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Angkor and Preah Vihear: Tale of Two Khmer Cities

I arrived in Cambodia in the middle of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, and although Cambodians celebrate the new year in April, Siem Riep at the end of January was teeming with tourists and red envelopes hanging from trees. The traffic jam along the entry road to Angkor Thom would have made the George Washington Bridge approach during Christie’s “traffic Study” pale in comparison. Almost every type of vehicle, except for public transportation, vied to get in through the stone gates of the ancient Khmer city, and at a current 3 million visitors per year, it was terrifying to imagine what Angkor could become if the government reached its goal of having 10 million annual visitors.

Although the tourists do other things besides visiting the temples, such as sticking their feet in tanks filled with skin-eating fish, the magnificent Khmer architecture remains the main attraction. Having been to Angkor before, this time I could concentrate on details previously missed such as one coquettish apsara (female spirit) holding a mirror, and another showing off the earrings hanging from her extended earlobes, at Ta Som. I believe one could visit Angkor a million times and always find something new and interesting to marvel about.

Although I could have spent a lifetime at Angkor, I decided to venture north to Preah Vihear, the Khmer site located on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, and the focus of a land dispute between the two countries for over 50 years, which exploded into a violent altercation in 2008, when the monument was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I was curious to see what the fuss was about and decided to take the three-hour ride (with a driver who spoke no English) through rice fields, raised wooden villages, rubber and tobacco plantations, and former Khmer Rouge territory, to reach the eleventh-century sanctuary dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

As we approached the Dangkrek mountain range, we left the paved highway and entered a dirt road flanked by dozens of new, identical, raised wood bungalows, and after crossing several military check points, we arrived at the ticket office where I was asked to produce a passport (which I did not have with me) as identification. After a moment of panic, I was relieved to find out that a New York driver’s license will get you into Preah Vihear, and proceeded to climb the steep road to the top of the mountain where the site is located. Two extremely young-looking soldiers opened a gate announcing the beginning of the militarized zone occupied by dozens of Cambodian soldiers living in wooden barracks, surrounded by sandbag walls erected to protect the site from their neighbor to the north. The climb truly required a 4x4 vehicle and an excellent driver (mine was, although I could not tell him so because my Khmer is non-existent) and once I arrived at the top, and after surveying the endless Cambodian fields at the bottom of the hill, Preak Vihear reminded me of Machu Picchu, not just for its spectacular setting but for its monumental stonework.

For a couple of hours, I was able to visit the site at leisure and climbed hundreds of steps, passed through ornate gopuras (monumental entrance towers), walked over naga (serpent deity)-lined causeways, wondered at perfectly shaped pools, and entered numerous temples, all beautifully carved out of the sandstone mountain. Meanwhile, the soldiers mingled with the orange-robed monks and the patriotic visitors who gave them cigarettes as gifts, except for the lone Kalashnikov-armed guard perched at the top of the main entry stairs, the closest point to the Thai border.

Before returning to the car, I listened to a Buddhist prayer lead by a young monk who chanted and lit incense inside a shrine, part of a ceremony that was probably performed unchanged since the time of his predecessors during the reign of of Yasovarman I, the Khmer king who built Phnom Bakheng and started the construction of Prasat Preah Vihear at the end of the ninth century century A.D., and again, at the time of his successors who completed the construction two centuries later.

Time seemed to have stopped as we walked away from the ancient monuments, but reality kicked in again when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket with a text from the Thai phone company welcoming me to their territory.