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”.