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Japanese tourists flock to long-disputed Cambodian border temple

The temple offers a spectacular view from atop an escarpment that has been ruled by the world court as Cambodian territory. (File photo)

PREAH VIHEAR - The ancient cliff-top temple that Cambodia and Thailand have fought over for more than a century has proved to be an unlikely hit with Japanese tourists.

Figures show that visitors from Japan are the largest group of foreign visitors at the site.

Of the 23,823 foreign tourists who visited the Unesco World Heritage site in 2016, 8,306 were Japanese, according to Cambodia's state-run Preah Vihear Authority, which runs the off-the-beaten-track temple complex.

That is more than twice the figure for Chinese, in second place at 3,563 visitors. French (2,658) and Thai (775) were next.

Japanese ranked only seventh in the number of foreigners visiting Cambodia last year, or 191,577 out of around 5 million.

Sathol Miura, president of APEX Travel Agency which provides services tailored to Japanese tourists, attributed the temple's popularity among them to their tendency to "want to go and see something which is new to them."

Kim Sedara, president of Preah Vihear Authority, said Japanese tourists seem to like visiting natural and historic places that feed their sense of adventure. "Thus, Preah Vihear is fit to get their interest as it combines these sorts of things."

He urged more foreign tourists to visit the "very peaceful and unique temple built on a beautiful mountain," which is a "very natural and sacred site just like a paradise."

The Hindu temple, built between the mid-10th century and early 12th centuries, is situated at the top of a 525-metre escarpment that offers stunning views of Cambodia's vast, jungle-clad northern plains far below.

It was occupied by Thailand from 1949 until 1962 when the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled in Cambodia's favour in the sovereignty dispute.

A second attempt by Thailand at the same court, although reduced in scale to claim only some of the surrounding grounds, failed in 2013.

The temple, considered to be a masterpiece of Khmer architecture, is less well-known than Angkor Wat and other famed temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia's main tourism draw. One reason is that it was off-limits to tourists during most of Cambodia's three decades of war and internal conflicts that ended in 1998.

Changing hands several times, the temple was briefly opened for tourism in 1992 but it closed after it was recaptured by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas from government forces. It reopened in 1998 after guerrillas holding it defected to the government.

Back then, tourists could only reach the temple ruins from Thailand, which offers easy access, because of land mines and poor road infrastructure on the Cambodian side.

The border gate with Thailand is now closed due to the border dispute that became heated in 2008, while access from the Cambodian side has greatly eased and the area has been de-mined.

From Siem Reap, it now takes just several hours by car.

Over Thai objections, Preah Vihear temple was designated as a World Heritage site in 2008. Later in that year, Cambodian and Thai troops engaged in firefights over the land around it, resulting in casualties on both sides.

The last such fighting took place in 2011.

In 2013, the International Court of Justice issued a fresh ruling, rejecting Thailand's claim to sovereignty over 4.6-square-kilometre zone around the temple and determining that Cambodia "has sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear".

It called on Thailand to withdraw its security forces from the area.

Yang Yin, 41, a police officer who has been posted at Preah Vihear for 17 years, said he is unsure how long the border issue will remain unsettled, but tourists of all nationalities are welcome to visit in the meantime.

Evidently unfazed by the cross-border tensions over the temple dispute, some intrepid tourists could be seen photographing the many military bunkers dotting the road up the cliff and in the vicinity of the temple.

According to the Preah Vihear Authority, the number of foreign tourists visiting the temple is increasing on a yearly basis.

Last year's figure of 23,823 compares with only 7,458 in 2012, one year after the latest firefights between Cambodian and Thai soldiers ceased.

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