Preah Vihear (Khao Phra Viharn)

The remarkable cliff-top location of Preah VihearOne temple that I was really keen to visit was Preah Vihear, technically located in the northernmost tip of Cambodia but only easily accessible from northeast Thailand. Since it re-opened to visitors in 1998, this mainly 11th century site has been a magnet for Thai nationals, keen to see a jewel of Khmer history that they feel was mistakenly awarded to Cambodia by an International Court ruling in 1962. Without doubt, the temple has the most remarkable setting of all the Khmer sites either within Cambodia or the northeastern region of Thailand, known as Isaan. Perched high on a cliff edge of the Dongrek Escarpment overlooking Cambodia some 600 metres below, Preah Vihear or Khao Phra Viharn (as its known in Thai) was closed for decades because of its strategic location and the civil war raging in Cambodia, although it opened briefly between 1991 and 1993. Following the death of Pol Pot A warning sign on the fog-bound Preah Vihearand the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge renegades in the area, it re-opened again in August 1998 and has remained accessible since.

Located some 36 kilometres south of the Thai town of Kantharalak, access to the site is across the Thai border before entering a series of causeways and steps stretching some 800 metres from the entrance up through five gopuras to the main sanctuary. Work began at the site in 813 under Jasovarman I and continued under a number of successive rulers. They each left their own mark amongst the collection of halls, libraries, naga balustrades, finely carved lintels and Gopura I at Preah Vihearpediments and small barays. The photograph (above) shows Gopura III in the top right-hand corner leading to the main sanctuary in the bottom left-hand corner, next to the cliff-edge. Pictured left is the south-facing entrance to Gopura I.

Due to its lay-out, the temple frustrates as no one view takes in both the temple itself and the marvellous panorama stretching out acoss the Cambodian plains below. Clearly in need of restoration having endured many years of damage and neglect, warning signs are everywhere advising visitors not to stray off the designated paths, as the danger of landmines is very real (above right; picture courtesy of Michael Chubak). A Cambodian military unit now guards the temple site and collects the 200 baht entrance fee whilst Thai military officials earn their revenue from the parking area, shops and restaurant at the foot of the temple, which is on Thai soil. For the story and photos of my 2nd visit to Preah Vihear in January 2005, click here. The temple is now accessible from the Cambodian side, though the vast majority of its visitors enter from Thailand.

The photographs below are courtesy of Lisa Cox. The top two show the east side of the central sanctuary (left) and the entrance to Gopura III (right). Below them are various entrances and doorways at this breathtaking cliff-top site.

The central sanctuary overlooking Cambodia far belowThe entrance to Gopura III at Preah Vihear

Entranceway with pediment and lintelA monk makes his way through the Preah Vihear complexPart of Gopura IV at Preah Vihear

Accessing Preah Vihear from the Cambodian side

The article below appeared in the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) Newsletter in June 1993. It clearly indicates that access to Preah Vihear is possible from the Cambodian side of the border, albeit off-limits to all but locals and the most intrepid of travellers. Almost 500 UNVs were part of the electoral component of UNTAC, sent to prepare Cambodia for free and fair elections:-

Flying over Preah Vihear it is obvious why the province is considered to be one of the most difficult in which to implement voter registration. Vast areas of scrub and forest are interrupted only by dirt tracks leading to an occasional village. Now and then a plume of black smoke can be seen rising high into the sky. Shelling in remote parts of Preah Vihear's seven districts has become a daily occurrence as the Cambodian People's Armed Forces (CPAF) and the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK) struggle to secure their zones.

Although Preah Vihear is home to only about 42,000 eligible voters, reaching them has proven to be a major challenge for electoral staff assigned to this 15,000 square kilometer province bordering Thailand. Compounding the problems of impassable roads and a tenuous security situation, registration in some areas began even later than the scheduled starting date of 23 November 1992. Rovieng and Sangkum Thmey districts were delayed nearly a month due to logistical problems. Shelling in Choam Khsan district forced the electoral team and Civilian Police (CivPol) to evacuate on November 6. Exactly one month later, District Electoral Supervisors (DESs) Therese Laanela and Brooks Entwistle returned to Choam Khsan to resume their task of registering the estimated 5,200 eligible voters scattered throughout 26 villages.

Today, together with an UNMO, a CivPol officer, three Pakistani soldiers, two interpreters, two visitors from Phnom Penh and a CPAF liaison officer, Entwistle plans to climb the 730-meter Dangrek mountain cliff to the 11th century Khmer temple on the ridge dividing Cambodia from Thailand. He wants to see if there are Cambodians living on top of the mountain who want to register to vote.

The temple site is easily accessible by paved highway from Thailand, but no foreigners (aside from the Vietnamese) have made the trek from the Cambodian side of the border since the early 1970s. The trail begins 40 kilometers from Choam Khsan and requires an exhausting five-kilometer hike up a steep trail lined with mines and thick jungle. Hundreds of Cambodians have lost their lives on this highly-contested mountain during the past two decades of civil war, either in combat or while attempting to flee to Thailand.

The group meets at 7 a.m. and heads off. The road to the border is characterised by rickety bridges, masssive craters and an occasional 105 -mm mortar shell lying under a bush. The landscape is dotted with skeletons of rusted vehicles whose journeys were cut short by anti-tank mines. After an hour the convoy stops at Sai Em, an isolated village half-way to the mountain' s base. Even before the car fully stops, Entwistle bolts out and starts nailing UNTAC registration posters to every surface in sight. When finished with the posters, he and the two interpreters go door-to-door, distributing pamphlets and slapping bright UNTAC stickers on every house where the inhabitants give permission to do so. Speaking Khmer, Entwistle works the crowd, shaking hands, tweaking kids' noses, handing out UNTAC materials. With his vigorous manner and flair at public relations, one might think that Entwistle himself was running in the upcoming elections, rather than just promoting the registration process.

