I recall reading in one of my travel books how Bangkok taxi drivers couldn't read maps. I didn't believe it until I tried to show a tuk-tuk driver where I wanted to go. He took the map I was pointing at, and rotated it several times in his hands. He obviously had no clue how it worked or even that it was a two-dimensional representation of the city.
It happened a few times when I was in Thailand. It must be that many Thai kids aren't taught mapping in school... something pretty hard to believe by our standards, but there it was.
So I find it ironic that Bangkok and Phnom Penh are going to go to war over lines on a map.
Who owns the 11th century Preah Vihear temple complex on the border of the two countries has been under dispute for years. It's just that lately the arguing is being done with bullets and mortar shells. Ten soldiers and civilians have been killed and more wounded to date. Cambodia says it's now at war with Thailand, while the Thais reject any international offers to mediate the dispute.
We were far away from the fighting during our stay in Cambodia- never got closer than about 300 kilometers. And the roads and towns we travelled through didn't seem to be in any special war footing.
Everyone seems to agree that the reasons behind the dispute getting this serious are murky. But passions are high on both sides.
Thailand's conservative yellow shirts are banging war drums, pressuring the government to stand up for Thai rights. Cambodians are taking on the aggrieved party role, saying their more powerful neighbour was the aggressor.
Both sides have itches to scratch. Thailand has been at war with itself for the last five years, and could use an external threat for national unity. Cambodia's strongman government has a lot to prove to its own people too.
I spoke to a Cambodian tuk-tuk driver a week or so ago. He thought arguing over a temple was stupid, but he was resolute.
“'The Thais won't fight. They'll shoot for a few days and run,” he predicted. Cambodians, he said, were tougher and would hang in for the battle.
Yeah, it's getting tribal. A Thai lieutenant-general handed out talismans to his troops to protect them from evil spirits the Cambodians might try to place on them. He said he believed he had to do what he could to safeguard his boys.
Invoke 'em if you got 'em.
From reading press reports and official's statements, both sides seem to be underestimating the other's anger, hurt, and resolve not to back down. While fighting has subsided in the last few days, all the elements are still there for stupid loss of life.