Preah Vihear

Wat Banteay Chhmar
Wat Preah Vihear

Leaving Battambang by car we headed north towards the Thai border, then ran eastwards parallel to the border inside Cambodia. We stopped first at Wat Banteay Chhmar, next at the former house of the war lord Ta Mok, and finally at the UNESCO site of Wat Preah Vihear

Banteay Chhmar

The massive temple of Banteay Chhmar, along with its satellite shrines and reservoir (baray), comprises one of the most important and least understood archaeological complexes from Cambodia's Angkor period. The fact that scarcely a tourist ever visits it and that you can therefore roam the ruins by yourself and soak up the atmosphere made it very memorable to me.

Like Angkor Thom, the temple of Banteay Chhmar was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century. One of the temple's shrines once held an image of Srindrakumararajaputra (the crown prince), a son of Jayavarman VII who died before him. The temple doors record Yasovarman I's failed invasion of Champa.

The complex resembles Angkor Thom and other structures attributed to Jayavarman VII. Its outer gallery is carved with bas-reliefs depicting military engagements and daily life scenes very similar to the well-known ones in Bayon. The complex is oriented to the east, where there's a dried baray (about 1.6 by 0.8 km), which had a temple on an artificial island in its centre. There are three enclosures. The external one, largely ruined, was 1.9 by 1.7 km and surrounded by a moat. The middle enclosure, provided with a moat too, is 850 by 800 m. It contains the main temple, surrounded by a gallery with reliefs 250 by 200 m which constitutes the third inner enclosure. There are another eight secondary temples. Four stelae detailing Jayavarman VII's genealogy were placed (though they remain unfinished) at each of the four corners of the third enclosure wall, mirroring the stelae that occupied the four corner-shrines (Prasat Chrung) of the king's capital at Angkor Thom.

Because of its remote location and its proximity to the Thai border, the complex has been subjected to severe looting, especially in the 1990s when the temple was listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the top one hundred most endangered sites in the world. For example, in 1998 a group of soldiers stole a 30-metre section of the southern wall. The bas-reliefs of Banteay Chhmar once displayed eight exceptional Avalokiteśvaras in the west gallery, but now only two remain. In January 1999 looters dismantled sections of the western gallery wall containing these bas-reliefs. They were intercepted by Thai police and 117 sandstone pieces of the wall were recovered. They are now on display in the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

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Ta Mok's House at Anlong Veng

Ta Mok's house in Anlong Veng is set on a peaceful lakeside site, and is a spartan structure with a bunker in the basement, five wall-murals downstairs (one of Angkor Wat, four of Prasat Preah Vihear) and three more murals upstairs, including an idyllic wildlife scene. About the only furnishings that weren’t looted over the years are the floor tiles. Ta Mok ordered the construction of the lake you see, by damming the O’Chik lake and flooding the surrounds - it seems that he wanted to create a protectable island fortress for himself. There used to be cages here where prisoners were kept.

Oddly this house appears to be a site of pilgrimage for Cambodians, rather than a visiting place for tourists.

By the late 1960s Ta Mok was a general and the Khmer Rouge's chief-of-staff. He was also a member of the Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge's Central Committee during its period in power. He was named by Pol Pot as leader of the national army of Democratic Kampuchea. He lost the lower part of one leg in fighting around 1970. Ta Mok is believed to have orchestrated many massacres within the zone he controlled from 1973. It is believed that he directed the massive purges that characterised the short-lived Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), earning him the nickname Butcher. He was "Brother no 4" in the hierarchy, in which Pol Pot was Brother no 1.

After the Pol Pot regime was overthrown in 1979, Ta Mok remained a powerful figure, controlling the northern area of the Khmer Rouge's remaining territory from his base at Anlong Veng in the Dângrêk Mountains. Between 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers remained loyal to Pol Pot and were directed by Ta Mok. In 1997, following a split in the party, Ta Mok seized control of one faction, naming himself supreme commander. In April 1998, following a new government attack, Ta Mok fled into the forest. In 1998, following several key defections, Ta Mok was forced to flee to Anlong Veng.

