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Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 3

Read part 1 and part 2 first.

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Made it! Note how totally dirty I am. It was even worse driving back. I still have a layer of Cambodia on my camera bag.

The Temple

We paid the dirt bike drivers $18 to take us round trip up the mountain. I don’t think they get much business lately. On the way up we saw periodic small groups of soldiers sleeping or bathing. They didn’t appear to be at Defcon 5. We also saw various propaganda posters by the Cambodian government along the road. As they were written in English as well as Cambodian, I don’t think they were made for domestic consumption. Several of the soldiers cheered and waved to me. I think they must have thought be to be a reporter.

The temple itself was almost a letdown given the efforts required to get there. The first thing you notice is stuck right in the middle of the ruins closest to Thailand is a highly unnatural looking flagpole with a Cambodian flag. It looked like it was giving the finger to Thailand.

The temple is very long with three major sections. The temple is designed such that you walk up a long flight of stairs (which terminate near the Thai border), go down a paved path through several buildings, leading to a final temple building overlooking the plains of Cambodia. During its prime, it must have been quite dramatic.

Lest there be any confusion

Lest there be any confusion...

In addition to soldiers, there were also women and children near the temple area. Why they were there is beyond me. They were not visiting. Some appeared to work there. One girl tried to sell me a CD, which I thought was very odd given the circumstances. I think they non-soldiers are there either to support the soldiers (food, cleaning, etc) or to solidify the claims to the temple by having civilians.

My total time at the temple was about an hour, which was really more than enough to explore all of it. I would like to have taken some more photos of the soldiers and talked to more of them, but we were on a schedule. If we were to make it back to Siem Reap at a reasonable hour. We pulled away from Preah Vihear at about 1:30pm.

The Road Back

View from Preah Vihear Temple

View from Preah Vihear Temple

So far, the experience hadn’t been a physical challenge. My legs and butt were sore from being on the bike for so long and I had burned my right calf on the tail pipe getting off the bike, and I had one of my left toes hit with a rock from a passing car. As we took the same road back, the pains of sitting in place for so long started to become worse. Image getting stuck on the middle seat of an airplane for a flight across the ocean, the seat is above the engine, has no padding, the flight is nothing but turbulence, your legs are locked into a position you can’t move from, and you have to straddle some other dude.

My knees were beginning to hurt from not moving for hours at a stretch and my ass hurt from the bumpiness of the road and not moving. Dirt and dust has crept into everything. Weeks after, my camera bag is still dirty from the trip. The only good thing was that we had avoided rain. There were storm clouds ahead of us that we just missed. We got back to Anlong Veng before sunset and I was hoping to be in Siem Reap by 7-7:30pm.

Then it started to rain…

We drove through the rain for about 30 minutes. We had no rain gear and it was dark. I had put my camera bag in my backpack, so all my gear was safe, but we slowed to about 20km/hr. We were on graded road at this point, but there were still potholes. Just went it looked like the raid would never end, it did and we managed to avoid it for the rest of the trip home.

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Part of the reason for the dispute is Cambodia's claim to the legacy of the Khmer Empire.

My shirt and everything else dried quickly from driving in the open air. My shorts however, didn’t dry as I was sitting on them. I assume you have seen what happens to skin when it is exposed to water for long periods of time. If you’ve been in the bathtub or swimming for too long, your skin starts to get really wrinkly. This was happening to all the skin on my butt because it was in contact with water for several hours.

About two hours out from Siem Reap, things were really starting to get painful. The backseat of the motorbike was starting take its toll. It was really narrow and wasn’t as padded as the part where the driver sits. The constant pounding and the wet clothes began to make sitting extremely painful. I had to adjust my position every 30 seconds or so else it become unbearable. This is very difficult to do on the back of a bike. My knees also began to ache from being locked into position for so many hours.

I eventually told Bhin that we needed to pull over to take a break and let me walk around to stretch. He didn’t want to because there might be gangsters out at night. At one point we did pull over after we went over a particularly bad pothole and a car pulled up as we were on the side of the road. I had no idea what was going on, but I felt if Bhin had been alone, they wouldn’t have stopped. I had no idea what they were saying as they were speaking Cambodian, but at one point Bhin lifted up the seat where I knew the gun was stored. I began to mentally prepare myself for whatever may happen, but thankfully nothing did. I still don’t know why he lifted the seat.

