The Khmer Rouge, Preah Vihear Temple and the Dangrek Mountains.
Above Photo: At the top of Preah Vihear, with a sheer drop on the other side.
Preah Vihear Temple complex, which straddles the hotly-disputed border of Thailand and Cambodia, has frequently been bitterly contested, sometimes bringing the countries to the brink of war. This despite the fact that the International Court of Justice awarding sovereignty of the temple to Cambodia a few years ago.
As I point out in my novel BACK, the border regions of south-east Asia can often be dangerous places, fraught with illegal activity, where the rule of law rarely applies. This certainly holds true for Preah Vihear and the Dangrek Mountains both now, and in the time of the Khmer Rouge.
On our most recent visit to Cambodia, we decided to pay a visit to this controversial temple.
On the way, our driver told us that the Cambodian army had banned Thais from visiting Preah Vihear, due to recent political conflicts. He then advised my wife, who is Thai, to lie about her nationality. “It’ll be no problem,” he said.
Given that a right-wing Thai politician had been languishing in a Cambodian jail for years, for trespassing on Cambodian soil near Preah Vihear to make a stupid political point, that the Cambodian army were heavily dug in around the mountain and it was all looking so serious that I didn’t even dare stop to take photos near the mountain because of the presence of the military.
I advised my wife to NOT lie about her nationality, just in case it was discovered and she was dumped for a few years in a Cambodian jail as yet another Thai spy.
So I went up to visit Preah Vihear on my own, and she sat waiting for me, being outrageously ripped off for basic food and drink at a restaurant near the ticket office.
Many Thai and Cambodian soldiers and civilians have been killed in recent years around the temple, an area which is still heavily mined, and some embassies advise against visiting it, but that didn’t count for anything as I took my motorbike taxi up the steep, winding access road, enjoying stunning views over the surrounding mountains, jungle and Cambodian plains.
Built in the 11th Century at the top of a steep 525 metre cliff, the temple was constructed 100 years before Angkor Wat.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge it had been occupied by Pol Pot’s soldiers, and the whole Dangrek mountain range presented a formidable, often deadly impediment to refugees fleeing Pol Pot’s insanity, as they took their lives in their hands and tried to flee to Thailand.
The temple is constructed on different levels, and I was astonished how big the complex was. I hadn’t really expected anything more than a simple Cambodian temple, but this place was massive.
Each time I got to one level of the complex, I thought that was it, but then another long stone walkway would reveal itself and lead to another, higher level of the temple.
At the very top, the views across the Cambodian plains and the Dangrek mountains were stunning. But all I could think of were the books I’d read by Cambodian survivors who’d escaped the Khmer Rouge by struggling through the vast Khmer Rouge minefields below and the inhospitable, jungle-clad Dangrek mountains around me, dodging Khmer Rouge soldiers as they went, ever hopeful of reaching a safe haven in Thailand.
Probably tens of thousands of Cambodians died on that journey through the mountains, and their stories died with them.
Luckily some survived and wrote about their incredibly dangerous journeys, and that’s what I was thinking about as I looked off the top of the mountain that day; not how wonderful the views were, but what hardships ordinary Cambodian people had gone through to escape the evil clutches of the Khmer Rouge.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see the trailer for our latest film, M,I,A, A Greater Evil:
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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