“Isn’t that an active war zone?”
Ariel and I just looked at each other and shrugged. We’d only decided to make the trek to the Thai-bordering temple a mere hours before and still weren’t 100% sure of what we’d gotten ourselves in to.
“I think that super typhoon is supposed to hit soon too…” I added.
Against our better judgment, we were hanging out at Charley’s off Pub Street despite our 8 a.m. departure time.
“We heard they might close the temple after the court ruling is announced Monday,” We explained, making sure to add it might be closed due to heightened violence in the area. I mean, what’s the fun in life if you don’t risk it every now and then?
Bleary-eyed I trudged up to the rental van Saturday morning and began introducing myself. Besides Ariel, I didn’t know anyone else. We all settled into our seats quickly giving up the hunt for seatbelts and before long we were bouncing down the road out of the city. After the initial excitement wore off the headphones came out and everyone began nodding off. When sleep proved elusive I quietly pulled out my guidebook to read up on where this four-hour ride was taking me:
In 2008 Preah Vihear was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, increasing the tension present along the Cambodian-Thai border. According to my guidebook, the temple is actually easier to access from Thailand but the increased military presence resulted in paved roads to the site making our journey a bit adventurous but doable.
We stretched our legs at the small outpost where we purchased our temple passes and tried to figure out the cheapest way to get all 10 of us up the mountain. Because of the road conditions we had two options: 4×4 trucks or motorbikes. In the end, we settled into two trucks, equipped with raised benches.
“This isn’t so bad,” we told each other as the driver wound up the road. We had considered renting one truck and a couple motos but were told the road is so steep it’s hard to keep from slipping off the back. Just as we began to relax the driver made a sharp left, revving up for an awkwardly steep hill. As he gunned it we scrambled to find handholds. With each turn, the road became steeper and every pothole threatened to spill us over the sides. I immediately regretted choosing the truck without the protective cage.
Winding up the mountain we passed small camps full of camo-clad men lounging in hammocks. Before long we bounced into a small village, the end of the road for vehicles, and decided to grab lunch before heading the rest of the way on foot.
We were banned from taking photos until we reached the first temple next to waving UNESCO and Cambodian flags. I knew we were close to the border (I had just read my guidebook) but was still shocked when someone pointed out the Thai flags flying on the next ridge. Climbing up the temple steps we could see Thailand on our left and Cambodia on the right.
We’d later hear on BBC that Thai places were spotted flying low over the area and the area was in a state of heightened military alert. We couldn’t help but laugh at the declaration. Other than a handful of other tourists we had the place to ourselves and all those in uniform were enjoying afternoon siestas. In fact, the lack of activity made the whole place feel a bit eerie; climbing through temple ruins, the threat of conflict, and warnings not to stray from the beaten path because the area hadn’t been fully de-mined.
As we climbed up to the last temple, a couple of young monks caught our attention. Draped in bright orange robes stood in stark contrast to the crumbling surroundings. They laughed at our attempts to orchestrate a group photo.
Emerging on the other side of the temple the view took my breath away. I could barely make out the building where we purchased our passes and the cars zipping by looked like ants. We sat on the edge of the mountain for ages, enjoying to cool breeze while carefully watching the dark clouds rolling in.
A young soldier asked to take a picture with us, which a clever entrepreneur snapped and printed on the spot using a small, portable device. Somehow we started discussing why Westerners’ noses are so large, to which we concluded: to hold up our big sunglasses.
The trip back down seemed a bit more frantic, not wanting to get caught on the mountain in the rain. We slipped and slid on the benches trying not smash into each other during our descent.
I hadn’t realized how large and bustling Siem Reap was until we rolled through the surrounding town and unloaded our packs at one of the few guesthouses. Showering off the day’s ventures we reconvened to discuss dinner, settling on a restaurant serving a dish our Lonely Planet called “mountain of fire” or something to that effect. Unfortunately, we were met with a dark dining room and news that the establishment wouldn’t be open until December… We lapped the town again trying not to see the dog roasting on a spit one of our companions mentioned spotting earlier in the day and decided to try the BBQ joint across from our guesthouse.
After some much-needed sleep and a leisurely breakfast, we returned to our rooms to pack. Deb, an Australian/American English teacher, Ariel and I stashed our things and being the only Americans on our trip started discussing negative American stereotypes. Losing ourselves in the conversation we were interrupted by a phone call: everyone was already in the van and they were waiting on us.