BORDERING ON INSANITY
By Andrew Biggs
On the road to Phnom Kulen I spot the sign; a turn-off to Preah Vihear.
“Oh look,” I say out loud. “There’s the road to Khao Pra Viharn.”
“That’s not the way you pronounce it,” says my guide. “It’s Preah Vi-here.”
“The Thais pronounce it Khao Pra Viharn.”
“The Thais don’t own it,” says my guide.
I am in the North of Cambodia not far from Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat and a town which, by its very name, reflects a troubled relationship.
“Siem Reap” means “The Defeat Of The Siamese.” The word “reap” either means “to fight” or “to flatten” in Cambodian depending on whom you talk to, but it signifies a Khmer victory over the Siamese somewhere in antiquity. It also signifies how closely intertwined the two cultures are; it has the same meaning in Thai. Talk about feuding siblings.
Preah Vihear is the temple perched on a 600-metre sheer cliff overlooking Cambodia. The temple is 1,200 years old. It’s in Si Sa Ket province in the country of Cambodia, and if you have been following the story of this temple you will understand that.
It was an important temple of the vast Khmer Empire that controlled the region a thousand years ago. For a while Siam conquered the area that is now Cambodia but in the end lost it to French Indochina around the turn of the 20th century. The French got a big crayon and drew a border between Siam and Cambodia; a border that is as blurred as the two cultures themselves.
One of the casualties of that big crayon was Preah Vihear. It’s technically on Thai soil but belongs to Cambodia. There was a dispute over maps that went to the International Court of Justice in 1962 which ruled in Cambodia’s favor and the Thais have been seething ever since.
I am simplifying an extremely complicated story; suffice to say the Thais felt aggrieved and that is probably why the temple was difficult to visit for a long time –the only way to get there was via Thailand, which meant sometimes the gates were open and sometimes the gates were closed.
Worse, it is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of soldiers from both sides have been killed in skirmishes in and around Preah Vihear over the past 50 years. In 1979 there was a truly horrific event; thousands of Cambodian refugees were sent to Preah Vihear and literally pushed over the edge of the cliff by the Thai military government, under the helm of General Kriangsak Chomanan, who was tired of shouldering the burden of them.
More recently there was a dispute on adjacent land to the east and west of the temple, which went to the International Court of Justice in 2013 and again, the Hague found in favor of the Cambodians.
In these flag-waving, make-the-Thai-people-happy times, the issue of Preah Vihear remains a bitter pill for the Thais. It cuts very deeply into the Thai psyche — imagine Australia being forced (by foreigners, no less) to hand over part of its land to New Zealand, or England handing the white cliffs of Dover over to the French.
Only a month ago there were further clashes and deaths on the Thai-Cambodian border as two Cambodians were captured and allegedly burnt to a crisp by men in Thai military uniforms.
As a resident of Thailand I have only ever been subjected to the Thai side of the argument and, of course, the Thai culture. Having just spent a week in Northern Cambodia, I begin to wonder what the fuss is about.
“Preah Vihear is part of our heritage,” the Cambodian tour guide is saying solemnly.
He has been silent for about as long as it took you to read all those explanatory paragraphs; I myself have zoned out, gazing at the paddy fields and roadside stalls on this chilly January morning, a vista so evocative of North-East Thailand and why shouldn’t it be? We are 150 kilometres away from where Northern Cambodia segues into Thailand’s Isan.
“Yes, you guys definitely own it,” I say, trying to be nice.
“We have a rich culture that goes back many centuries,” he continues, now sounding a little like a Cambodian Ministry of Tourism advertisement. I suspect he learnt that line off by heart a while ago.
“Take our New Year, for example. Did you know the Cambodian New Year does not happen in December?” he asks.
“Yes, really. It happens in April, and it is celebrated over three days. We think of it as a time for us to return home, and for the family to be close together. The Cambodian culture values the family highly. We are a very close family unit.”
The tour guide is on a roll.
“Yes, we pay respects to our elders, then we celebrate the New Year. It is our custom.”
As we approach the mountain known as Phnom Koulen I ask him about the language. Cambodia, has its own system of counting; I try to compare them to the Thai numbers but my guide is not having any of that. He would rather go from English to Cambodian.
“One … moo-y … two … bee … three … bai … four … boon … five … brumm.”
When we get to ten, something interesting happens. Cambodia has separate numbers for multiples of ten – and they are the same as the Thai numbers. I would like to tell the tour guide that but I fear it would go down like a lead balloon.
As we progress up the mountain, we discover the Cambodian and Thai languages have many words in common. Despite being surrounded by countries with tonal languages – Laos, Vietnam and Thailand — the Cambodian language itself is not tonal. And yet even without the tones there are similar words; in Thai a school is a rong rien while in Cambodian it is sala rien. The word sala can also be found in Thai – meaning rong.
There are hundreds of words like this. If you can read Thai, you can almost read Khmer since the letters are very similar.
(The Guinness Book of Records claims the Khmer alphabet is the longest in the world with 74 letters. Thailand has a mere 59.)
Soon we are onto spirits and unique Cambodian ghosts.
“We have a ghost here,” my guide explains with pride. “She is a woman … a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails and they hang down beneath her. She flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.”
I nod my head with interest. I dare not tell him that Thailand has a ghost, too, who is a woman; a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails which hang down beneath her and yes, she flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.
On the return trip to Siem Reap my guide regales me with other stories of the unique Cambodian culture, and all the while I see the ghost of unique Thai culture hovering behind him.
By the time I reach my hotel I feel sorry for all those soldiers, both Thai and Cambodian, as well as all those refugees who have lost their lives over the cliffs of Preah Vihear. If there is one thing more tragic than burning an enemy to a crisp over our differences, it is killing them over our similarities.