PREAH VIHEAR PROVINCE
PREAH VIHEAR PROVINCE is quite a big northern province of Cambodia. Its capital is called Phnom Tbeng Meanchey. The province itself is named after the temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, what is definitely the hotspot of this province. Much of the province is extremely remote and heavily forested. Unfortunately large logging companies have reduce the natural beauty of the landscape by carving huge tracts of pristine tropical hardwoods out of the locations. It is also one of the least populated provinces in the Kingdom of Cambodia. This tranquil site is popular for the Preah Vihear temple, standing in the vicinity of the borderline between Thailand and Cambodia.
Preah Vihear province has some of the worst infrastructures in the country. There are no proper major roads in existence. Going around this province is not that easy if you're used to proper roads and usual transportation possibilities, as there are only a few pick-ups or some money-hunting moto drivers to take you where you would like to go. However, the province has a lot to offer for those, who are interested in ancient temple structures and remote villages without touristy influence. Here in Preah Vihear you may find three of the most impressive legacies from the Angkorian era: the mountain temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, the 10th-century capital of Koh Ker and the mighty Preak Khan.
Land mines still remain a real danger in Preah Vihear although the temples itself and the access paths have been painstakingly cleared. Stay on the beaten trek, don't venture into any vegetation that has not been cleared recently, and heed the red warning signs, painted rocks and strings marking the limits of the demined area.
Koh Ker is nowadays easily accessible from Siem Reap via Beng Mealea, but the other two still remain difficult to visit, requiring long and tough overland journeys and a distinct possibility to spend a night in the jungle. During the wet season these places are more or less unreachable. But there are governmental plans to develop the region for a smooth but constant tourism, building roads and improving infrastructure.
Preah Vihear Province is 13,788 square kilometers in size. It is located in northern Cambodia and shares international borders to the north with Thailand and Laos. It borders Stueng Treng Province of Cambodia to the east, Oddar Meanchey Province to the west and Siem Reap and Kompong Thom to the south. The province is blessed with endless natural treasure. With its acres of dense, hilly forests and scrub green vegetation, Preah Vihear is indeed an ideal getaway destination in the lap of nature. The breathtaking views over the Dangkrek Mountains and lush jungle around Preah Vihear temples are famous.
The current population of Preah Vihear Province is about 160,551 people or 1.1 percent of the country's total population (2007, provincial government data), with 81,318 males and 78,233 females. The population density is only 11.64 people per square kilometer. The province's economy is 85 percent based on farming and the remaining 15 percent is based on fishing and illegal logging of tropical hardwoods. Because of its border with Thailand, international trade is also increasing slightly and becoming another important sector of the province's economy. There are several development plans for province involving NGOs and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs from the Thailand and Cambodian governments. The economy and infrastructure of the province was badly damaged during the Khmer Rouge years and needs to be rebuilt or established for the first time.
The cool season in Preah Vihear Province is from November to March with temperatures ranging from 22 to 28 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 27 to 35 degrees C. The rainy season is from May to October. Temperatures are 24 to 32 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.
Tbeng Meanchey is the provincial capital of Preah Vihear Province. Due to the poor state of the province’s infrastructure and its geographical location it is not visited by a lot of foreigners. Most of them don't make it here worrying about the street conditions and the backcountry feeling of the place. More large village than a city, it is sprawling and dusty and consists of has only two small dirt roads going from south to north that serve as the main roads. There is nothing interesting in town and nothing to do. It is mainly a stopover on the way to Koh Ker and Preah Khan.
Getting to Tbeng Meanchey and Preah Vihear Province: To get into this remote province you have two possibilities, one is the packed laterite road from Siem Reap via Anlong Veng, covering a distance of over 200 kilometers (completed in 2003). The other access to Preah Vihear is from Kampong Thom via NH 64, which is about 155 kilometers South of Tbeng Meanchey. The last one is probably the easiest and fastest way to go to Tbeng Meanchey.
Pick-ups go almost daily in the morning and noon to the provincial capital of Preah Vihear from Kampong Thom market ($2-4 depending if you're inside or on the back). The comfortable share taxi is the other and faster option for $5-7. The road leading there is in horrendous condition as the logging freeze means no one has done any maintenance for a couple of years. The last 30 kilometers to Tbeng Meanchey climb some hills, which may get very nasty during the wet season with small creeks to minor rivers. You can also reach the place on a two to three days motorbike trip from Kompong Thom. Be aware of the road conditions and try to judge your personal experience on dusty, bumpy roads in the jungle.
Motorcycle Adventures in Preah Vihear Province: A new road has been constructed linking Siem Reap to Koh Ker. From there, it's an arduos day ride on badly worn out dirt and sand tracks to Preah Vihear. Kompong Thom is the starting point for a real adventurous tour to the seldom-visited jungle plains of northern Cambodia. This 2-3 days motorbike ride to Preah Vihear is offered by some of the moto-taxi drivers, who will propose it to you once they spot you getting off the bus ($30-50).
