Preah Vihear (in Cambodia at theThailand-Cambodia border, accessible from Surin Thailand, and three hours from Siem Reap and two hours from Tbeng Meanchey in Cambodia) is a stunning 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.

Built by the Khmer King Suriyavaraman I in 1037 A.D., a 100 years before Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear consists of crumbling, moss-covered structures with compounds built on four different levels. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the site is perched on a 600-meter cliff and escarpment in the jungle-cloaked Dangrek mountains, which form a natural boundary between Thailand and Cambodia.

Preah Vihear is also known as Khao Pha Viharn. A 162-step stairway leads from the entrance to a steep cliff, 1,500 feet above the Cambodian plains, passing a temple with bas-relief showing how Amarait, the divine Hindu drug of immortality, is made. The other temples feature crumbling gates and steps, columns, blocks of carved pink sandstone and stone nagas (five-headed snakes). There are three stone paws from a stone lion, and ornate lintels (doorway tops) with scenes from Hindu myths such as Shiva riding on Nandi (a sacred bull).

Daniel Robinson wrote in the New York Times: “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...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]

"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 (, the Cambodia Daily or other reliable sources to make sure that Thai-Cambodian tensions are not rising. According to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (, 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.”

Preah Vihear: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Temple of Preah Vihear was designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. According to UNESCO: "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.

“Preah Vihear is an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture. It is very ‘pure’ both in plan and in the detail of its decoration. Authenticity, in terms of the way the buildings and their materials express well the values of the property, has been established. The attributes of the property comprise the temple complex; the integrity of the property has to a degree been compromised by the absence of part of the promontory from the perimeter of the property. The protective measures for the Temple, in terms of legal protection are adequate; the progress made in defining the parameters of the Management Plan needs to be consolidated into an approved, full Management Plan.

”Ensemble of the Phanom Rung, Muang Tum and Plai Bat sanctuaries are significant example of the sacred monuments with a great value in its unique Hindu architectural style constructed on the mountain follow the cosmological principles as well as Wat Phu and Preah Vihear sanctuary. Although they have remarkable differences from both sites, that are the 2 sanctuaries on the top crater of the volcanoes, which are nowhere else in the world. The importance and holiness of these sanctuaries influenced on the lowland community, demonstrated by the connection of the water control system and the natural streams flow down into the same resevior, Baray Muang tum which is the location of community sanctuary, along the route from Siem Reap to Phimai.

”Considering the overall settlement area in Northeastern Thailand, hundreds of religious sites both Buddhist and Hindus sanctuaries in Khmer culture are found. Ensemble of the Vnam Rung complex, the one which has a relationship between spatial and landscaped environment, consists of the 2 sanctuaries on the crater of the extinct volcano, Phanom Rung and Prasat Plai Bat, and on the plain, Prasat Muang Tum. Which are all well associated in terms of architectural style, fine arts and water control system. These ensemble sanctuaries, completely unique and distinctive, although the time has changed but these beauty and relationship of the ensemble sacred sanctuaries with the landscaped environment still remain. This is another special aspect of this cultural heritage."

History of Preah Vihear

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.

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.

Components of Preah Vihear

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 in the northern part of Cambodia. 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 eight meters wide and 78 meters long. The first flight has 162 steps. At the first landing is a large stone singa statue on a stone block. Another 54-step 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 is paved with stones and is seven meters wide by 31.8 meters long. From here the stairway leads up to the first-level Gropura. The stair heads are in the form of seven-headed naga snakes called "Ngu Suang". They face north towards the Prasat. The heads and tails of nagas on both sides look like ordinary snakes, and are an early example of this type of animal figure. 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 what seems like Greek architecture style with cross plan on an elevated base.

Brendan Borrell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “ 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. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Archaeology magazine, February 11, 2013]

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.”

Tramping Around Preah Vihear

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.”

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.

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."

Temple-border Dispute Between Thailand and Cambodia

Ties between Cambodia and Thailand have been strained since June 2008 when a border conflict broke over land surrounding the 11th century Hindu temple, Preah Vihear, after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Cambodia’s insistence. The Khmer temple is owned by Cambodia but the territory around it, including the lead up to the most accessible gate, is in Thailand. The Thai-Cambodian border is matter of dispute and maps used by Thailand and Cambodia to stake their claims have a shady history.

When the conflict was it at its height both sides fired shells across the disputed border, soldiers engaged in firefights and civilians evacuated villages caught in the crossfire and perhaps purposely shelled. Thai and Cambodian troops dug trenches only a few meters apart in the area around the temple. Clashes in October 2008 left two Cambodia soldiers and one Thai soldier dead. Eleven more were killed in February 2011 and dozens were injured. Cambodia claimed that Thai troops damaged the staircase and a naga creature on the temple with rocket fire during one border exchange. The Thai government said the Thais only used rifles accused the Cambodia of using damaging rockets. By the time the conflicted simmered down in 2012, about two dozen people had been killed, scores had been wounded and thousands of civilians had fled their homes, some of which had been set afire by the cross-border shelling.

The Preah Vihear temple conflict occurred at a time when the Thai government was undergoing an upheaval and Cambodia was facing its first elections in five years. The nationalism-stirring conflict helped Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen secure a larger victory in the election than he otherwise might of but exacerbated tensions and divisions in tense, divided Thailand.

The 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple is located in the Dângrêk Mountains between the Choam Khsant district in the Preah Vihear province of northern Cambodia and the Kantharalak district (amphoe) in the Sisaket province of Northeastern Thailand. It is perched on a cliff overlooking the north Cambodia plain. See Places

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.”

Visiting Preah Vihear and and Getting There from Thailand

Preah Vihear can sometimes be reached by crossing the Cambodia-Thai gateway border from the Ubon Ratchantani Province of Thailand between 8:00am and 4:00pm. In the past the crossing has been 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, "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 (, the Cambodia Daily or other reliable sources to make sure that Thai-Cambodian tensions are not rising. According to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (, 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.”[Source: Daniel Robinson, New York Times, December 23, 2009]

In Thailand Preah Vihear can be reached by renting a vehicle in Surin. The going rate for an air-conditioned station wagon is $150 (per vehicle, which can be split among the passengers). It takes about three hours to get to Preah Vihear from Surin. It also possible to rent a vehicle in Si Saket for about $50. Si Saket can be reached by two buses from Surit (change in Kantharalak) for a cost of about $3.00. Surin is about 8 hours on a $20 air-conditioned bus from Bangkok. Tours from Bangkok can be arranged through Diethelm Travel. See Cambodia

At the Thai border you pay a fee, walk 15 minutes to the Thai police, then walk to the Cambodian border post and drop off your passport and fill out some forms. Then walk along a path past barbed wire, foxholes and bunkers to the Cambodian police office where you again pay about a fee. From here an Cambodian armed guard takes you a short distance to the ruins.

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

Preah Vihear is 625 kilometers from Phnom Penh. 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.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, 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.

Last updated August 2020

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