Right across the border of Si Saket and Kantharalak in northeastern Thailand, Prasat Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple stunningly situated atop a 525-metre cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains in Cambodia.
Predating Angkor Wat by 100 years, the history of the temple/fortress is somewhat unclear, but it is known to be dedicated to the god Shiva and thought to have been constructed in the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-50), with further significant additions by Suryavarman II (1113-50). Unlike most Khmer temples, the temple is constructed on a long north-south axis, instead of the usual rectangular plan facing east.
Though easily accessible from present-day Thailand, and for some years occupied by that country, the temple was nonetheless claimed by Cambodia on the basis of a map prepared during French colonial times. In 1959 Cambodia brought the dispute to the International Court of Justice, which in 1962 ruled that, because Thailand had for years accepted this map, Cambodia had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. Soon afterwards Cambodia was plunged into civil war. The temple remained open to the public from Thailand (although unreachable from Cambodia) until 1975, when it was occupied by the Khmer Rouge. It re-opened from the Thai side in 1998, and in 2003 Cambodia completed the construction of a long-awaited access road allowing Cambodians to visit the temple. In 2008, after a contentious nomination process, the temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The easiest way to reach Preah Vihear is from the town of Sra’em, 30km south. Four hotels exist 1 km west of the town center, on route 2625. Prices range from $7 to $12. (November 2014)
Buses run directly from Phnom Penh via Kompong Thom to Sra’em, leaving in the morning and arriving in the evening. (Be careful not to book a bus to Preah Vihear since these may actually go to the town of Krong Preah Vihear and not Sra’em). They drop you off at the Sra’em central roundabout. Minibuses, once daily, $8 and shared taxis, $10, run from Sra’em to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng (November 2014)
Motorbike – taxis can take you to Preah Vihear Temple from Sra’em for $15 per person, or $10 per person for groups of two or more. They refuse to rent motorbikes for self drive. There is no public transit from Sra’em to Preah Vihear.
The road from Siem Reap to the base of Prasat Preah Vihear via Anlong Veng, a distance of about 210 km, is fully paved. A 4×4 or moto will be required to scale the steep road going up the hill, which you can arrange at the ticket office near the base of the hill; a 4×4 costs $25 round-trip and a moto $5 round-trip.
There is no public bus from Anlong Veng to Preah Vihear (public transit to Sra’em does exist.) A private car needs to be negotiated for about $50 although the starting price may be over $100 so bargain hard.
You can also reach the place on a three day motorbike trip from Kompong Thom. The highway between is completely sealed and in good condition.
Cambodian soldiers have established defensive positions near Preah Vihear, though they welcome tourists. Soldiers no longer expect gifts and are quite hospitable when you are on the ancient staircase (eastern) side. Although there’s no entrance fee, you do need to stop by the ticket office at the base of hill and get a ticket, passport required which will be checked on the way up and at the temple. The ticket office also arranges transport by pickup truck ($25 roundtrip) and moto ($5 roundtrip). A new road for the first 3 kilometers has reasonable grades, but the last 2 kilometers are on the old road and have extremely steep sections.
The “Ancient Pathway” on the east side of the temple is now open to visitors; it’s a pleasant descent with more than 2,000 steps through the forest; a modern wooden staircase parallels the largely ruined stone staircase, though two sections of old path are used. (Jan. 2013) The base of the staircase (which is more preserved) can also be accessed via a well signposted graded dirt road to the east of the ticket office.
The best, easiest and safest way to get to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap is to arrange private tour – taxi driver (best to arrange it with assistance of your hotel or guest house) will take you there and return you the same day. Be prepared for an early morning departure (6 am) and for approximately 12 hours return trip. It is certainly worth it. You can also arrange (via your hotel or guest house) for certified Tour Guide (price depends on the language). You should have your passport with you for this trip.
What to see
- The adventure starts with 162 stone steps (1), a fairly steep climb that will get you warmed up. Your reward is a short set of stairs decorated with nagas and Gopura I (3), a solitary pavilion with a fluttering Cambodian flag.
- A 500-metre gently climbing avenue leads up to Gopura II (6), another small pavilion, and a large boray (water cistern, to the left.
- Another avenue leads to, yes, Gopura III (9), but also the first courtyard of the temple. Make a detour to the left side of the gopura to see relics of a more modern era, in the form of a rusting artillery gun and a few bunkers.
- A short causeway leads to the inevitable Gopura IV (14) and behind it the second courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard is Gopura V – theGalleries (17) , and beyond it the Main Sanctuary (18), the centrepiece of the site which now houses a miniature Buddhist temple.
- But what makes the effort worthwhile lies just outside, so sneak out the left side to find yourself at Pei Ta Da Cliff, with a sheer 500 metre drop and a jaw-dropping vista of the Cambodian jungles below. To contemplate the view without getting sunstroke, locate the crevice that leads into a little cavern of sorts, with shade provided by the tip of the cliff overhead.