Looking for temples without the tourist hordes? The remote temples of Northwest Cambodia are a world apart. While hilltop Prasat Preah Vihear is the big-hitter, the other temple complexes – wrapped in vines and half-swallowed by jungle – are all fabulous to explore.
For generations, Prasat Preah Vihear (called Khao Phra Wiharn by the Thais) has been a source of tension between Cambodia and Thailand. This area was ruled by Thailand for several centuries, but returned to Cambodia during the French protectorate, under the treaty of 1907. But sovereignty over the temple has been an issue ever since, with tensions between Cambodia and Thailand flaring up from time to time – most recently during 2008 to 2011, when armed confrontations around the temple claimed the lives of several dozen soldiers and some civilians on both sides.
Cambodia’s most dramatically situated Angkorian monument, this 800m-long temple is perched atop an escarpment in the Dangrek Mountains (elevation 625m) – with breathtaking views of lowland Cambodia, 550m below, stretching as far as the eye can see. In July 2008, Prasat Preah Vihear was declared Cambodia’s second Unesco World Heritage site (after the Angkor Archaeological Complex in Siem Reap).
Cambodia and Thailand have been sparring over ownership of Prasat Preah Vihear for centuries, with tensions flaring up most recently from 2008 to 2011. There is still a large military presence in and around the temple – ostensibly for security, though it might make some visitors uncomfortable, and money or cigarettes are occasionally requested by soldiers. Always check the latest security situation when in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh before making the long overland journey here.
What You Expect
The temple is laid out along a north–south processional axis with five cruciform gopura (pavilions), decorated with exquisite carvings, separated by esplanades up to 275m long. From the parking area, walk up the hill to toppled and crumbling Gopura V at the north end of the temple complex. From here, the grey-sandstone Monumental Stairway leads down to the Thai border.
Walking south up the slope from Gopura V, the next pavilion you get to is Gopura IV. On the pediment above the southern door, look for an early rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a theme later depicted awesomely at Angkor Wat. Keep climbing through Gopura III and II until finally you reach Gopura I. Here the galleries, with their inward-looking windows, are in a remarkably good state of repair, but the Central Sanctuary is just a pile of rubble. Outside, the cliff affords a stupendous viewpoint to Cambodia’s northern plains, with the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen (487m) looming in the distance. This is a fantastic spot for a picnic.
A Small Guide for You
Prasat Preah Vihear sits atop an escarpment in the Dangrek Mountains (elevation 625m), 30km north of the town of Sra Em and about 2½ hours by car from Siem Reap. Your first stop upon arriving should be the information centre, where you pay for entry, secure an English-speaking guide if you want one, and arrange transport up to the temple via moto or 4WD pick-up truckmaximum six up the 6.5km temple access road. Bring your passport as you’ll need it to buy a ticket. The first 5km of the access road are gradual enough, but the final 1.5km is extremely steep; nervous passengers might consider walking this last bit, especially if it’s wet.
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