The temple stood out on top of the plateau, looking somewhat lost, surrounded only by emptiness dropping into Cambodia on the one side and Thailand on the other. Only grass and trees could be seen accompanying it and the scene radiated a silence that only the remotest places have to offer.
Stefanie tapped the screen impatiently, attempting to focus my attention on the pictures of Preah Vihear that she had googled and was now holding in front of my face.
“We have to go there, it’s supposed to be amazing.”
I continued playing with the remote for the hotel room’s aircon, trying to make it keep up with the plus thirty degrees centigrade pressing in on the building from the outside. Only the cool of the floor tiles seemed to have any effect on the inside temperature.
“What’s so amazing about it?” I asked while adding another three button presses to the cooling setup that apparently did nothing.
“It’s high up on a mountain and no one goes there. It’s huge and gorgeous and it’s totally empty!”
I gave up on the aircon and sat back on my bed, giving it some thought. We did have time to spare, but…. “Why does no one go there?”
“Well, it seems to be the central subject of an armed border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia.”
She pulled up the UN travel advisory page. “There is a UN court ruling this week. Depending on how that goes the conflict could get better or worse.”
The next three days were spent keeping an eye on the news, checking travel advisories and mulling over the question: Is seeing one temple worth potentially risking your life?
Our research indicated that the affected area was not just the temple but also the roads leading up to the plateau.
In the end we determined that the risk was negligible. There had not been any aggressions in months and even our hosts did not think that it was a big issue. Plus the thought of beating the crowds of tourists that made up a good percentage of the population of Siem Reap to the treat of an untouched sight was alluring.
So we hired a driver to pick us up.
The car was parked halfway across town and the driver shuttled us over from the hotel on his moto – three to the bike. In good old Cambodian fashion the car wasn’t ready yet. In fact, it was propped up on some makeshift supports, hood wide open and a mechanic hanging over the frame, almost disappearing inside the engine compartment.
“He needs to repair the aircon” the driver apologized.
We nodded our understanding. Don’t wanna be stuck on the road without a cool breeze.
The delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As the driver explained the route to us it became clear that we would be passing through the Angkor Wat area and needed our tourist passes to avoid paying the entrance fee again – which we obviously had not taken with us.
So while Stefanie stayed with the car, the driver and I headed back to the hotel, picked up the passes and returned.
By then the car was finished and we drove two hours north to Angkrong; that’s how far regular cars go.
Only a few sparse houses made up this outpost just before the Thai border, but the place was busy with locals arranging motos and 4×4 to ferry them over the steep mountain road. The heat made the air over the road shimmer. Only a single police car reminded us that we were in disputed territory.
We registered for the Preah Vihear temple in the one solid building and arranged for two motos of our own.
Stefanie and her driver went first, my driver followed.
Only about half a kilometer later my driver stopped, the moto ahead of us disappearing around the corner and up the mountain. He tapped the gas display to indicate that he needed to refill. He vanished into a hut just off the road and returned a few minutes later with a canister.
Fuel problem solved we carried on, another kilometer or so. That’s when the road started climbing very steep; and our moto didn’t. Apparently that was a problem easily solved.
“We are too heavy” my driver declared, “you get off. New moto.”
He shooed me off the bike, turned around and departed.
And I stood there. Alone, looking somewhat lost, surrounded only by grass and trees, on a steep, winding road in the middle of a border conflict.
The sun hit its noon high, stealing all shade. I stood in the middle of the road. There was no indication of any sort of nearby human activity, but the crickets filled the hot air with raucous.
Five minutes passed.
Ten minutes passed.
I was still alone. Only one other moto had come around the corner, the driver looking intensely confused as to how and why this tall white person was standing around in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t stop though and I was back to being on my own.
I didn’t think the parking lot was that far away, my driver really should have been back by now.
I was getting really thirsty. My hat was my only protection against the sun, but nothing could protect me from the heat. The tarmac only exacerbate the swelter but I didn’t dare leave the road so my driver wouldn’t miss me.
I started picturing coming across a border patrol and having to explain my presence. Was I a spy? A saboteur? Did I smuggle drugs or weapons? Which side did I support in the conflict?
I considered walking back to the main street. There wasn’t any traffic after all and it surely wouldn’t take me more than half an hour.
I had just about given up on my driver when another moto approached from the mountain side. It was Stefanie’s driver, on his way back to the station. He looked as confused to find me on my own as the passerby had.
“Why are you here?” he shouted.
I shrugged. How to explain.
“The moto was broken.” I told him.
“Okay, okay.” He understood and turned his bike around. He waved for me to hop on. I was saved!
We sped up the mountain, the road getting so steep that I started to understand why you weren’t allowed on it on your own.
We did pass a military checkpoint. The soldiers, all carrying assault rifles, looked bored. Most of them were leaning against sandbags and smoking cigarettes. One was sitting next to a stationary machine gun, waving a fly out of his face. The presence of a tourist passing by seemed to be the highlight of their day, as they waved cheerily at me.
Not five minutes later we were on top of the mountain, pulling into a large area populated with a few locals selling fruits and water. Stefanie waited in front of the staircase leading up to the temple complex.
“What happened?!” she shouted at me from across the lot while I was climbing off the bike. She pushed past some locals who entertained themselves by staring at our sizes, pointing out their height and ours, shaking their heads in wonder.
The story was explained and we finally got to explore the temple.
It was indeed as grand and as empty as Stefanie had predicted.
We spent at least an hour exploring the complex until we reached the forward plateau. The view was spectacular. The main temple around us, Thailand to the left and right and Cambodia in front of us. In the distance we could guess where the border to Laos started, not fifty kilometers away.
The wind blew freely up on the mountain and finally offered respite from the humid jungle air.