With you sitting on the back of the bike, your driver will take you through peaceful villages and rice paddies, passing by friendly locals, spending a night with a local family and visiting the temples of Preah Khan Kompong Thom and Koh Ker on your way up. A part of the journey leads you along an old Angkorian road and over its ancient bridges. The ride itself is hardship, skidding over sticks and stones, through sand oceans and bamboo forests, sometimes fording small rivers. From Preah Vihear, you will head to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng, the place where Pol Pot is said to have died. It's a worth a ride, but put your motorbike skills on question before you go for it.
SIGHTS IN PREAH VIHEAR PROVINCE
Wat Bak Kam (17 kilometers west of Tbeng Meanchey) is located along Tbeng mountain foot in Bak Kam village, Chhien Muk commune, Tbeng Meanchey district. The pagoda is 1, 000 meters long and 400 meters wide. The site offers nice view, forest and fresh air. Local villagers usually visit this site during holidays or national festivals. Beside the pagoda, there is a large rock called Thma Peung Angkam (Thma Peung means overhanging rock and Angkam mean chaff). According to the local people, in the past, because of the failure of war with neighboring country, the Khmer commander and his troops hide under that rock. They cultivated rice in a nearby field to support their living. They husked rice under that rock and left the chaff. Later, local villagers found a lot of chafff under the rock, which is why the place is call Thma Peung Angkam. The rock is alos believed to be an important worship site.
Kork Beng Temple is located in Wat Prasat Chey Preuk on Kork Beng Village, Kampong Pranak commune, Tbiang Meanchey district. The laterite and sandstone temple was built between AD 936 and 951 by a commander name Kork on ordered from King Jayavarman IV. There is a hug Beng Tree near the temple. Therefore, the king named the temple Kork Beng. Today only a few stones of the ancient temple remain. The temple, however, was reconstructed with concrete in 1988. The new temple is 8 meters high and 12 meters square. There is a statue of Bodhisattva in temple center, where the worship place is.
Phnom Pralean Temple (25 kilometers from Tbeng Meanchey) is on a 180 meters small hill located in Krang Dong village, Preah Kliang commune, Tbiang Meanchey district. The laterite and sandstone temple, built to worship Hinduism, is 160 meters long and 60 meters wide. Surrounding the temple is a beautiful nature and abundant fresh airs where a good place to visit is.
Krapum Chhouk Temple (45 kilometers south of Tbeng Meanchey) is located in Romdos commune, Rovieng district. The laterite and sanstone temple was built in the late 10th century to worship Hinduism.
Neak Buos Temple (75 kilometers north of Tbiang Meancheay provincial town) is located in Choam Ksan district. The laterite, sandstone and brick temple is 50 meters square and built on a plain to worship Hinduism. It is very difficult to reach the temple because of bad road condition.
Bakan (105 kilometers southwest of Tbeng Meanchey and 75 kilometers north of the Kompong Thom town, Stoung) is a group of temples located in Ta Siang village, Ronakse commune, Sangkum Thmei district on a plain that was occupied by a former worship place of a Khmer king. Also known as Preah Khan Kampong Svay Temple, the temple is surrounded by two ramparts-inside and outside rampart. Inside each rampart, there are many other temples such as Neang Peou and Dangkao Baodos temples. The temple was likely a royal palace and worship place. According to historians, the site used to be a hiding place of King Jayavarman VII before he ascended to the throne in A.D. 1181 based on the fact the style of some construction is similar to the style of Bayon and Ta Prohm temples.
Outside the rampart, there are many other temples such as Preah Damrei, Preah Thkaol, Ta Prohm, Muk Buon and Preah Stung temples. Looking through into the large area beyond the wall of Prasat Bakan (Bakan Temple) in Preah Vihear province, laterite stone refracts the bright sunshine, enveloping the temple in a heavenly light. The towers of the temple have long since collapsed and the hundreds of pieces of stone which once made up Bakan are now a less-than-glorious pile of rubble. Even in this sad state destroyed in part by war, and in part by greed the fallen Bakan can still provide us with evidence of the once important place this temple held in the history of the Angkor period, but looters have other plans. In 2003 after a botched robbery, the central area collapsed and apsara and Buddha statues were stolen.
According to the director of the Department of Culture and Fine Arts Ros Samphal, in ancient times, Prasat Bakan, or Preah Khan Kompong Svay temple as it sometimes called, was originally named after a victorious and well-loved general: Jey Srey. This general, was a man renowned for defeating the Cham and forcing them out of the Angkor capital. "Jey Srey is better known as Jayavarman VII," Ros says. "Angkor’s mighty architect and warrior king."He says that while the Angkor capital was occupied by Cham soldiers, one of the then Angkorian king’s sons, Jey Srey, fled the country to live in the Champa Kingdom (now central Vietnam). While living there, he studied this neighboring Kingdom, and in particular Cham military tactics. After 14 years, he returned to his beloved Angkor and created his own army, training them in secrecy in the jungle.