Ten minutes later, leaving 100 bemused villagers in their wake, the convoy continues along the desolate road. By noon they reach the CPAF base camp at the foot of the mountain and Entwistle arranges to come back and register the 20 soldiers there the following week. The ten-member group then readies itself for the arduous climb ahead. The Pakistani soldiers take their automatic rifles, interpreters bring maps and notebooks, and Entwistle loads his backpack with drinking water and MRE s.

The trek begins gradually through an overgrown field, which looks like it may have been a parking lot for Cambodian tourists in better days. Crossing a foot bridge, an interpreter points out a rusted anti-aircraft gun in the ditch below. More wrecked military vehicles litter the trail. Soon the path begins to rise and the ancient stone steps which lead to the temple emerge from the brush, marking the beginning of the ascent. The group proceeds single-file up the jagged cliff, pushing branches out of the path while swatting at the giant red ants that jump down their shirt collars.

Halfway up the mountain the group meets two CPAF soldiers coming the opposite way. Surprised, one of them says that he has never met any foreigners on this trail. He cautions, " Watch out for mines and stay on the path. A guy lost both his legs here two months ago when he walked into the woods." Sufficiently convinced, the UNTAC group carefully continues on, panting and sweating as the trail grows steeper and more overgrown.

Two hours later, dripping with sweat and smeared with dirt, they emerge from the jungle and are shocked to discover that Preah Vihear temple is not a lost vine-covered relic waiting to be rediscovered. Instead, the group is greeted by the sight of hundreds of Thai tourists swarming the graffitited edifice, wearing cone shaped Vietnamese hats and clutching cans of Pepsi. Snack stalls and air-conditioned tour buses far outnumber the Khmer ruins on top of this mountain peak.

Entwistle and his interpreter pull out their notebooks and start going from drink stand to snack booth, asking the vendors if they have registered to vote. Many of them are from Choam Khsan and know the UNTAC people well. One vendor turns out to be the photographer, Sokanna's brother. He hands out cold drinks to the somewhat dazed UNTAC group and refuses payment, proudly telling onlookers that these are his UNTAC friends from Choam Khsan.

Thai and Japanese tourists beseige the Pakistani soldiers and the Ghanaian CivPol and ask to have their snapshots taken with them. Entwistle, not in uniform, draws less interest. Within a half an hour, he has surveyed the area and has identified 30 Cambodian vendors, soldiers and police who want to register to vote. Entwistle also gets permission to use a generator belonging to a drink vendor, so the registration team can run the laminating machine when they return here next week.

Mission accomplished, they begin the knee-jarring descent back to Choam Khsan. Entwistle is euphoric. On the way down, he discusses plans for next week's trip back up the mountain with the CivPol officer and the Pakistani soldiers. He plans to bring a small team to register the 20 people at the base camp and the other 30 up on the peak. "It will be an adventure," he said. "We'll put on our packs and just do it."

By dark, the gung-ho DES and entourage are back in Choam Khsan. Not only have they visited one of the most remote locations in the province, but they have also proven UNTAC's commitment to facilitating the most far-reaching voter registration possible. That night, Entwistle sleeps well, knowing that a day' work is completed. Article courtesy of United Nations Volunteers Newsletter [1993].

In the guidebook, Adventure Cambodia, published at the end of 2000, the trek to Preah Vihear from Choam Khsan town is described as follows:-

Along the way to the mountain temple, you will notice pieces of vehicles hanging from up in the trees here and there from unfortunate souls that hit a landmine. It's an eerie reminder in this peaceful and uninhabited forest area of the deadly devices that are still lurking about this area in big numbers. The soldiers at the base camp are a friendly lot that will allow you to park your bike at their camp while you hike up to the temple and you can figure that the bike will still be there when you return. It's not required but it's a real nice gesture to give these underpaid guys a few thousand riel to watch your bike - good insurance and you will make some friends. It's a good idea to have your moto guy or a soldier lead the way on the winding upward climb to the temple. The mountain is riddled with landmines and while, if you follow the golden rule for Cambodia - always stay on worn pathways and roadways - you will be okay, there are intersecting pathways, where it's difficult to figure out which way to go. I did the hike alone but there was some question on which path to follow at a couple of spots.

The 1 to 2 hour hike takes you through a piece of the beautiful Dangrek Mountains, but never forget the hidden danger that is right nearby as you are walking - landmines. That aside, it is a scenic and peaceful walk through a former battle zone. Before you see the temple, you will be surprised to see a clearing off to the left that has a beautifully paved road in the distance. It's not much further beyond that that you come to the temple gateway and ancient stairway leading to the temple and the gorgeous views of where you just came from. Note: A moto-taxi driver from the old market in Choam Khsan will act as a guide for US$10 plus fuel. The 46km journey will take all day, even with an early start. Extract courtesy of Adventure Cambodia by Matt Jacobson and Frank Visakay. Copyright remains with publishers, Silkworm Books.

Also located in the Isaan region of Thailand are a number of restored Khmer sanctuaries, the best of which are at Phimai, Phnom Rung, Muang Tam, Ta Muen Thom and Phnom Wan. These temple sites and many others, numbering around 300 in total, were built when this area of Thailand was part of the Khmer empire and is still essentially Khmer-speaking. Click here to read more about these temples.

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