PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia: Brightly colored lines of washing hang by the gray stone walls. A vendor offers sunglasses, shampoo and cigarettes from a plastic sheet under a tree. A man with a Polaroid camera sells souvenir photos to the Cambodian soldiers camped on the temple grounds.
At the main gate, where an hourlong firefight with Thai troops broke out nearly two weeks ago, the commander of a Cambodian border police unit is playing cards with his men.
It is a sleepy time here at Preah Vihear temple, on the Thai-Cambodian border, where a dispute over sovereignty has become the first international flash point in Indochina in 20 years.
Cambodian troops occupy the swooping clifftop temple, which is in Cambodia but is most easily reached from the high ground on the Thai side. The Thais, who claim parts of the territory around the temple, are mostly out of sight in the hills or in camps nearby in Thailand.
But the Cambodian government seems to be digging in for a long siege. A new budget expected to be approved next week would double its military budget to $500 million - or 25 percent of all government spending.
"We cannot sit and watch Thai troops encroach on our border," Cheam Yeap, deputy head of the national assembly's finance commission, told Reuters. "Our army needs to be more organized, better trained, with newer bases and well-fed troops."
The encampment here has the village feel of Cambodian deployments throughout conflicts in recent decades.
A small market has opened under red and blue tarpaulins; a barber has put out his chair by a temple wall; a satellite dish brings in both Thai and Cambodian soap operas for the officers to watch.
Soldiers calling their families wander the cliff's edge searching for a cellphone signal, which switches between Thai and Cambodian carriers as they walk.
At the bottom of the great stone causeway, giant loops of silver razor wire close off the main entrance, which is guarded by armed men wearing sandals; the 900-year-old temple, with its sagging walls and tumbling columns, is empty of tourists.
The commander of the forces here, General Chea Dara, claimed a great victory in the little skirmish that took place on Oct. 15.
"They left with their hands in the air!" he said of a group of 10 Thai soldiers whom the Cambodians captured and returned. He raised his arms and shook them, adding, "They were trembling! They thought we would kill them."
Other tales are told on the Thai side, and the origins and outcome of the clash remain unclear. Soldiers here say that three Cambodian soldiers died, two by gunfire and one from a heart attack. The Thais admit to one death and several wounded.
Tiny marks of shrapnel fleck the great stone staircase that rises from the Thai side to the temple, along with two stone dragons that flank the steps. But nothing seems to have been gained or lost in the fighting.
The dispute flared in July, when Unesco, the cultural agency of the United Nations, declared the temple a World Heritage site based on a Cambodian government proposal. Domestic politics in Thailand fueled a nationalist backlash, and troops, artillery and tanks were moved into position.
The confrontation echoes with the history of the rise and retreat of empires over the centuries, and old fears and hatreds still burn between Cambodia and its more powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand.
The dispute also draws together the tangled strands of more recent conflicts, with roots in the Vietnam war and the brutal decades of massacre and civil war involving the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia.
One Chinese-made 85-millimeter artillery piece at the lip of the precipice was brought to Cambodia by invading Vietnamese soldiers in 1980, and it may have been used against U.S. troops a few years before that. Since then, both Khmer Rouge and government soldiers have fired it as control of Preah Vihear changed hands.
After that civil war ended a decade ago, the Khmer Rouge were integrated into the government army, and the combined force is facing off now against Thailand.
The Thais, armed and equipped mostly with American weaponry, have the advantage in firepower as well as air cover from fighter jets. Their 300,000-strong military is three times the size of the Cambodian armed forces.
But the Cambodians, with their more tormented history, are more hardened soldiers. Some of them have fought on one side or another - or on more than one - since they were boys in the 1960s.
"They wanted to test us, to see if Cambodian troops are easy to intimidate," said Colonel Meas Yoeun, 48, a ranking commander in Preah Vihear Province.
"They curse us and mock us and look down on us," he said of the Thai soldiers. "They say we have old weapons and ask us if they really fire."
According to the Cambodian soldiers camped here, the Oct. 15 battle began with taunts as Thai troops across a small stream shouted at them, "Come on, let's fight!"
Touch Socheat, 39, a captain in the border police, said he had come to know some of the Thai soldiers by name over the weeks as they called back and forth, and he felt betrayed when they started shooting.
"One guy got hit right over here as he was taking a bath," he said, pointing to an open pump. "I'm not going to trust them any more."
Srum Mao, 45, a deputy post commander for the border police, said the two sides watch each other quietly now, waiting for some new surprise.
"We watch what they do," he said. "When they carry ammunition, we carry ammunition. When they dig a bunker, we dig a bunker. When they put down their weapons, we put down our weapons. We are watching each other."
7 months ago