Preah Vihear Sixth Day (Christmas Day): Choam Khsant, another temple, Preah Vihear Temples

I am the last one to wake up this day and I ride with Paul to the local mechanic to have my exhaust pipe reattached. Later we go with Gerry, Vothea and Mr. Slim to a local food place and have coffee. Gerry and companion want to visit a temple close by since it is not too far to Prey Vihear I agree with Vothea to join them, before we head to Preah Vihear in the afternoon. He quickly finds a local guide to show us the way.

We leave the town to the north and after we pass some open land with sandy roads we are back on the oxcart trail. Vothea is traveling with the guide on his moto while Gerry is sitting on the back of Paul’s bike and the equipment is on Mr. Slim’s bike. When we have to pass an obstacle along this muddy water Vothea’s bike gets stuck and he and the bike fall. This is the first time I see him dropping his bike. Moreover, he is the only one not traveling on a dirt bike and only because of him we recognize how difficult this passage is. So I feel sorry that it is here where he falls in front of everybody.

This is shortly before we leave Choam Khsant.

Vothea’s bike just falls all the way from the path to the left into the mud in the middle. However, he and the guide manage to get off the bike in time and not to fall into the dirt.

We continue on very sandy road. What those guys have is something like the modern pendant to an oxcart. However, moving stuff with this vehicle is still very slow and involves hard work.

I am actually the only one traveling with just my own luggage and it is significantly easier to maneuver the bike for me.

Later sand turns into an oxcart trail with deep, sandy prints, difficult to see under the grass. Usually the best way is driving between the trails but balancing the bikes on this rough ground is a difficult exercise with a passenger on the back. After some time Vothea’s front tyre is flat. He stops to repair it while we continue the trip and agree to meet him later again. Once in a while we get stuck for some time or have a break.

We come across a local police post. We hire the police guy to have another guide. Only my bike is left to carry him. I ask him to carry my bag on his back. He does and takes his M 16 assault rifle upfront, before he gets on my bike. I feel somewhat concerned to drop this guy with his gun but he seems to be a friendly person.

This is where we pick up the police guy. The house in the background is the local police post.

We ride a few more kilometers before we reach the temple. I manage not to drop the police fellow. We walk through the dense vegetation, carefully stepping on rocks because we are not sure whether there are mines.

It is dark inside this temple and many bats seem to live in it. There is a long bamboo stick and Mr. Slim starts to shake it inside the temple. This steers up dozens or hundreds of bats, and in panic they fly back and forth in the narrow building. Some of them escape through the gate.

Mr. Slim managed to catch a bat.

Later Gerry arrives and starts taking pictures. This is a lengthy process, since it involves sophisticated technology. We spend some time and later climb up another building.

The police guy is actually from Kampong Cham and was recently send to Preah Vihear. I wonder that he has an American gun. In addition, it says ‘Property of US. Govt.’. The only M 16 I have seen so far in Cambodia are with the guards at the Royal Palace. Maybe this guy has gotten it from Thailand. Paul asks whether he can do one shot and the police guy agrees. So Paul shoots at Thailand. Later we go back to the motos.

I find that my exhaust pipe is broken off again.

We reach the police station again and pay the guy and the police $5 each. Then we go back to Choam Khsant. We do not find Vothea where we left him and assume he left to the town already. We try an alternative way but finally fail to pass at one point, so that we have to travel back.

We ride all the way back to the guesthouse, where we meet Vothea. He has hurt his foot and walking is painful. I go with Paul to the mechanic again but he is not available. So we go to another mechanic and Paul instructs him how to fix my exhaust properly.

There is a monkey living at this garage and we spend some time playing with this funny animal. This is when Paul proofs that he looks just like the monkey.

Later Gerry, Paul and his brother leave to Anlong Veng. I hang out with Vothea for some more time, before we decide to continue to Preah Vihear. We leave in the afternoon traveling on a good dirt road. It takes us about one hour. Then we can see the hill. However, I fail to recognize the temple on top. We reach a number of huts at the bottom of the hill. I pay about $2 entrance fee and get a ticket. We hang out for some time and then continue the trip.

The road from Choam Khsant to Preah Vihear is in excellent condition. However, at some point I realize that my tyre is flat again. So we spend another hour fixing it.

This is before we reach Preah Vihear. The temple is located on the very top of this mountain, but cannot easily be recognized from down here.