"While living in the jungle," Ros says, "he completed Prasat Bakan. He also built an iron foundry where swords, knives, axes and other weapons were made by the thousands.""Each day, more and more soldiers were enlisted for military training." "Once trained," Ros continues, "Jey Srey led his army through Kompong Svay province [now part of Kompong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces] direct to the Angkor capital, where he fought and defeated the Cham soldiers for the liberty of his father's kingdom.""Jey Srey's name held great meaning. Jey means victory and successor;Srey means happiness, harmony and good luck."Deputy director of the Preah Vihear Provincial Tourism Department Kit Chanthy says Prasat Bakan was the second capital of the Angkor kingdom during the reign of King Jayavarman VII. "King Suryavarman I began the construction of the Hindu temple Bakan between 1002 and 1050. The temple was completed by King Jayavarman VII," Kit explains. Prasat Bakan is situated in Ta Seng village, Sangkum Thmey district, Preah Vihear province."
The main group of temples were built in the 12th century when Preah Khan was home to both King Suryavarman II and later, the future King Jayavarman VII, before the latter defeated the invading Chams, claimed the throne and moved his capital back to Angkor in 1181. The story of his victories are celebrated in bas-relief carvings on the walls of the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar.
Located 100 kilometers east of Angkor, the site was studied in the 1870s by Louis Delaporte, who shamefully looted and carried off a number of substantial carvings that are now housed in the Guimet Museum in Paris. However, one masterpiece remains in the National Museum in Phnom Penh and that's a finely sculpted head, believed to be of Jayavarman VII. A millennium celebration at Preah Khan attracted hundreds of locals and vegetation was cleared from the site for the occasion, but it remains a complex very much in its natural state, inundated with trees, scrubs and dense foliage throughout. With the re-emergence of Cambodia's remotest areas from years of inaccessibility.
Prasat Bakan is off National Route 6,75 kilometers north of the Kompong Thom town, Stoung. Under Secretary of State of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts H.E. Khim Sarith says since the beginning of 2006 the Ministry has been cooperating with provincial authorities to set up a team to protect the temple. "However what makes this difficult are the current road conditions leading to the temple. During the rainy season we can’t even get into the area," Khim says.
Koh Ker (49 kilometers west of Tbeng Meanchey) was once an ancient capital of Cambodia. Located in the Chhork Koki highland near Srayong Cheung village, Srayong commune, Kulen district, the Koh Ker complex of temples was built by King Jayavaraman IV (A.D. 928-942). Koh Ker temple is 35 meters high, and its design resembles a seven-stepped stupa. The temple faces west toward Angkor city. It was built to worship Treypuvanesvara, the god of happiness.
So far, 96 temples have been found in Koh Ker. They include: Dav, Rumlum Bey, Beung Veng, Trapiang Prey, Dey Chhnang, Srok Srolao, Lingam, Kuk Srakum, Trapiang Ta, Sophy, Krahom, Andoung, Ang Khna, Teuk Krahom, Damrei Sar, Krarab, Banteay Pichoan, Kuk, Kmao, Thneung, Thorn Balang, Rohal, Chamneh, Sampich, Trapiang Svay, Neang Kmao, Pram, Bat, Khnar Chen, Klum, Chrab, Dangtung, Prang, Kampiang.. These temples were not constructed near each other. Today, many of them are no longer standing, and some are buried in the ground.
Temples at Koh Ker: The Koh Ker complex is along a trail that is about 3 kilometers long. The first temple, Neang Khmao sits atop a small hill on the east side of the trail. The temple, which faces west toward Angkor city, is made of sandstone. It is 20 meters high and resembles a stupa. The temple terrace is 2 meters high and divided into three decks. The temple is surrounded by a laterite rampart, 44 meters square and 2 meters high. The rampart has only two openings; one on the east side, and the other on the west. The temple once housed lingam and yoni, but only yoni remains. The lintel sculpture has been damaged, but otherwise, most of the temple is in good condition, while nearly three-quarters of the rampart is good condition.
About 700 to 800 meters north of Neang Khmao temple is another temple called Pram temple. Constructed of laterite and sandstone, it sits on a small hill surrounded by bushes that block the lingam and the lintel. The main body of the temple is in good condition. Farther down the trail is a three-peak temple made of laterite and sandstone. It faces east and is called Chen temple. Inside the temple there is a piece of lingam and remnants of a statue of King Jayavarman IV. A sculpture of garuda's head on the south lintel is missing. The temple is overgrown by forest.
