Perched atop a 547m-high spur of the Dangkrek mountains right on the Thai–Cambodian border, the ninth-to-twelfth-century Khmer ruins of KHAO PHRA VIHARN (or Preah Vihear) surpass even the spectacularly set Phanom Rung. A magnificent avenue over 500m long rises to the clifftop sanctuary, from where you get breathtaking views over the jungle-clad hills of Cambodia.
Unfortunately, the sanctuary has been closed on and off since 2008 due to a territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over who owns the site. In July 2011, following a fresh series of skirmishes, the International Court of Justice ruled that both countries should remove their forces from the area. But in November 2011 the stalemate continued, with significant numbers of soldiers still stationed along the border, and, at the time of writing, the complex remained closed.
In fact, the complex was only opened to visitors in 1998, following almost a century of squabbling between the two governments. During Cambodia’s civil war, the Khmer Rouge laid mines around the temple, and while the ruins have been de-mined, there are skull-and-crossbones signs in the vicinity, which should be heeded if and when the temple reopens to visitors.Read More
The temple buildings themselves, built of grey and yellow sandstone, retain some fine original carvings and have been sufficiently restored to give a good idea of their original structure. Constructed over a three-hundred-year period, Khao Phra Viharn was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is thought to have served both as a retreat for Hindu priests – hence the isolated site – and an object of pilgrimage, with the difficulty of getting there an extra challenge. The large complex would have also been inhabited by a big cast of supporting villagers who took care of the priests and the pilgrims, which explains the presence of several large reservoirs on the site.
The approach to the temple complex begins with a steep stairway and continues up the cliff face via a series of pillared causeways, small terraces with naga balustrades and four cruciform-shaped gopura (pavilions), each built with doorways at the cardinal points, and decorated with carved reliefs of tales from Hindu mythology. Beyond the first gopura, you’ll see to the left (east) one of the temple’s biggest reservoirs, a large stone-lined tank sunk into the cliff and guarded by statues of lions.
The Churning of the Sea of Milk
As you pass through the last, southernmost, doorway of the second gopura, look back at the door to admire the pediment carving, which depicts the Hindu creation myth, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, in which Vishnu appears in his tortoise incarnation and, along with a naga and a sacred mountain (here symbolized by the churning stick), helps stir the cosmic ocean and thereby create the universes, as well as the sacred nectar of immortality.
The central sanctuary
The ascent of the cliff face finally reaches its climax at the central sanctuary, built on the summit and enclosed within a courtyard whose impressive colonnaded galleries are punctuated by windows to the east and west. The pediment above the northern entrance to this shrine depicts the multi-armed dancing Shiva, whose ecstatic dance brings about the destruction of the existing world and the beginning of a new epoch. Climb through one of the gallery windows to walk across to the cliff edge, from where you get far-reaching views of Cambodia and can appreciate just how isolated the temple must have been. A look back at the temple complex shows that though the sanctuary’s southernmost wall is punctuated by a couple of beautifully carved false doors, there are no genuine south-facing doors or windows; experts assume that this was to stop priests being distracted by the clifftop panorama.