PICTURES AND VIDEO

Preah Vihear guardians earn Cambodians' respect

Mr Mock Sunheng, guesthouse owner in Tbaeng Meanchey, the provincial capital of Preah Vihear province. He is building a new 60-room hotel with swimming pool, gym, bathtubs and snooker table - relative luxuries in this part of Cambodia - to cater to t
Mr Mock Sunheng, guesthouse owner in Tbaeng Meanchey, the provincial capital of Preah Vihear province. He is building a new 60-room hotel with swimming pool, gym, bathtubs and snooker table - relative luxuries in this part of Cambodia - to cater to the expected surge in local tourists to Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Yem Phirak, 60, who runs a grocery store in Sra Em village in Cambodia near the Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Yem Phirak, 60, who runs a grocery store in Sra Em village in Cambodia near the Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Yem Phirak, 60, who runs a grocery store in Sra Em village in Cambodia near the Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Yem Phirak, 60, who runs a grocery store in Sra Em village in Cambodia near the Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Jean-Philippe Lepage, the general manager of Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel, which is about an hour's drive from Preah Vihear temple at the Thai-Cambodian border. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Jean-Philippe Lepage, the general manager of Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel, which is about an hour's drive from Preah Vihear temple at the Thai-Cambodian border. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Local Cambodians pray at a shrine inside the Preah Vihear temple complex. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Local Cambodians pray at a shrine inside the Preah Vihear temple complex. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the buildings inside Preah Vihear temple complex, which is still used as a shrine by local Cambodians. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the buildings inside Preah Vihear temple complex, which is still used as a shrine by local Cambodians. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A tree standing among the ruins of Preah Vihear temple complex, which is shrouded in clouds in the morning. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A tree standing among the ruins of Preah Vihear temple complex, which is shrouded in clouds in the morning. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Wire holding together some parts of the walls at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Wire holding together some parts of the walls at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Doorways lead to even more doorways on this misty morning at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Doorways lead to even more doorways on this misty morning at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
It's really cold as the morning cloud settles over the Preah Vihear temple compound. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
It's really cold as the morning cloud settles over the Preah Vihear temple compound. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Some parts of the Preah Vihear temple complex are in need of repair. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Some parts of the Preah Vihear temple complex are in need of repair. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Some parts of the Preah Vihear temple complex are in need of repair. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Some parts of the Preah Vihear temple complex are in need of repair. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the sections in the Preah Vihear temple complex that are in worse condition than others. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the sections in the Preah Vihear temple complex that are in worse condition than others. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the sections in the Preah Vihear temple complex that are in worse condition than others. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
One of the sections in the Preah Vihear temple complex that are in worse condition than others. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
This staircase in the Preah Vihear temple complex leads down to Thailand territory. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
This staircase in the Preah Vihear temple complex leads down to Thailand territory. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The Cambodian flag is flown high at the entry point to Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The Cambodian flag is flown high at the entry point to Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
 A guard standing next to a banner pronouncing pride in the Khmer identity at the entry point to Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
 A guard standing next to a banner pronouncing pride in the Khmer identity at the entry point to Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The road to Preah Vihear temple, in Cambodia. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The road to Preah Vihear temple, in Cambodia. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The road to Preah Vihear temple, in Cambodia. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The road to Preah Vihear temple, in Cambodia. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Ms Oum Thang, 50, a temple keeper at Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia, who had to crouch by a cliffside for safety during armed hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia in 2011. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Ms Oum Thang, 50, a temple keeper at Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia, who had to crouch by a cliffside for safety during armed hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia in 2011. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A Cambodian policeman eating a nom korng, or Cambodian doughnut, at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A Cambodian policeman eating a nom korng, or Cambodian doughnut, at Preah Vihear temple. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A member of Cambodian security forces keeps watch at this cliffside nook in the Preah Vihear temple complex, which also doubles up as a shrine. Note the sandbag reinforcements at the side. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A member of Cambodian security forces keeps watch at this cliffside nook in the Preah Vihear temple complex, which also doubles up as a shrine. Note the sandbag reinforcements at the side. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A member of security staff outside one of the buildings inside the Preah Vihear temple complex which is still used as a shrine by local Cambodians. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
A member of security staff outside one of the buildings inside the Preah Vihear temple complex which is still used as a shrine by local Cambodians. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Cambodian visitors to Preah Vihear temple handing out packets of cigarettes as a gesture of support to the security forces guarding the temple and its surroundings. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Cambodian visitors to Preah Vihear temple handing out packets of cigarettes as a gesture of support to the security forces guarding the temple and its surroundings. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Arms crossed and crouching for warmth, the young man in fatigue trousers leaned against the sandbags piled up by the cliffside nook near the ancient Preah Vihear temple complex. Streams of Cambodians edged past him to offer incense within.

This is a modest shrine dedicated to the legendary Khmer military commander Ta Di, who is said to have hurled himself off this very spot centuries ago when he realised he could not stop the invading Siamese army from taking over the temple.

This lore is particularly poignant for Cambodians, who have been again tussling with neighbouring Thailand in recent decades over the World Heritage site.

The International Court of Justice ruled that temple belonged to Cambodia in 1962, but that did not stop armed clashes from erupting from 2008 to 2011. On Nov 11, the court ordered Thai troops out of the promontory on which the temple sits.

Cambodians who come to honour Ta Di at Preah Vihear do the same – albeit in a more practical way – with the temple’s modern day guardians. They slip riel or packets of cigarettes into the hands of these security officers or soldiers there.

Now Cambodian police don’t have a particularly good reputation. Just three days before a visit to the temple by this reporter from The Straits Times, police were accused of shooting dead a bystander in Phnom Penh while cracking down on striking garment workers.

Security staff at the temple, however, earn a lot more goodwill from their countrymen.

Preah Vihear province native Bour Bunno, 22, explains: “These people protect the temple from invasion. They devote their lives to this temple.” In 2008, when bilateral tensions led to a build-up of troops along the border, Mr Bunno bought water and cigarettes for soldiers stationed there.

 “When I saw these people living in tents, watching the border, I felt very impressed,” he says.

Conditions can be tough at the temple, which is situated some 500m up on an exposed plateau in the Dangrek mountain range. In the November chill, sleep doesn’t come easy, admits a plainclothes police officer.

Previous fund-raising efforts for these border forces have made it more bearable, and also raised their profile.

Plus, for a nation weighed down in recent decades by civil war and genocide, the Preah Vihear verdict was a precious triumph.

Professor Sorn Samnang, the president of the Cambodian Historians Association, says it represents “the most important victory of Cambodians in their modern history, and the symbol of national pride, solidarity and unity”.

tanhy@sph.com.sg