About 800 to 900 meters farther, there is the Preng well, which is similar to a pond. Surrounded by stone, it is 20 meters square. The terrace is about 8 centimeters high. The water in the pond is clear, and a nearby tree provides shade for weary visitors looking for a place to relax. Another kilometer down the trail is the rampart of Koh Ker temple. 1 kilometer long and 2 kilometers high, it is made of laterite. Koh Ker temple is the middle of a rampart, surrounded by 20 more temples. Some of the temples are:
Kuk temple or Gopura is made of sandstone and has a sculpture of lotus petals on the temple fronton. Although the door frame is damaged, most of the temple is in good condition. A Shiva lingam that once was housed inside has been looted. Prang temple is constructed of sandstone and bricks. There are five separate parts of this temple. About 70 percent of the temple is still standing. About 10 meters farther is Kramhom temple (The red temple). Constructed of brick and shaped like a seven-level pyramid, the temple is decorated with a 20-meter-tall sculpture of lotus petals. Inside the temple, there is a 3-meter-tall statue of Shiva with eight arms and four heads. The statue is supported by a l-square-meter base. The statue is seriously damaged, only some parts remain. Farther down is Khmao temple. On the wall and door frame of the temple, there is a partially damaged inscription. Near the temple is a rampart gateway to Kampiang temple. The gateway is a 2-meter staircase. Some sculptures of lotus petals, seven-headed nagas and garudas remain.
About 300 meters farther to the west is Kampiang or Koh Ker temple. From a distance, the temple looks like a small hill, because it is covered by forest. Up close, however, it is actually a 35-meter-high stupa made of sandstone. It has seven levels, each level about 5 meters above the other. Each deck has a 2-meter-wide terrace, and there is a 55- step staircase to the top. At the top of the temple, there are large statues of garudas supporting Shiva lingam Treypuvanesvara. Nearby, there is a 4-meter square well, now completely covered by grass. According to local villagers, if a coconut is dropped into this well, it will appear in the pond near Neang Khmao temple. There is vegetation growing on top of the temple, and from there visitors have an excellent view of the surrounding landscape, in particular, Phnom Dangrek, Phnom Tbeng, and Kulen district.To the north of Koh Ker temple is another temple, Damrei Sar temple, but it is heavily damaged. To the northeast, is Iingam temple. This temple once housed three Shiva lingams, but some are now damaged.
Preah Vihear (three hours from Siem Reap, two hours from Tbeng Meanchey formerly assessable from Thailand) is a set of Khmer ruins near the Thai border which are accessible from Thailand and Cambodia. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, it is regarded as the most spectacularly-situated Angkor-era Khmer site. Perched on the edge of a giant cliff and with a commanding view over northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear is an awesome place. The series of ascents over the best part of a kilometer, the ornate buildings and the wealth of decorative detail truly staggers one’s imagination.
Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times, “The name means Mountain of the Sacred Temple. Built from the ninth to the 12th centuries atop a peak of the Dangkrek Mountains, it occupies a triangular plateau rising from the Thailand border to a prow-shaped promontory. An ever-changing architectural, mythological and geological panorama unfolds as visitors progress along the temple’s 2,600-foot-long processional axis, up a series of gently sloping causeways and steep staircases through five gopura, or pavilions, each more sacred than the last. For 40 generations, Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims have trekked to this temple, seeking to ascend toward the holy and the transcendent. Today, the awe-inspiring nature of this Angkorian masterpiece, accentuated by the challenges of getting there, confer on every trip the aura of a pilgrimage. [Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]
“Preah Vihear Temple is awesomely perched 1,700 feet above Cambodia’s northern plains, near the country’s border with Thailand. It makes an adventurous alternative to far-better-known Angkor Wat. While several thousand foreign tourists visit the temples of Angkor on a typical day, Preah Vihear Temple gets, on average, just five.
Unfortunately Preah Vihear was the site of nasty border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand and accessibility from the Thai side is often denied. Unexploded cluster bombs and land mines remain a danger in the area around Preah Vihear. Some date back to the Khmer Rogue era. Both Thailand and Cambodia have accused each other of setting new land mines during the conflict in the late 2000s. “Before setting out to Preah Vihear Temple, check the Phnom Penh Post (phnompenhpost.com), the Cambodia Daily or other reliable sources to make sure that Thai-Cambodian tensions are not rising. According to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (www.cmac.org.kh), the immediate vicinity of the temple is now safe, having been cleared in recent years of more than 8,800 anti-personnel mines. However, nearby areas are still heavily mined, so do not, under any circumstances, wander off the footpaths. The most useful guidebook in English (and Thai) to the temple’s architecture, symbolism and history is “Preah Vihear” by Vittorio Roveda (Bangkok: River Books, 2000), but it may be difficult to find.”