I read in my guidebooks that the road up the mountain is a tough one, involving steep stretches with rocks and sand. However, after I rode the bike all the way I want to ride the final stretch as well. In some of the turns at the very bottom it looks like construction work is underway and a few meters are stabilized with concrete. Later on it is just rough and partly very steep ground, covered with rocks and sand. Vothea has some problems riding up this mountain, as his bike is low and not very strong. For my bike those steep and rocky stretches look more difficult than they actually are.

At one point we have a break to cool down Vothea’s engine. We just passed a number of women and they stop when they reach us. I practice myfew words Khmer. I believe it is very exhausting for them to climb up the steep mountain and offer my water. Furthermore I feel bad for some time for wasting petrol riding this bike for fun while this road seems to be their daily way to work.

In total it takes us less than 30 minutes to reach the top of the mountain. The sun set is over already but there is some light left and I hurry up the mountain to get a few pictures before it is too dark.

This temple complex together with its location leaves deep impressions on its visitors and walking up through its various levels is an uplifting experience. You see the first temple with the sky above it. After you pass it you see the second temple with the sky above it and pass it. Then you see the last temple, which includes the central sanctum, again with the sky above it. This last temple is located at the highest point of this mountain range directly at the cliff. When you pass this temple there is nothing but sky. Deep underneath you is Cambodian landscape with details so small that they do not appear to be significant.

The way this temple situated makes it difficult to provide meaningful pictures. What you get on those pictures is just details of the temple but they do not tell you how nicely those details fit together to make up the beauty and charm of the whole.

This is what you see when you walk up towards the first level. I find the sign to the right somewhat nationalist. I learn later that this was put in place by the Apsara Authority. I might mention that this is a good example of what I call nation building in my report about minority rights but I do not want to get into the details here. I might mention, too, that Cambodia’s possession of this temple was being contested on various occasions. Thailand is very eager to have this temple. The latest controversy is going on right now. The reader might know that massive riots on January 29, 2003 destroyed the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh and various Thai businesses, causing damages of more than $50 m. The Cambodia Government has transferred $6 m already to the Thai government. However, some days ago a professor in Thailand suggested Cambodia should hand over Preah Vihear temple as compensation for the damage. This led to some controversy and even caused the Thai embassy to request the government in Cambodia to stop the circulation of newspapers carrying associated articles, a demand which was rejected by Cambodia’s government.

This is the second level.

This is the third level.

This is the central sanctum, which is the highest spot around here.

This is what is behind the central sanctum.

I do not see anybody around and start climbing the roof of the central sanctum. I am not sure how appropriate that is but I was encouraged by Khmer people on other occasions to climb central sanctums and think it is all right.

When I walk back some locals have light a fire to burn rubbish. The smoke adds to the mysterious atmosphere surrounding this structure.

I spend almost one hour before it is entirely dark and I walk back to meet Vothea at the bikes. We bring our bikes to a shop close by and ask people to take care of them. Then we hang out for some time at this level of the temple, having a smoke and reflecting on the day. Two guys come along and hang out for some time, too. I learn they are thirty years old and served as soldiers in the Khmer Rouge. Today they serve in the Royal Army and protect the border. They tell me that many soldiers died when the Khmer Rouge army tried to maintain this strategic position. Their live was miserably under the Khmer Rouge. However, they still receive only very small money, frequently very late. I cannot see their faces but it is interesting talking to them here at night. They tell me about the temple and the border and that Thailand still attempts to get those temples.

After some time they leave and later we start stepping down the steep stairs, too. After some hundred meters we arrive at some sort of village with a few shacks used mostly as souvenir shops. We find the guesthouse, which is very basic.

We have some rest and later order some food. There is just one table in the guesthouse and a police commander is sitting on it, too. We learn that he is from Phnom Penh and was transferred some month ago to this remote area, to protect the border. His family is still in Phnom Penh. It is somewhat strange to me that all sorts of police seem to be in charge of protecting borders. We talk about all sorts of things. Later I discuss my route for the next days with Vothea. The police guy is getting very excited when I get out my map. He spends considerable time on analyzing the course of the border in the map and comparing it to the official coordinates in his notes. We learn that the map in fact reflects current international agreement. However, on the ground the frontier has moved about 500 m into Cambodia, when Thai military took over Khmer Rouge positions.

Again, it is late when we go to bed. Next day we want to get up early to see the sunrise from the temples.

Leave a Reply