By Agence France-Presse, Updated: 4/25/2011
Two little-known ancient temple complexes on the disputed Thai-Cambodian border are providing an unlikely backdrop for the fiercest clashes between the two neighbours in years.
Called Ta Kwai and Ta Muen in Thai or Ta Krabei and Ta Moan in Khmer, the ruins, which scholars believe to be at least 800 years old, are hidden deep inside the jungle well off the main tourist trail.
Both countries claim ownership of the stone structures, with Thailand saying they are located in its northeastern Surin province, while Cambodian maps place them in the country's northwestern Oddar Meanchey province.
The heavy weapons fighting that erupted unexpectedly in the area on April 22 marks the first time the temples have been dragged into the ongoing border conflict between the countries.
The Thai-Cambodian frontier has never been fully demarcated, partly because it is littered with landmines following decades of civil war in Cambodia.
The two temple groups are located 15 kilometres (nine miles) apart and around 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of Cambodia's 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, which has traditionally been the scene of Thai-Cambodian border unrest.
The structures were built for Hindu deities in the style of Preah Vihear, which is considered the most celebrated example of ancient Khmer architecture outside of Angkor Wat, Cambodia's number one tourist attraction.
French colonial surveyors in 1907 drew a map showing all three temple complexes perched along the Dangrek mountain range inside Cambodia, according to Ros Chantrabot, director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
But Thailand does not regard that map as valid.
The temple issue lay dormant for years until Cambodia managed to get Preah Vihear listed as a UN World Heritage site in July 2008, reigniting nationalist fervour on both sides.
Unlike the more popular Preah Vihear, the other two temple groups receive relatively few visitors, though a road built by Cambodia in 2008 has made the mysterious jungle site more accessible.
"People did not pay much attention to that area until then," said Sombo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Troops from both countries have been stationed near the ruins for years but the recent violence that has claimed the lives of 12 soldiers is unprecedented in recent history.
Cambodia has accused Thailand of damaging the ancient stone temples in the latest unrest but those claims could not be independently verified.