Archaeology Magazine Description of Preah Vihear: Brendan Borrell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “ Preah Vihear is a series of buildings arrayed along a 2,600-foot-long central causeway that proceeds dramatically to the edge of a cliff. The complex is meant to represent Mount Meru, the home of Shiva and other Hindu gods. According to Sanskrit inscriptions at Preah Vihear, the temple’s formal origins date to Jayavarman II’s son, Prince Indrayudha, who, in A.D. 893 installed a fragment from a stone monument called a lingam at the site. The lingam, which represents the male sex organ, served two purposes. It was a powerful holy symbol of Shiva, and it was intended to mark Preah Vihear as the northern extent of the Khmer Empire at that time.[Source: Brendan Borrell, Archaeology magazine, February 11, 2013]
Much of the stone construction at Preah Vihear took place in the eleventh century, during the reign of King Suryavarman I, a Buddhist who also worshipped the Hindu gods Shiva and Rama, and was tolerant of a wide range of religious practices. By the twelfth century, Buddhism had become the Khmer state religion and Preah Vihear became a Buddhist sanctuary. A small Buddhist monastery still exists near the ruins and saffron-robed monks come to the 900-year-old buildings to conduct their spiritual practices.
Today, there is a forest at the base of the temple complex near the Thai border. A pair of stone lions flanks the path that leads to a grand staircase and the causeway beyond. The stairs themselves are guarded by sculptures of naga, supernatural multi-headed serpents. Beyond the naga stand the remains of a type of building called a gopura, which were typically built at the gateway of Hindu temples. Little is left standing of the first gopura, labeled gopura V by scholars. There are a few standing columns, some leaning at dangerous angles. The tropical environment has long been exacting a toll on these structures.
The causeway leads past a rectangular pool half-filled with black water and through several more buildings. One of them, gopura IV, is carved with a scene of gods and demons engaged in a struggle to obtain the elixir of immortality. The carving is the earliest known depiction of the Hindu creation story, the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
The causeway ends at an impressive collection of structures. Two buildings flank the entryway to what is called the central sanctuary. Walls surround the sanctuary and the ruins of the main temple buildings stand in the center. Given the way the complex is situated in the landscape, visitors might well expect this last segment of the complex to offer a dramatic vista of the Cambodian plains that stretch for miles beyond. But the temple’s builders had a different experience in mind. The sanctuary’s final wall blocks the scene. Vittorio Roveda, an art historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says, “It was intended that monks not be distracted by the spectacular view.”
UNESCO Description of Preah Vihear: Situated on the edge of a plateau that dominates the plain of Cambodia, the Temple of Preah Vihear is dedicated to Shiva and composed of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and staircases over an 800 meter long axis and dates back to the first half of the A.D. 11th century. Nevertheless, its complex history can be traced to the 9th century, when the hermitage was founded. This site is particularly well preserved, mainly due to its remote location. The site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site]
Preah Vihear is a unique architectural complex of a series of sanctuaries linked by a system of pavements and staircases on an 800 meter long axis. An outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture, it is very ‘pure’ both in plan and in the detail of its decoration and remarkable in terms of its relationship with its spectacular landscape environment.
In the 6th century, King Yasovarmamn I ( 889-900) began work on the original dedicated to Shisa as result of spiritual development, increased political prestige and economic growth was naturally reflected in the Temple undergoing more than 300 years of consultation with deal of remodeling under subsequent King Suryavarman II ( 1113 – 1150) this increased prestige naturally changed the original small sanctuary into one of the greatest Khmer temples of all times. This ranking was the result of the finest in situ carving that depicted the highest standards of unique Khmer architecture. Under the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1904 and 1907, the line of frontier between Cambodia and Thai along the Dongrak Mountains followed justice at the Hague officially found that the Preah Vihear Temple situated inside the Cambodia territory.
Preah Vihear Temple is located in a pleasant environment with an attractive countryside slightly east of the mid section of the Dongrek Mountains. It is perched on the edge of a giant cliff, about 625 meters above sea level in Preah Vihear Province, Northern part of Cambodia, 625 kilometers from the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is also situated close to the Cambodia-Thai border.
The temple has four levels and four courtyards which comprise of five Gopuras (entrance pavilions some times surmounted by tower). The Palace Building or Gopuras on the third level was the King’s residence when he came to pay homage to the mighty God, and the two wings were the shelters for the pilgrims. The main temple are used for the high-ranking supreme divinities, this mighty group of building is considered as the center of the whole temple complex.
The front stone stairway: this main passage is on the North side. The stairway is 8 meters wide and 78 meters long,. The fist flight has 162 steps. At the first landing is a large stone singa statue on stone block. Another 54 flight of steps 4 meters wide and 27 meters long leads up to the second landing also decorated with stone signa statue.
The Nagaraj Courtyard: this stone-paved is 7 meters wide by 31.8 meters long. From here the stairway leads up to the first-level Gropura. The Stairheads are in the form of seven-headed snakes called "Ngu Suang " facing North towards the Prasat. The heads and tails of nagas on both sides look like ordinary snakes, characterizing and early example of this type of animal figures. The head portion of the naga on the west side looks very impressive because it is made from a single solid stone.
The first level Gopura is a pavilion in Greek architecture style with cross plan on an elevated, rebates angle base on each of the roof doorway. Stone lions are placed on each of the roofs doorway. See Thailand.
ARCHEOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT OF PREAH VIHEAR
Brendan Borrell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “While Preah Vihear is not nearly as large as the ruins of Angkor, the art and architecture are significant and its setting is far more spectacular. The first archaeological investigation of Preah Vihear was conducted when the French colonized the region. The first Westerner to see the ruins was French explorer and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier, who came to the temple in 1883 and later described its architecture, as well as the Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions. Henri Parmentier of the École française d’Extrême-Orient visited the monument in 1924 and returned to clear the vegetation from it five years later, sketching the architecture and describing its iconography. His work clarified the timeline of temple building. But since Parmentier’s time, very little work and no excavations had been undertaken at the site—until relatively recently, when the Cambodian government began preparing to nominate Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Archaeology magazine, February 11, 2013, Brendan Borrell is a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation.]
While Preah Vihear was named a World Heritage site in 2008, archaeologists are still working on a management plan for the site. As part of that plan, Pheng Sam Ouen led a research team that has dug five trenches along a crumbling ancient staircase that leads hundreds of feet up from the valley floor, through a forested ravine, to the base of the temple. Most of the archaeological work at the site is focused on finding ways to preserve the stone buildings, and to allow a 2,500-step wooden staircase to be built alongside the ancient one without damaging any archaeological remains. The excavations have turned up some pottery sherds, roof tiles from the temples, and military artifacts that date to the 1980s, when the Khmer Rouge still controlled the area. Pheng hopes to learn more about the people who lived around the temple. He has found archaeological evidence of seven settlements within the temple complex and five more in the foothills. The remains of a building that may have been a hospital and a small village likely dating to the twelfth century have been found at the base of the mountain. Pheng and his colleagues also hope to restore at least one empty baray at the base of the mountain so that the reservoir can be used for irrigation. They are also building a six-mile-long trench from the baray to carry water to a neighboring village. But there are much bigger hopes that go along with Preah Vihear’s World Heritage site designation.
In 1992, Angkor became Cambodia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and a major source of income for the impoverished nation. It is hoped that Preah Vihear’s listing will be another step toward prosperity for Cambodia. The site would provide a destination in the less-developed northern part of the country, which might entice some of the tourists who visit Angkor Wat to extend their stays. Nonetheless, that is not likely to happen while the threat of fighting exists. “We are not powerful compared to Thailand,” Pheng says. “There are a lot of Khmer sites in Thailand, and we never think that they belong to Cambodia! I never tell my son that the Khmer Empire once extended to the Chinese border, and when he is older he must take it back.”
In the 1990s the Khmer Rouge was still active in the area. At that time Ivan Kraskin wrote in International Travel News: "The whole area still possesses an aura of mystery because of the present circumstances: Thai border guards, gates that must be locked, barbed wire encircled paths, Cambodian gun-toting patrol soldiers and wire mesh everywhere, all surrounded by the Dangrek Mountains...These places have been systematically looted! Statues have disappeared. And Pol Pot's troops have used parts of temples to construct bunkers."
VISITING PREAH VIHEAR FROM CAMBODIA
Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times, “I began my visit at the bottom of the Monumental Staircase, which, according to the Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda, “symbolizes the laborious path of faith needed to approach the sacred world of the gods.” The 163 gray sandstone steps, partly carved into the living rock, are flanked by statues of lions and, near the top, two magnificent nagas (seven-headed serpents) facing north toward Thailand. Also intently watching Thai territory were several AK-47-toting Cambodian soldiers in camouflage. [Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]
“The first structure I came to, called Gopura V by generations of archaeologists, was an airy cruciform construction once topped by wood beams and a terra-cotta tile roof. Many of the stones have tumbled over, but the delicately balanced eastern pediment has survived to become Preah Vihear’s most recognizable icon, appearing on publicity posters, patriotic T-shirts and the new 2,000-riel banknote.
“In centuries past, this pavilion was where pilgrims from the plains of Cambodia, having just climbed the steep, mile-long Eastern Staircase (mined and inaccessible for decades but soon to reopen), met their counterparts from what is now Thailand, who had completed a rather less-taxing ascent from the Khorat Plateau. Alongside a group of saffron-robed monks, I continued north on a majestic, sandstone avenue, 800 feet long, to Gopura IV. There, I came upon a particularly vivid bas-relief depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a Hindu creation myth in which gods and demons churn the primeval waters to extract the ambrosia of immortality.
“Although most of the splendid decorative carvings at Preah Vihear, including this one, depict Vishnu, the temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. In later centuries, it was converted to use as a Buddhist sanctuary, and today many of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims. As I continued my ascent, I walked under exquisite lintels and tympanums depicting more scenes from Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, and beneath richly carved double pediments adorned with finials and upturned gable ends — calling cards of Cambodian and Thai architecture to this day. Ancient inscriptions in Khmer and Sanskrit, bearing cryptic details about the history of the temple and the Angkorian kings who built it, were hidden here and there under a patina of lichen.
