Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 2

Please read part 1 first.

The view from the back of a tuk-tuk. The driver is Bhin
The view from the back of a tuk-tuk. The driver is Bhin
Getting to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap isn’t easy. In the future, I fully expect there to be day trips by bus. Currently, however, it requires a great deal of will and much more cash than you’ll spend going to temples around Siem Reap. If I had to guess, there are probably only a handful of non-Cambodian visitors to Preah Vihear each week. Since the conflict with Thailand started, there are probably a lot less. The day I was there I was told they had 10 visitors that day. I was the only non-Cambodian I could see. The border with Thailand was closed.

My tuk-tuk driver for my tour of the Angkor temples was Bhin. He was 21 years old, could speak reasonably fluent English and had a wife four months pregnant. I told Bhin that I wanted to go to Preah Vihear and he quickly offered to drive me. He told me that you can’t take a tuk-tuk to Preah Vihear. We’d have to take a bike and I’d have to sit on the back. “No problem”, I said. I clearly didn’t think through the implications of sitting on the back of a bike.

My estimates looking at the map, I figured Preah Vihear was about 200km from Siem Reap. Given the speed at which the motorbikes went, I figured about 4-5 hours each way. We’d leave early in the morning, get there about 9-10am and have plenty of time to get back before sunset.

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple
Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple
Bhin claimed to have been there before (a claim which I now doubt in hindsight) and said it would cost $200 for the trip. $200 seemed really expensive for a day on a bike, especially when a day in a tuk-tuk was $15. We negotiated back and forth for two days and I eventually settled on $120 and I’d pay for gas. Looking back, he earned it.

Early on October 6th, we met at my guesthouse at 5 am for the trip. I didn’t take my tripod (thank God). I just had my camera bag and a backpack an umbrella and some food. Bhin then tells me he didn’t get any sleep the night before because he was up convincing his father, who is a senior police officer in Siem Reap, to let him go. His father eventually agreed but gave him a gun which Bhin put under the seat of the bike. He described it in very Nancy Reagan-esque terms, “it’s just a little one”.

Hitting The Road

So, camera and gun in tow, we head out. First stop is to get gas. Bhin’s mother runs a small roadside gas stand where gas is sold out of old bottles of Johnny Walker (you can see them all over in Cambodia). We filled up, I give his mom $5, he kneels before his mother for a blessing, and we hit the road.

Bhin likes to talk. Before the sun even rose, we had been on the road an hour and he had been talking up a storm. We had two helmets but didn’t bother wearing them yet. That would get in the way of talking. There is little traffic on the roads at night and nothing moves very fast. The real reason for the helmets, as Bhin pointed out, is to block the dust and stones which fly at your head when a truck passes you.

Soldiers on a motorbike
Soldiers on a motorbike
The beginning of the trip was fine. The roads out of Siem Reap are paved and when we finally hit an unpaved road, it was still in good shape having been recently graded. I saw a lot of pseudo road construction. Most of it did not involve the use of big machines. Road crews would create small bridges by hand pouring cement into molds, then move the large pieces of cement into place. It looked as if they were given rebar and bags of cement by the government and told “There you go. Make a bridge.”

We had no real map for getting to Preah Vihear. Bhin’s father drew one for him, and that was it. There are also no road signs to be found anywhere in the countryside. That being said, it is difficult to get lost as there really aren’t many roads. The total number of intersections I saw was one road met another was probably less than 10. I had no idea, and neither did Bhin, just how close we were to Preah Vihear.

The only “city” we drove through was Anlong Veng, approximately halfway between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. Anlong Veng was the last city controlled by the Khmer Rouge and is where Pol Pot was cremated. Had I known where his ashes were buried, I’d have gladly pissed on them.

The Rocky Road

Once out of Anlong Veng, the road got worse and our progress slowed considerably. The bike we were on wasn’t a dirt bike designed for off-road use. Several times we had to stop and I would get off and walk because the mud was so deep. The only real thing we had to deal with before Anlong Veng was a stretch of thick fog. The fog made us wet, but the road was still dry and dusty, so the dust would kick up and stick to our wet bodies. Fun.

The Cambodian People's Party is the ruling party in Cambodia. I saw these signs everywhere on the ride. This is the sign in the village at Preah Vihear.
With only a few brief rest stops, we pull into the village below Preah Vihear at about 11:30am, six and a half hours after we left Siem Reap. As we neared the village, we had an escort of several guys on motorcycles who rode with us. These guys have off-road bikes and take people up and down the mountain, as the road it too steep, rough and wet for normal cars or motorbikes. The village is mostly catering to soldiers, which we saw on the road once we entered Preah Vihear province an hour earlier. We’d see small outposts of soldiers in tents or hammocks sleeping or hanging out on the side of the road.

The Cambodian military contingent in Preah Vihear didn’t really seem very menacing. There weren’t many of them, they seemed very unorganized, and had nothing beyond AK-47s, RPGs and pickup trucks It is amazing how many of the conflicts in the world today are fought with nothing more than those things. The Cambodians seemed to be there just to establish a presence in the area and to serve as a check to any small movements by Thailand (which is all that the conflict has been to this point).

With a half a day of hard driving, I’d seen more of Cambodia than I’d seen in the previous week, and we still hadn’t actually been to the temple.

Read part 3.