Two days ago I sat at a bamboo picnic table positioned right over a fortified standoff line with two soldiers from opposing armies – one Cambodian, one Thai – with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades on both sides.
How did it come to that?
We left Siem Reap – which by the way is a must-see in Cambodia, not only because of the famous temples of Angkor Wat – and headed for Anlong Veng in the North. Anlong Veng was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge during the 1990s; several high-ranking KR officials were captured in the area during the last 10 years. Pretty much everyone living in Anlong Veng over 40 is a former Khmer Rouge, including the people who sold us lunch and dinner there. Weird thought.
We visited Ta Mok’s house (he was better known as “the Butcher”) where the KR had their strategy meetings and planned their guerilla attacks for more than a decade. This is the map they used, which Ta Mok is thought to have painted himself.
After that we saw Pol Pot’s cremation site… we are getting different answers on how he died, but the prevailing theory is that he died from a sudden heart attack in his old age.
His body was fittingly burned on a pile of garbage and old tires.
His grave is literally in a family’s backyard, and looks desolate. Again – fitting. But some people burn incense there every now and then – a disturbing thought.
These are the cages the Khmer Rouge officials used for their prisoners.
A lot of people in the area were sporting military clothes, including kids…
Our next stop was a smuggler’s market at the Thai – Cambodian border… where we saw people walking and cycling over the border in both directions.
We went into the market in order to explore the details- but Nat, who was walking 20 metres ahead of me – was yelled at by a wildly gesturing and very angry military guy and told to turn around immediately and get t.. f… out of that area…
Later we learned this is because guns and all kinds of weapons are being sold there – as well as stored for a possible Thai attack.
The next day we got up before sunrise in order to drive to Prasat Preah Vihear, a very large, beautiful temple which is exactly at the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Thailand has been unilaterally encroaching on Cambodia in this area. The Cambodian prime minister took the matter to the international court of justice, which ruled in Cambodia’s favor. But still, Thailand has taken bits of land here and there, and Thai nationalist politicians are even claiming the Preah Vihear temple itself (a UNESCO world heritage site). The Cambodian people are determined to keep Preah Vihear as part of their country and heritage.
As a consequence both sides have built up a fortified army base at the border and have deployed hundreds of soldiers there (you can actually read about this conflict on page 4 in this week’s time magazine.)
To get to the site, we rode in the back of a pickup up a steep mountain road. At the top we found a vast temple site populated exclusively by soldiers (not a single fellow tourist), grounds everywhere prepared for battle, with foxholes containing rocket propelled grenades and machine guns on tripods here and there.
We walked for about 10 minutes up towards the temple, through the prepared battle grounds, passing soldiers who were looking at us warily – though when I muttered some of the 20 words of Khmer language that I have managed to pick up until now a hint of a smile came to their faces.
At some point during our visit of the vast temple grounds a policeman offered to guide us through the territory and we gladly accepted, as there is a slight weird feeling of intrusion involved in marching past strategy meetings of soldiers on duty.
After we had finished visiting the temple he asked us if we were interested to see the actual Thai border. Well.. yes… of course!!!
He led us down a big staircase of about 200 stairs towards an area where there was the border market – some little shops and restaurants for the soldiers, all occupied by groups of soldiers and their families watching TV. Walking further we came upon the border where there was wirefence and sandbag fortifications with machine guns on top of them.
After that he led us to an area where both the Cambodian and the Thai soldiers have built up their defense line only about 20 metres from each other, and as we approached a senior looking military official asked us to sit down with him at the table. He offered us food that we could not refuse under the circumstances – Nat, who is vegetarian, has eaten his first pork in many years; suddenly a Thai soldier came over from the other side, asking us where we come from and if he can take a picture of us with his cell phone. After that of course it was easy for us to ask them to sit down for a photo with us as well. And that’s how we got this picture.
Apparently on calm days Cambodian and Thai soldiers gather together at his table for lunch, dinner or just having beers together. It was clear to us that the tension at this border is entirely driven by far-away nationalist politicians, and not the soldiers themselves. As you can see on the following map both governments have a fundamentally different understanding of their countries’ borders…
All in all this was a mindblowing experience – walking right through the trenches and foxholes of an ongoing military confrontation.