With 10,000 of your closest friends
On January 15 I had the pleasure, no, the privilege of attending one mighty party on the top of a distant mountain. I’m referring to the opening celebration of the completion (sic) of the road to the top of Preah Vihear.
I didn’t venture up to Preah Vihear solely to attend this shindig but rather it was the first stop on a four-day-turned-into-three-day motorbike trip (see the Koh Ker story for more about that) that just happened to start on the 15th of January. I knew of the opening yes, and certainly expected a few Khmers to be hanging about the mountain temple but I never expected what was ultimately to go down.
The official reports said 10,000 people turned up for the event and I see no reason why that wouldn’t be an accurate count. Of that 10,000, I would estimate 9,990 were Khmer, 10 were Western, and none were Thai.
We came via Anlong Veng (try the Choum No Tror Cheak Restaurant – if it walks, crawls, swims, or slithers – it’s on the menu) and the road from there to Preah Vihear is nearly completed save for a couple of bridges and a couple of short stretches that should be completed very soon.
Upon arrival we were told that we could not ride our motorbikes up the mountain. Park them and walk. My companion, Paul Hay of Hidden Cambodia Dirt Bike Tours, promptly disappeared on his bike, tracked down someone in charge and a few kind words and a pair of crispy fivers and we were on our way up, turning a two-hour walk into a ten-minute bike ride up a road that really isn’t ready for any significant traffic but was one helluva a lot of fun to ride a motorbike up, blasting past weary Khmers lugging up suitcases, tents, mats, dinner, grandma, what-have-you.
I was hoping to be the first barang to put a motorbike on the top of Preah Vihear but apparently a couple of guys, you know who you are, beat me by two days.
The top of the mountain was wall-to-wall four-wheel-drives and everywhere Khmers had set up tents, tarps, laid down mats, whatever they had, claiming some sort of space that might prove suitable for a little shuteye later on.
With waning optimism, we ventured over to the HALO Trust hut hoping to pitch hammocks there but found that the whole area had been set aside for VIP use. In hopes of garnering a little space in the VIP section we employed the tried and true tactic of dropping a few names, having a white guy drape a few cameras around his neck, and just to be sure, tipping one of the resident police officers a few bucks. Some combination of the three tactics, most likely the final one, ultimately had us a spot in the VIP area for the night.
I had never seen Preah Vihear temple before and for all intents and purposes, I still haven’t. How could you really, with 10,000 people mucking about? So rather than explore the temple I decided instead to explore the significance of this event. I talked with a few Khmers, most who had ventured all the way from Phnom Penh at Governor Chea Sophara’s open invitation and one word stood out, “pride”. It’s our temple, we have it back, and to hell with the Thais was the theme of the night.
This was made all the more evident when I encountered a sign that said in English and Khmer, “We love Preah Vihear temple”. In a third language, Thai, the message was also written, but had been most conspicuously wiped out.
After sunset the real festivities began. A show that was a pleasant mixture of pop music (with some of Cambodia’s most famous entertainers turning up for the event) and traditional dance and music lasted until about one in the morning. This was followed by a theatrical performance that lasted until five a.m. Some of us did try to sleep during this time, but the weather was scandalously cold and loudspeakers blaring out the show were all over the place. But it seemed the majority of the Khmers weren’t interested in sleep, anyway.
Soon the sun rose and 10,000 sleeping but proud Khmers started to make the long journey down the mountain and ultimately back to their homes, though many, like ourselves would travel no further than Tbeng Meanchey that day filling every guesthouse in town.
From a practical standpoint, there was no shortage of food and water and local vendors were doing a healthy business, but less healthy was the complete lack of trash receptacles and there were nowhere near enough sanitary facilities. Four toilets and a few makeshift holes surrounded by blue tarps for privacy (curiously located behind the land mine warning ropes – yes, there are still a lot of mines up here) were hardly enough for 10,000 people. But what would you expect?
On that chilly night I was witness to an enormous display of Khmer national pride and unity which was a much needed reminder of why I came to this county in the first place.
We may from time to time enjoy taking the piss out of some of the doings and misdoings of Phnom Penh Municipality, but in offering his assistance in pulling off the opening of Preah Vihear, Governor Chea Sophara deserves a few high fives (actually we gave one member of his security detail two to get our bikes up the mountain…). The opening of Preah Vihear is not only one large step in the progression of the Cambodia tourism industry; it’s also one large step in the development of the nation, both physical and psychological.
Interestingly, upon returning to civilization I noticed in the press that some comments had been made in respect to the suitability of the Governor of Phnom Penh involving himself in a project that's ultimately for the benefit of Preah Vihear province. Well, the way I see it, Chea Sophara is a Cambodian first and the Phnom Penh Governor second. If this partnership with Preah Vihear provincial governor Preap Tann is a net positive for Cambodia as a whole, then who cares?
Preah Vihear practical
By road from either Anlong Veng or Tbeng Meanchey. The road between Anlong Veng and Preah Vihear is pretty good while the road from Tbeng Meanchey is not. The road from the base of the mountain to the temple is quite steep in spots and if you're taking a bike up it you better know what you're doing.
For motorcyclists, the road up the mountain requires some skill as does the wretched excuse for a road north of Tbeng Meanchey. For guided tours see http://www.hiddencambodia.com.
Pitch a hammock in the HALO hut or use a nearby guesthouse at the base of the mountain, basic but adequate.
A couple of very basic food stalls are at the base of the mountain and again near the entrance to the temple. Don't expect too much.
There are many of them here. Do not go wandering into the bushes! The HALO Trust has marked off quite well the unsafe areas, but regrettably, some people find the land mine warning signs make nice souvenirs and they take them. I'm not joking. So stay on the stones and the well-marked paths.
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