On one side stood the ancient cliff-top temple that is the focus of
their dispute, where a few nicks and chips from artillery fire added
new blemishes to some of its collapsing walls and pillars.
The Cambodian soldiers who occupy the 11th-century temple stand almost
within shouting distance of a lookout post flying a Thai flag at the
highest point across the ravine.
From Friday through Monday morning, the two sides exchanged artillery
and rifle fire that by various reports took at least seven lives and
left dozens of soldiers and civilians wounded.
It was the most sustained engagement since the current dispute began,
in July 2008, after Unesco designated the temple a World Heritage site
under the management of Cambodia.
Troops on both sides remained on alert Tuesday, and their governments
remained hostile in a confrontation that has drawn pleas for peace
from the United Nations and other Southeast Asian countries.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” said a Cambodian intelligence
officer in a shed near the front lines. “But if they come, we’ll
Across the surrounding hillside, cracked boulders, broken trees and a
wide swath of blackened ground were evidence of a heavy barrage of
artillery and the fires it caused.
Like other officers and soldiers in both armies, the officer, Capt.
Sam San, 45, said the other side had fired first.
“We shouted at them, ‘Don’t enter Cambodia, or we’ll fight.”’ But, he
said, they came anyway, into an area the Thais consider their own.
The temple, which is known as Preah Vihear in Cambodia and as Khao
Phra Viharn in Thailand, looks out from the edge of a steep escarpment
over a wide area of northern Cambodia. At its front entrance, away
from the cliff, is Thailand, and, until the fighting, most visitors
entered from the more accessible Thai side.
After the engagement last weekend, the portion of the temple closest
to Thailand showed the marks of the fighting, with chips and chunks
cut out of a column and of a wall of the fourth gopura, or entrance
building, along the temple’s causeway.
A trail of blood through a carved stone doorway traced the last steps
of a Cambodian soldier who was killed.
At the fifth and last gopura, chips from the walls were scattered on
the ground, along with the tail fins of a rocket. There was no sign of
the collapse that the Cambodian government had claimed.
Troops sat perched on the tumbled stones of the ruin, and a sniper
rifle was concealed under a rock. A large placard nearby reads:
“Cambodian National Commission for UNESCO.”
Three yellow packets of dried noodles lay at the foot of a chipped
wall. A soldier said they were an offering to the soul of a
photographer who had sold pictures to tourists and been killed in the
A young monk walked down an empty causeway, his bright orange robe
glimmering against the gray stone.
“The ground was shaking, and the bunker almost fell in on us,” said
the monk, Lon Seng Ly, 19, who lived with five other monks at a small
contemporary temple halfway down the cliff on the Cambodian side.
“We had to lie down,” he said, describing the days of bombardment.
“The sound almost blew out my ears.”
His temple, Keo Sikha Kiri Svarak, is part way down the winding road
to the Cambodian countryside in an area that is also claimed by
Thailand. Its loss would cut Cambodia’s access to Preah Vihear.
One apparent catalyst for the latest round of violence was Thailand’s
demand that Cambodia remove its flag from beside the temple.
The temple, which is constructed of wood planks, and the rocks that
surround it on the mountainside were riddled with the marks of
shrapnel. Rifle fire had defaced a temple inscription and chipped a
statue of Buddha.
Perched on top of the monks’ bunker, reinforcing it with new sandbags,
a Cambodian soldier pointed across the ravine at the Thai flag and
said, “That’s Thailand.” Then he pointed to the Cambodian flag that
still flies above a temple archway and said, “This is Cambodia.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 9, 2011, in
The International Herald Tribune.