Overlooking both Cambodia and Thailand, the magnificent PREAH VIHEAR takes maximum advantage of the Dangkrek escarpment to which it clings, successive temple enclosures taking you higher and higher until you reach the summit. Getting to the temple is somewhat easier than it used to be thanks to new roads from Tbeng Meanchey and Siem Reap, though it’s still quite an expensive excursion. There is currently no access from Thailand, as the border is closed.
Constructed entirely of sandstone, Preah Vihear has an unusual layout for a Khmer temple, with four enclosures laid out in a row (rather than concentrically) linked by avenues and increasingly complex cruciform gopuras with elaborately carved pediments. It’s worth looking behind you as you exit each gopura heading up (south), as some of the finest of the temple’s decorated lintels are to be found on the south sides. From the summit, there are spectacular views along the jagged line of the Dangkrek Mountains and over the jungles of Cambodia, crisscrossed with tiny red tracks. Across in Thailand you can see the border marker posts in the scrub of no-man’s-land and the massive road to the temple.
Completely inaccessible for over two decades due to war and the presence of the Khmer Rouge, Preah Vihear was the scene of fighting as recently as 1995. Government troops were withdrawn due to concerns over damage to the complex, leaving the Khmer Rouge in control, but nevertheless bullet holes can still be seen on the outer walls of the temple’s uppermost enclosure. The temple reopened to the public in 1998, but the hillside remains heavily mined, so don’t stray from the well-trodden tracks.
Preah Vihear was built over several dynasties from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, but most of the work is attributed to Suryavarman I. He enlarged an old religious centre founded here by a son of Jayavarman II, and installed one of three boundary linga defining the extent of his territory (the others were installed at Phnom Chisor and at the hitherto unidentified site of Ishanatirtha). Later, both Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII made additions to the temple, which was dedicated to Shiva, and the temple was also referred to as Shikhareshavara, “a place of god under Shiva”.
The long, grand, entrance stairway gives onto a courtyard – a little way downhill from your arrival point – decorated with naga balustrades. The first gopura, in a ruinous state, is raised on a platform ahead; from here you get a terrific view along the first avenue, more than 200m long and boasting a paved area of monumental proportions, lined with pillars that would have supported lanterns; the large bathing pool to the east, Srah Srang, is guarded by stone lions. At the end of the avenue, due to the angle of approach and the steepness of the steps, the only thing that can be seen of the well-preserved second gopura is the entrance door and the impressive triangular pediment, outlined against the sky. Above the exterior of the south door are two intricate and well-preserved carvings: the lintel shows Vishnu reclining, while the pediment shows a scene from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Here Vishnu in the guise of a tortoise supports the mountain – the churning stick – on his back; the serpent Vasuki is coiled around the stick acting as the rope, while gods and demons pull together. On the stick, Vishnu appears again as Krishna, keeping an eye on their progress.
Further uphill, beyond the 100m long second avenue, the double vestibules of the cruciform third gopura form an imposing entrance to the third avenue. It was at this level that royal rooms were located for use by the king when he visited the temple; two large buildings nearby were resting houses for pilgrims. The scene above the north door of the gopura is taken from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, and depicts Shiva fighting with Arjuna, a member of the Pandavas family, one of two warring clans in the tale. The final avenue, leading to the fourth gopura, feels more like a courtyard as it is flanked by ruined buildings. The ground here is thick with collapsed masonry, some well-preserved carvings lurking in the undergrowth.
Through the gopura is the main sanctuary, much of which has collapsed leaving a jumbled heap of massive stones. Dark and austere, the enclosure has none of the vibrancy of the lower levels, but the air here is fragrant with burning incense. In its day, the temple was a pioneering project, and the vaulted galleries that surround the enclosure are some of the earliest examples in Angkorian architecture. Only the north gallery has windows facing out; the windows of the other galleries look in on the enclosure. You can climb through a hole in the western wall to get out onto the mountainside and enjoy the well-earned view.
Hugging the boundary between Cambodia and Thailand, Preah Vihear has been the subject of many border disputes. Things flared up in 1962, when the site was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in The Hague; then in July 2001, Hun Sen sacked a senior tourism official for signing an agreement allowing the Thais to develop the site, and later that year the Thais closed access from their side, citing Cambodian lack of co operation on cross-border issues. The border reopened in 2003; but things got nasty again in 2008, and there has been occasional fighting between Cambodian and Thai military along the border ever since. Before visiting, check the current situation online at wwww.fco.gov.uk.