The end came in March 1999 when Ta Mok was arrested and charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Attempts to put him on trial foundered repeatedly, mainly because the government's ranks were stuffed with former Khmer Rouge cadres who feared a tribunal might expose their actions.When an international tribunal finally started work, Ta Mok's health had deteriorated after so long in a military prison. His death left just one other Khmer Rouge fighter in detention.

His obituary in the Guardian says "Just before his client slipped into a coma last week, the lawyer of Ta Mok, the former senior leader of Cambodia's ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime who has died, probably aged 80 or 82, issued a statement. In it Ta Mok is quoted as saying: "Please inform the whole world that I have never killed anyone." He insisted his forces only built roads, bridges and dams, and cultivated rice fields. In the annals of genocidal self-delusion, such a comment rings almost as hollow as if Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin had uttered it.

Khymer Rouge leadership - Pol Pot is front left and Ta Mok is second right without the hat.

The Khymer Rouge

'Khmer Rouge'was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People's Army from North Vietnam. It was the ruling party in Cambodia (then known as Democratic Kampuchea) from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. It allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-communist forces.

The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide. 2 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the country's then population, died during the "Killing Fields" era between 1975-1979

Eastern and central Cambodia were firmly under the control of Vietnam and its Cambodian allies by 1980, while the western part of the country continued to be a battlefield throughout the 1980s and millions of landmines were sown across the countryside. The Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot, was the strongest of the three rebel groups in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea which received extensive military aid from China, Britain, and the United States and intelligence from the Thai military. Britain and the United States in particular gave aid to the two non-Khmer Rouge members of the coalition.

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force behind the Khmer Rouge insurgency, giving speeches to his followers

In the early 1990s the Vietnamese army withdrew from Cambodia in exchange for a peace treaty. In 1996, a new political party, the Democratic National Union Movement, was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for his role as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge.On December 29, 1998, the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the 1970s genocide. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured. In December 1999, Ta Mok and the remaining leaders surrendered, and the Khmer Rouge effectively ceased to exist. Most of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders live in the Pailin area or are hiding in Phnom Penh

Officially a multiparty democracy, in reality "the country remains a one-party state dominated by the Cambodian People's Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a recast Khmer Rouge official in power since 1985. The open doors to new investment during his reign have yielded the most access to a coterie of cronies of him and his wife, Bun Rany." Cambodia's government has been described by Human Rights Watch's Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy."

National politics in Cambodia take place within the framework of the nation's constitution of 1993. The government is a constitutional monarchy operated as a parliamentary representative democracy. The Prime Minister of Cambodia, an office held by Hun Sen since 1985, is the head of government, while the King of Cambodia (currently Norodom Sihamoni) is the head of state. The prime minister is appointed by the king, on the advice and with the approval of the National Assembly. The prime minister and the ministerial appointees exercise executive power.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to rule until he is 74 (he is currently 63, and has been in power for 30 years since 1985). He is a former Khmer Rouge member who defected. His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent. The 2013 election results were disputed by Hun Sen's opposition, leading to demonstrations in the capital. Demonstrators were injured and killed in Phnom Penh where a reported 20,000 protesters gathered, with some clashing with riot police.

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A stop then for lunch - extraordinary local cafe with the most exquisite teak furniture which would have cost a fortune in Europe, but cheaper than plastic tables and chairs here. A frisson of local excitement when a motorcycle having a petrol fill up with smuggled petrol burst into flames

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Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear Temple is an ancient Hindu temple built during the period of the Khmer Empire, that is perched on top of a 525-metre cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains. Preah Vihear was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

In 1962, following a lengthy dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the temple is in Cambodia. Affording a view for many kilometres across a plain, Prasat Preah Vihear has the most spectacular setting of all the temples built during the six-centuries-long Khmer Empire. As a key edifice of the empire's spiritual life, it was supported and modified by successive kings and so bears elements of several architectural styles. Preah Vihear is unusual among Khmer temples in being constructed along a long north-south axis, rather than having the conventional rectangular plan with orientation toward the east.

