Disputed Preah Vihear Ruins on the Thai-Cambodian Border
Cambodia, the 27th of January 2020
A three hour long road trip with our local guide Oeum Rida through the Cambodian „outback“ brought us all the way to the northernmost part of the country to the Preah Vihear temple. Located at the natural border of Thailand and Cambodia atop the Dangrek mountain range, these Khmer ruins are still highly disputed by both Thai and Cambodian government. While it is only accessible from the Cambodian side as of 2015, the original entry into the temple used to be in Thailand. Despite an official ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague that the temple is located on Cambodian territory both parties continue to lay claim to the temple. After many years of refusal to accept the ruling, the Thai soldiers finally retreated, but the national flag of Thailand that had been flying over the temple was never taken down. Instead, Thai solders rather dug up the whole pole with the Thai flag still raised and relocated it to the nearby Pha Mor E Daeng cliff where it can still be seen today. In the background of the picture above you can see the tiny Thai flag flying over the neighboring mountain. Furthermore, until today the province of Preah Vihear is among the most most heavily mined areas in all of Cambodia and still bears legacy to the Khmer Rouge regime which fell as late as 1998.
There appeared to be unusually many soldiers stationed at and around the Preah Vihear site compared to the other temples we have seen. We never felt threatened by them personally but it was clear that this area was still under some kind of armed conflict. We had to book a jeep escort to drive us up the hill, for one because the road that was build after the original entrance from the Thai side was closed was VERY steep and only a heavy duty four-wheel drive type of car could climb up the road. For another it seemed that the military also had a hand in limiting and controlling the number of visitors coming to the temple and thus provided the vehicle to go up the mountain.
Since 2008 the temple of Preah Vihear is listed as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. Among all the Khmer temples we visited during our four day tour of the Siem Riep area, Preah Vihear in the far north is still the most spectacular one. While all the ancient temple ruins are quite unique and showcase their own piece of history, the location of the Preah Vihear temple alone is a stand alone feature that makes it an unforgettable place to have visited.
The architecture of the 800m long Preah Vihear temple is modeled after the home of the gods, the Mount Meru and is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Construction started at around the 9th or 10th century and continued throughout the reign of various Khmer kings. Five pavilions, called gopuras, each of them reached by a flight of stairs to increase their impact lead up to the final sanctuary at the southern most end of the temple complex. Different from temples we visited in Thailand, where windows have been strategically arranged to allow the sun to shine through the whole temple, the courtyards of the five gopuras have been build to obstruct the view of the next part of the Preah Vihear.
Lichen covered many of the walls and floor of the ancient temple ruins and while some parts of the structure remained in a fairly good condition, other areas where reduced to little more than a pile of rubble. Slowly strolling through the different areas of the temple I felt quite humbled by these Ancient remnants of Khmer culture. When we reached the central sanctuary and got an unobstructed view of Cambodia‘s northern plains it was already late in the afternoon. The sun had not yet set but the clouds were already illuminated by the low light and glowed above the barren land. If you have the chance and the time to come and visit this place I can only highly recommend it! Except to pay around 150-180 US dollars for a round trip by car with a local driver, plus 10 US dollar each for entrance fees and an additional 25 US dollars for the shuttle Jeep up the mountain. It is definitely worth it.