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.