“The temple’s culminating point, geographically and symbolically, is Gopura I, whose mandapa (antechamber) and Central Sanctuary, now a jumbled pile of carved sandstone blocks, are surrounded by galleries that call to mind a French Gothic cloister, except that here the windows are rectilinear and the galleries covered by corbelled vaults. (The Khmers, for all their architectural genius, never mastered the keystone arch.) The entire structure is inward-looking, its outer walls almost devoid of openings despite the sweeping views just outside. Scholars speculate that while the site was considered holy in part because of its spectacular situation, the ancient architects may have believed that picture windows would distract both priests and pilgrims from their sacred tasks.
“As I approached the rocky tip of the promontory, just beyond Gopura I, a breathtaking panorama came into view. Cambodia’s verdant northern plains extended majestically toward the horizon, and in the distance I could just make out Phnom Kulen, about 65 miles to the southwest, where the Khmer Empire was founded in A.D. 802. (Angkor itself lay hidden in the haze, 88 miles away.) To the east, toward Laos, and the west, the Dangkrek Mountains stretched into the distance in a series of serrated bluffs. Looking north, almost everything I could see was in Thailand, rendered remote and mysterious by its inaccessibility.”
Impact of the Thailand-Cambodia Conflict on Preah Vihear: Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times, “Thailand ruled much of northwestern Cambodia, including Preah Vihear Temple, from the late 18th century until 1907, when the French colonial administration forced the Thais to withdraw to the current international frontier; Cambodian sovereignty over Preah Vihear was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1962. Thailand, despite unresolved land claims, initially supported Cambodia’s UNESCO bid for World Heritage status, but the temple soon became a pawn in Thai and Cambodian domestic politics, unleashing nationalist passions in both countries.[Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]. See International Relations
“In July 2008, according to Cambodian authorities, Thai soldiers intruded into Cambodian territory near the temple. The Thai government denied that any border violations had taken place. Since then, a total of at least seven soldiers from both sides have been killed in intermittent exchanges of fire, according to local news reports. At the time of my visit, though, the frontier had been quiet for several months.
“Curious about what the standoff actually looked like, I asked my guide, conveniently a moonlighting army officer, if I could get a glimpse of the Thais. He took me to the bottom of the Monumental Staircase, where I could hear the distant sounds of war — air-raid sirens and shooting — but the combat was taking place on a tiny television, which off-duty soldiers were watching with rapt attention.
“We walked along a forest trail past a volleyball court and trenches, passing soldiers in hammocks with their wives stealing a moment of intimacy in an encampment with little privacy, to a forest clearing with a bamboo table at the center. About 20 yards in front of us stood a line of neatly built bunkers; uniformed men could be seen among the dark green sandbags. “So those are Cambodian soldiers?” I asked, trying to get my bearings. “No,” my guide answered, “those are Thais. Over there” — he turned 180 degrees and pointed to a line of bunkers 20 yards in the other direction — “are Cambodians.” The table, I realized, marked the midpoint of no-man’s land.
“The Cambodians’ front-line bunkers, made of disintegrating sandbags sprouting grass, were shaded by blue and green tarpaulins and surrounded by orderly gardens. Their raised observation post, topped by a thatched roof, looked as if it might have been on loan from “Gilligan’s Island.” I was in the middle of a very un-Korean Panmunjom, a laid-back, tropical version of Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.
“I soon learned that the Cambodian soldiers stationed there call the site Sambok Kmom, or beehive, because, they say, the area’s many wild bees leave Cambodians unmolested but set upon any Thai who encroaches on Cambodian land. Moved by national feeling, domestic tourists wearing krama (traditional checked scarves that serve as something of a Cambodian national symbol) wandered by, distributing cigarettes and other morale-boosting gifts to the soldiers who were deployed to help the bees protect Cambodian sovereignty.
“Around the clearing, soldiers from both sides, unarmed and without body armor or helmets, were relaxing in front of their own front-line bunkers. Cambodian officers seemed to find the bamboo table, shaded by trees tall enough to let breezes through, especially congenial. A few paces away, the Thais had strung a hammock between trees, and one soldier, lounging in a white T-shirt, black combat pants and black military boots, was engrossed in a cellphone call. Despite the apparent tranquillity, I knew that if the order were given, the men on both sides of the invisible line would not hesitate to shoot. In fact, many of the Cambodian troops stationed around Preah Vihear are battle-hardened former Khmer Rouge fighters. For now, though, relations are casual and, I was told, some wary friendships have developed.”
