the Thai side of the border, where it currently still sits.

Since 1962, Preah Vihear was the scene for several important events in Cambodian history:

  • When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the last holdouts from the Lon Nol government took refuge at Preah Vihear. On May 22, the Khmer Rouge stormed the temple, making it the last piece of Cambodia to come under their control.
  • After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, the Khmer Rouge were pushed back to the border and took shelter at Preah Vihear.
  • The invasion by Vietnam caused a flood of refugees into Thailand. When they were forcibly pushed back into Cambodia, most were sent over the border near Preah Vihear.
  • In 1998, the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge surrendered and negotiated at Preah Vihear.

Land mine waring sign
Land mine waring sign

As a result of all this, the area around Preah Vihear is one of the most heavily land mined areas in a heavily mined country.

2008 Conflict with Thailand

The dispute with Thailand was put on the back burner for years and never resolved. In July, 2008 things came to a head with Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage Site. Cambodians celebrated, Thais got upset, and troops were sent. The full time line of events can be seen here. It is too long to go over in detail here. Here are some of the relevant events surrounding my visit:

  • October 3rd A small three minute fight between troops. Two Thai and one Cambodian were injured.
  • October 6th Two Thai soldiers are injured by land mines after they wander over 1km into Cambodia.
  • October 14 A large firefight breaks out. Seven Thai are wounded with three Cambodians wounded and two killed. Cambodia claims to have captured 13 men, which Thailand denies

I went to Preah Vihear on October 6…..

Read part 2