By the time we rolled into Siem Reap it was 9:30pm. It was in so much pain, had we not been back I would have suggested stopping somewhere for the night. I was cursing Bhin under my breath for the last two hours. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but I needed to vent at someone, and he was the only available target. He actually did a helluva job all things considering. I paid him his fee, a decent tip, and painfully stumbled to get something to eat.

15 seconds after I leave Bhin, the first words anyone says to me are “Sir, you want motorbike?”

No thanks.

A paved road never looked so good

A paved road never looked so good

Aftermath

My butt is still not 100% healed from that trip. Because of the wet clothes and the bouncing, I developed some sort of rash which hasn’t totally cleared up. The scabs from the burn I got from the tail pipe are mostly gone, but a bit still remains. My hat is still dirty as are my backpack and camera bag.

Would I do it again? No. This is the first time I can honestly say I wouldn’t do something again which I experienced on my trip. If Preah Vihear is really something you want to see, don’t do it how I did. Take a car, take your own motorbike, stay over night, or best of all, wait for the current issues with Thailand to settle down and visit from the Thai side of the border. There was a very nice paved road over the border with lines down the middle which taunted me while I was there.

The irony of the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is that the infrastructure for visiting Preah Vihear is all on the Thai side of the border. I saw signs touting Preah Vihear in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but there is no real infrastructure to actually visit it from Cambodia.

While I wouldn’t do it again, I did do it, and visiting a “war zone” is definitely something I’m going to brag about over drinks for the rest of my life. I’m sure the story will morph to have me dodging bullets in a few years and and sores on my ass will be from shrapnel, not a motorbike seat.

  • 9 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. It’s unfortunate that conflicts inhibit the healthy development of tourism in areas that could benefit greatly from it. You certainly have a story! I hope some day it will be easier see this significant site.

  2. Great to read your story Gary. I haven’t been to Preah Vihear, but did visit several other remote temples in the region on a trip in early 2007. Instead of Siem Reap, I left from Kompong Thom. Rode five similarly painful hours on back of a motorbike over sandy jungle trails, passing the occasional ox-cart or amused villager and not much else. Didn’t see a single other non-Cambodian the entire trip. We visited Preah Khan temple the first day, then spent the night in a small village (don’t know the name). Stayed with a local family, with whom I ate dinner and drank plenty of palm wine (nasty stuff).

    I was told we couldn’t visit Preah Vihear because of some trouble involving the Cambodian army. Adding ot the sense of danger, we passed an in-progress de-mining operation! Haad six more hours of riding the next day including a visit to Beng Mealea temple. Passed a handful of tourists who’d come from Siem Reap by 4WD (but couldn’t have accessed Preah Khan via the narrow paths we’d ridden. The soreness in my butt went away eventually but I can still see remnants of the red dust from that trip on my pack.

  3. Lauren Quinn says:

    Man, what a story! Fascinating and well-written. I grew up with a lot of Southeast Asian immigrants/children of refugees, including many Cambodians, and have wanted to take a trip there for awhile. Thanks for sharing your daring trip and poignant observations.

  4. Ada says:

    Too bad that you already publicized the tamer version of the story…. ;^)

  5. DrManette says:

    Very cool trip and I laughed several times while reading. Seems pretty ironic that Cambodia wants the temple, but it's so much easier to reach from Thailand.

  6. cambodia is such an amazing place….

  7. Geoff says:

    What an amazing story…that's a really epic journey. And thanks for the advice too – I was hoping to do the trip from Siem Reap the way you did, I think now I will look for an alternative!

    • Julie says:

      You may have been and gone already but if not……I have friends that spent a year living in Siem Reap, they drove thier dirt bikes from SR up to PV and back and loved it. If you really want to experience it properly dont rush it by doing it in one day. Outside of the tourist areas you’ll get to meet and stay with, some really nice locals and see “real” Cambodia not just the tourist trap!

  8. Francoise says:

    What an experience! Great Story.

    …guess you've been cured of motorbike travel for a bit, non? ;-)

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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