STAYING NEAR PREAH VIHEAR ON THE CAMBODIAN SIDE
Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times, “The best staging point for a visit to Preah Vihear Temple is Sra Em (also spelled Sa Em), 19 miles by road from the temple. Two years ago, it was a sleepy crossroads hamlet with a single grimy restaurant and one rundown guesthouse. These days, in the wake of the area’s military buildup, it feels like a Gold Rush boomtown, with haphazardly parked four-wheel-drives instead of tethered horses; karaoke bars sporting pink fluorescent lamps and colored lights, instead of saloons; and the gleanings of Cambodia’s recently doubled defense budget, instead of gold nuggets glinting in the stream. Armed men in camouflage uniforms abound. [Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]
“Sra Em’s accommodation options are rudimentary, to put it politely. My room’s star amenity was a cold-water spigot for filling the plastic bucket used both to bathe and to flush, and below the cheap plastic mirror and its public access comb, dust bunnies had formed around the hair of guests past. Each time I returned to my room, I found a dead cricket, a new one every day, hinting, perhaps, at the presence of some sinister insecticide.
“Glassless windows, sinkless bathrooms, towels with the absorptive capacity of a plastic bag, fans that run only when a generator is sputtering outside your window (usually from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and laissez-faire housekeeping are, alas, the norm in Sra Em’s guesthouses. I should have stayed at the 25-room Tuol Monysophon (855-99-620-757), which opened this year. A brown, barn-like structure topped with a red tile roof, it has basic rooms downstairs with private baths, mosquito nets and wood-plank floors, for $10; smaller upstairs rooms with shared facilities are $7.50. To get there from the triangular crossroads, head west (toward Anlong Veng) for 500 yards.
“The Preah Vihear area’s best restaurant, hands down, is Sra Em’s Pkay Prek Restaurant (855-12-636-617), an unpretentious complex of open-air, fluorescent-lit pavilions with plenty of geckos. The specialty is phnom pleoung (hill of fire; $3.75), a meat and veggie feast you grill yourself at your table on an aluminum “volcano” suspended above glowing coals.
“Preah Vihear Temple is, obviously, not quite ready for mainstream tourism. During the two days I spent at the temple in October, I saw only four other Westerners, including an unhappy German couple whose day trip from Angkor Wat had been rather more trying than expected, and perhaps 50 or so Cambodian tourists. But intrepid travelers who brave the diabolical (though improving) roads, substandard accommodations and alarming government travel advisories are richly rewarded.
Traveling to Preah Vihear from Cambodia: Before Preah Vihear could be reached by crossing the Cambodia-Thai gateway border from the Ubon Ratchantani Province of Thailand between 8:00am and 4:00pm but now that crossing is often closed or not usable with a Cambodian visa, making entry from the Cambodian side the most realistic way of getting there.
Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times, “With the visa-free crossing from Thailand closed for the foreseeable future, getting to Preah Vihear Temple requires battling Cambodia’s famously potholed roads, which are at their worst during the wet season (about June to October). Share-taxis, which have no set schedule and depart when full, link Sra Em with Siem Reap via the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng ($7.50 a person; 130 miles; three hours) and with the provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey ($6.50; 65 miles; two hours). The U.S. dollar is widely accepted. [Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]
“The taxis, usually “jacked-up” Toyota Camrys, carry six or seven passengers in addition to the driver, so if you want the front seat to yourself you’ll have to pay two fares. Ante up six times the single fare and you’ve got yourself a private taxi. From Sra Em, a ride to Kor Muy on the back of a motorbike will run about $3.75. Then the three-mile ride up the mountain to Preah Vihear Temple, on a concrete road whose gradients will impress even San Franciscans, is $5 by motorbike or $20 to $25 by four-wheel-drive pickup.
“In the wet season, the roads through the northwestern region of Cambodia turn into an undulating sea of muck, with potholes the size of cars and ruts as deep as truck axles. To figure out which routes were least likely to leave me wet, muddy and stranded, I buttonholed a dozen long-distance taxi drivers before settling on the toll road from Dam Dek, which had the added attraction of passing by two out-of-the-way Angkorian temples, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker.
“I was traveling with my friend and driver, Hang Vuthy, in a 1991 Toyota Camry with a surprising New York past: according to a window sticker, it had once belonged to a member of the Yonkers Police Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants Association. Imagining the car in a mid-Atlantic blizzard, it occurred to me that wet-season driving in outback Cambodia is not entirely unlike navigating unplowed snowy side streets. Indeed, for much of our journey we avoided the most treacherous stretches of mire and snaked around potholes of indeterminate depth by religiously following a single serpentine track rendered navigable by earlier cars and trucks.”
Noreay Temple (32 kilometers northeast of Preah Vihear) is located in Krala Peal Village, Pring Thom commune, Choam Ksan district. There are three temples separated from each other by about 200 meters. The first is surrounded by double rampart which is 100 meters long and 50 meters wide made of laterite. The site includes five temples made of sandstone, laterite and brick. The second site is completely damaged; only temple bases remain. The third site houses Preah Noreay, but the temple has been seriously damaged: only Preah Noreay statue remain. Noreay temple were built at the same time as Sambo Preykuk temple in the 7th century. The temples are completely covered by forest.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014