The 11th-century Hindu temple is perched serenely on a mountain top, just across from Thailand, with sweeping views over the Cambodian jungle as well as the thousands of Thai and Cambodian troops facing off in a territorial dispute.
Despite the political tensions, the mood here is casual, with many from both sides sharing meals with each other and snapping photos.
Soldiers lean their weapons against tree trunks and stroll off to chat with colleagues as villagers, tourists and Buddhist monks walk through the area.
But strong nationalist feelings bubble underneath pleasantries. Cambodian soldiers and citizens are mobilised to fight for what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Hem Veb, 33, said, ”We all vow to protect the Preah Vihear temple and our territory. It is our temple and I am sure if they dare to come, they will be destroyed.”
The ruins of the Hindu temple are the most important example of ancient Khmer architecture outside Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat, and have weathered centuries of wars and duelling territorial claims with Thailand. Thai soldiers in the 1950s occupied its series of complexes with elegant carvings linked by stone stairways and causeways, but left after a World Court ruling in 1962 declared the temple belonged to Cambodia.
The temple bears bullet holes and is surrounded by signs warning of landmines, scars from Cambodia’s civil war that raged from the 1970s to 1990s.
Now, although it sits on Cambodian soil, the easiest entrance is in Thailand and a section of the surrounding land remains in dispute.
The latest controversy over the temple erupted after the United Nation’s cultural body UNESCO inscribed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site earlier this month.
Days later, three Thai protesters jumped a border fence to protest against the decision.
They were followed by hundreds of Thai troops and now Preah Vihear’s dramatic location in the Dangrek mountain range is the scene of an escalating stand-off.
High-level military talks in Thailand between the two countries failed to solve the problem, as did a meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers in Singapore. Now Cambodia has asked the UN Security Council to step in.
Cambodian soldiers say they are eager to fight Thai troops, saying their ”chests almost break” from heeding government orders to hold their fire.
Some of the thong-wearing forces with Cold War-era weapons jocularly say they want to shoot Thai soldiers for their boots and nice guns.
Soldier Heng Chantha said, ”We want our land back. We will not give the land to Thailand.”
Another soldier, armed with an AK-47 rifle said, ”We are on high alert all the time. We have been told not to open fire first. But if the Thai troops fire at us, we will fire back.”
That sentiment is shared throughout Cambodia, as donations flow into the area from the royal family, government officials and people to support troops and local villagers. This week Cambodian pop stars arrived with a television crew to hand out food.
Hundreds of soldiers, military police, journalists and villagers are camped uncomfortably around the temple, lining up for the handful of toilets in the area and complaining of the smell.
However they all remain adamant not to back down.
”We pledge to protect the temple, we cannot let Thai soldiers take it,” soldier You Eang said. ”We vow to protect our nation forever.” AFP