A UNESCO Failure
Here are some of the alternate titles I considered for this post:
- Racism Rears its Ugly Head in Cambodia (racism is always ugly).
- UNESCO: You really fucked this one up.
- World Heritage Site in a Border Dispute
Whenever I research visiting a new country or region, one of the first things I check for is UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I have visited over 60 sites in my life and have found these places which are inscribed for “universal value” to be of great personal value as well.
A month ago in Laos, when I saw there was a second Cambodian site near the Thai and Laos border I began to look deeper into it. The Temple of Preah Vihear I discovered, dated back to the 9th century and was situated atop a mountain. Wikipedia stated that it had been the subject of a border dispute for many years but had been settled by an International Court in 1962, giving Cambodia territorial claim. When it was inscribed by UNESCO, Cambodia agreed to give direct unrestricted access to Thais as they consider it a holy site as well.
Wikipedia further states: “Cambodia allows day-trip access to the temple from Thailand on a visa-free basis. An entrance fee of US$5 or 200 baht is charged foreigners (as of 2006, reduced to 50 baht for Thai citizens), plus a fee of 5 baht for processing a photocopy of their passport.”
Further reading indicated that the best access was from Thailand. I was already detouring to go to Wat Phou, Lao’s second WHS and this looked to be close.
I was never able to find transportation from Laos through Thailand. However, further research including Wikitravel and Trip Advisor indicated that day trips could be arranged from Siem Reap. Great! Over the next week or so, I gathered more information from various sources. Once we arrived in Siem Reap, our guesthouse manager said he could arrange a driver to take us there and back (three hours each way).
So yesterday we finally went. It is a long three hour 200 km drive but the car was comfortable and air conditioned. Our driver spoke almost no English but not a problem. We finally arrived at the base of the mountain and went to get our passes. Admission from Cambodia is free but you pay for the transportation up the very steep mountain, $5 to ride on a motorcycle or $25 for a pickup truck.
We were asked to present our passports. One look and the agent said, “You can go up but she cannot. No Thai’s are allowed.” Well, you could have scrapped my lower jaw off the ground.
“What do you mean no Thais are allowed,” I asked. “We just booked a car and drove three hours to get here. This UNESCO site is supposed to be open to all nationalities.”
Well, they were adamant and I soon found out that the road up from Thailand (a much better road btw) had been permanently closed four years before and no citizens of Thailand had been allowed to visit since. So much for the spirit of UNESCO.
I was so upset at this blatant act of racism that I was ready to get back in the car, turn around, and drive three hours home. Anna handled it much better than me displaying a deep surrender and calm. I asked our driver why he had not told us this beforehand. He said he did not know. We called the guesthouse and received the same reply from the manager. “You know my partner is Thai. If you are going to book this attraction you really need to know what the hell you are doing”!
Well, Anna smiles and tells me to go up She will wait with the drivers until I return in a couple of hours she adds. That smile could melt anyone (well certainly me) and I decided to go.
I shared a 4X4 pickup with five young French women and we drove up the very steep road which was bombed away in places. There is significant military presence with automatic weapons here and apparently on the Thai side as well. From the top you can see the Thai flag waving from a military outpost across the way.
It is the best location of any Khmer temples I have seen and worth a visit. The strategic importance is obvious at first look. But it was bittersweet for me. It is remote and does not receive much tourism (at least not in May). I will include a couple photographs at the end just to give you a taste, however, my heart is not into writing much of a review of this important Khmer temple complex.
Yes, the Khmer people have been through hell, first with the secret American bombing during the Vietnam War and later with the Khmer Rouge who murdered 20% of the population. The median age in Cambodia is 15, the youngest in the world. To come back from this brink in 30 years more or less is above remarkable. The spirit of the young Cambodians I interact with daily here inspires me. I understand that the people I spoke with are “only following orders.” Still and despite ASEAN and all its promises, it is this tribal mentality that will prevent the region from ever realizing its true potential.
One upshot of this is that after arriving back in Siem Reap, I decided to register and become a contributor to both Wikipedia and Wikitravel. I have always found these resources valuable although in this case their information was ‘dated’ to put it mildly. As my first contribution, I have already edited the appropriate articles n both Wikis.
In closing, go and visit this amazing piece of history. Unless of course you have a Thai boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, child or friend with you. In that case stay in Siem Reap, have a nice lunch in a cafe and get a massage.