In 1979 Thailand expelled around 42,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand by bus here. . The refugees were unloaded from the buses and pushed down the steep escarpment. “There was no path to follow,” one said. “The way that we had to go down was only a cliff. Some people hid on top of the mountain and survived. Others were shot or pushed over the cliff. Most of the people began to climb down using vines as ropes. They tied their children on their backs and strapped them across their chests. As the people climbed down, the soldiers threw big rocks over the cliff.” At the foot of the cliffs were minefields, placed by the Khmer Rouge during their rule in Cambodia. The refugees followed a narrow path, the safe route indicated by the bodies of those who had set off land mines. They used the bodies as stepping stones to cross the three miles of mined land to reach the Vietnamese soldiers, occupiers of Cambodia, on the other side. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later estimated that as many as 3,000 Cambodians had died in the push-back and another 7,000 were unaccounted for. Thailand's objective in this brutal operation apparently was to demonstrate to the international community that its government would not bear alone the burden of thousands of Cambodian refugees. For the next dozen years the UN and Western countries would pay for the upkeep of Cambodian refugees in Thailand, resettling thousands in other countries, and devising means by which Cambodians could return safely to their own country.

The border dispute has continued, with occasional outbreaks of violence between the two countries. Following a 2011 request from Cambodia for Thai military forces to be ordered out of the area, judges of the International Court of Justice by a vote of 11–5 ordered that both countries immediately withdraw their military forces, and further imposed restrictions on their police forces. The ICJ ruled on 11 November 2013 that the land adjacent to the temple on the east and west (south being previously agreed as Cambodian, north as Thai) belongs to Cambodia and that any Thai security forces still in that area should leave.

You have to show your passport to gain admittance to the temple area - Thais are not allowed in by the Cambodians. And although Military and Police are restricted/banned in the temple area, there is a sizeable Cambodian military force in civilian garb, and with barracks and bunkers. The border question is far from settled, and whilst Thailand might have conceded that the temple is in Cambodia, they have not yet agreed the exact international frontier surrounding the temple

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Our overnight stop here was a "boutique" hotel with 40 rooms, that catered mainly for tour groups. Such is the way of things in Cambodia, the owner of the hotel is a local military 3 Star General. The hotel has actually been built to a high standard, but is badly managed - I don't think that the managers have much training! The staff appear to be more in fear of upsetting the owner, than in serving the customer. When you check out a chambermaid is dispatched to check your room for theft - I joke not, but there is a list of prices in the room, for example curtains are charged at $40 if stolen !

If you are visiting the Preah Vihear Temple, then you do not have much choice between staying and eating here, or taking the 4.5 hour road journey back to Siem Reap. The hotel itself is about 30 mins drive from the temple. It is not a "boutique hotel" as claimed in its name, it has 40 rooms, is not personally managed (not actually managed at all) and its main trade is from tour buses visiting the VP Temple - as a couple you get squeezed out by these groups. The building has been well designed architecturally, but poorly executed - for example the bathroom had the right idea on design, but somehow did not quite come off. The cavernous reception and awesome double staircase end up somehow as being unattractive and unwelcoming.

The restaurant serves adequate, but unmemorable food. The position of the hotel means that either you carry your own food, or you eat in their restaurant. I did not think the restaurant was overpriced, but on the other hand was nothing special. Just ordinary tourist fare. Breakfast was an average buffet. I think the buffet was abnormal, given that there were a couple of large groups in the hotel, this was the only way of serving them

Bottom line is that you have to stay here if you want to overnight in the area

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We had lunch at the Samheap Guest House, just short of the Laos border. Extraordinary interior detail on the restaurant ceiling and walls, left over from whatever its previous existence The food is nothing special, but worth going to for the architecture if you are passing through

Then on to the border, where it was relatively straightforward to exit Cambodia and enter Laos, obviously once one had paid the official bribes of a few dollars, which were convenietly posted on the frontier office window. On clearing customs we were greeted by our new guide Det. He was to be our guide for the first 4 days in Laos. I don't think that I could have managed with Det for longer than 4 days. He was a nice enough fellow, but his command of English precluded asking any questions and expecting a meaningful response. He had a patter worked out for sight-seeing and could not deviate easily from his spiel. I should add that he told us that he had been an english teacher before becoming a guide.

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On to Don Khone

Our Cambodia and Laos Holiday

All Our Holidays