Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?

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First published 9th February, 2011

Fevers have been running high again along the Thai-Cambodian border, with casualties on both sides and damage to the 11th century Preah Vihear temple grabbing headlines. We give you the run down of the latest developments, how it might affect your trip, and what the background to the whole issue is.

What happened?

On February 4, firefights between the Thai and Cambodian armies broke out in and around the disputed ruined temple of Preah Vihear. Skirmishes reached a peak two days later when both sides carried out full-scale heavy artillery bombardments. Both sides claimed civilian casualties, with the Thais showing photographs of destroyed buildings in nearby villages and Khmers claiming Thai shells had reached up to 20 kilometres into Cambodian territory.

Both sides claimed the other had fired first and made exaggerated claims of victory. Thai officers claimed 64 dead Khmer soldiers; Khmers reckoned they knocked out two Thai tanks. On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to the UN, insisting that Thailand was invading his country and pointing out that they had caused serious damage to the ancient temple. As of February 10, the shooting had stopped and all appears calm — for now.

The approach from Thailand

Implications for tourists

Access to Preah Vihear from the Thai side had been curtailed even ahead of the recent violence. But it had been possible to reach the temple from Cambodia up until very recently. (We visited in August 2010 and though we had the place to ourselves we were willingly given a guided tour by a couple of Khmer soldiers.) Work on the Kompong Thom-Preah Vihear and Siem Reap-Anlong Veng-Preah Vihear routes mean it's possible to reach Preah Vihear in a day from Phnom Penh.

The temple can also be visited as a day trip from Siem Reap, meaning the temple could be firmly on the Cambodia tourist circuit. But the new sealed road leading to the top of the mountain passes through disputed territory, so if the Thais want to be awkward then this will be a major sticking point. If that stumbling block is overcome, expect access from the Khmer side to be feasible in the not too distant future. Do not expect Thai access to be reinstated in the near future — try Phnom Rung instead.

Please note that most Western governments including the UK and US have been warning against travel to Preah Vihear for some time already. Travel insurance bought in those countries is may be invalidated if you chose to ignore their advice.

The atmospheric little border temple of Tha Muean in Surin was off limits as of last weekend, but since we hear Thai and Khmer soldiers there were planning on having dinner together, that one may re-open soon.

As of Monday February 8, all border crossing points between Cambodia and Thailand, including Koh Kong and Chantaburi, were closed except for Poipet, but we wouldn't expect that to last long. (Half the casinos on the Khmer side of the border are owned by Thai generals.)

The vista

The background

To the Khmers, Preah Vihear is both the name of a province in north Cambodia and an Angkor-period ruined temple on the Thai border. For Thais, Khao Phra Viharn applies to a national park, temple, (Prasart Khao Phra Viharn), and the mountain the temple is situated upon.

The temple itself is located on the edge of a 400m escarpment of the Dandrek mountains, a range forming the border between northern Cambodia and the Thai provinces of Ubon, Sisaket, Surin and Buriram. To the north the land slopes down to the plains of the Khorat plateau, while the south provides a dramatic view over the forested lands of north Cambodia.

Preah Vihear

The temple

Though a sacred site to the Khmers from probably at least as early as the 6th or 7th centuries, most of the ruins seen today date from the reign of Suryavarman I in the 11th century. Additions by subsequent kings are apparent and earlier remains can still be identified. The spectacular and relatively well-preserved temple is classic Suryavarman I period, with a lengthy approach staircase from the north separated by a series of elaborate gateways, or gopuras, and a raised central shrine area with 'libraries' preceded by 2 'palaces' or entry pavilions. (Unusually for Khmer temples, the main entrance is to the north, undoubtedly due to the lie of the land.)

The hill centre right and area in-between is the disputed area

The border

When they controlled Cambodia, the French delineated the border with independent Siam by following the watershed of the Dandrek mountains, though making a slight detour at Preah Vihear. A dispute over ownership, since the Thais pointed out it was on their side of the watershed, was settled in 1962 when a UN ruling confirmed it as part of Cambodia. However, the owner of 4.6 square kilometres of wooded hillside directly west of the temple was not determined — leading to the current problems.

The western slopes and hillside opposite were Khmer Rouge territory until the mid-90s and remain strewn with mines and unexploded ordnance. No one really bothered about the area until recently when it became politically expedient to do so for both Thai and Khmer domestic political purposes.

Your friendly Khmer tour guide!

Recent events

The first serious squabbling began in mid-2008 when UNESCO awarded Preah Vihear World Heritage status and recognised it as being Cambodian — ignoring Thai claims that it should be jointly administered. Thai nationalists demonstrated near the temple and a military build-up ensued, with an exchange of fire in August 2008. Sporadic low-level outbreaks of violence continued throughout 2008-9, leading to deaths on both sides. Verbal and diplomatic spats persisted through 2010, generally caused by political posturing and agendas, and the stirring up of nationalist sentiments by military/politico cliques in Phnom Penh but particularly Bangkok, where the political scene has been highly charged and unstable.

In the build up to the current fighting, groups such as the People's Alliance for Democracy and Thai Patriotic Network have sought political leverage by prodding the unhealed Preah Vihear wound and Thai-Khmer relations in general. This culminated in the late January arrest of seven members of TPN for trespassing on Cambodian soil. There's not so many domestic political points to be gained by the Khmer government, but a longstanding fear and resentment of their powerful neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, means the Khmer government is more than willing to retaliate at the least provocation.

Many thanks to our friend Mark Ord, Director at Asia adventure company All Points East for putting this wrap together for us.

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

Read 6 comment(s)

  • It has sure made for some interesting discussions in Pakse, Si Phon Don and Isan area.

    Posted by caseyprich on 10th February, 2011

  • Very interesting and enjoyable post.

    Have learnt more from this than any other news source and I live in Cambodia.

    Posted by Simon Oliver on 10th February, 2011

  • Ta Moan is in Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia, not Surin according to the internationally recognized map. When reporting about this sensitive issue, travelfish should quote reliable/neutral source of information. For instance, it is so biased when claiming unconfirmed death of 64 Cambodians, while two thai tanks damaged. Each country usually try to propagandize the information. If you can not source the independent report, present the views from both countries.

    Posted by zeng on 5th May, 2011

  • Can you guys add dates to your blog stories? They'd really help with posts like this one.

    Posted by Dave on 9th August, 2011

  • I would like to share my experience of visiting Preah Vihear. I went there several months ago as I was touring Cambodia on a moped I bought in Phnom Penh. The trip to the site had been difficult, leaving that morning from Anlong Veng and being shaken for several hours on rutted roads, soaked by rain storms and then dusted up as the sun began to set.

    After riding up the hill to the site, I noticed a number of soldiers in shacks with their families. Well, that isn't so strange I thought. But which way to the hostel marked on my guidebook's map? they didn't seem to know, so, taking my bags through the site, I went to find it but could soon see where it should have been. Instead, there were sandbags and trenches. It soon dawned on me that something wasn't quite right and I soon found out from the soldiers that the site was closed.

    Disappointed and slightly confused, I went back down the hill and found a guest house. They still existed although I doubted many people turned up. The village was also overrun by the army and it had the feel of a garrison town. I often travel with old guidebooks and often do no research into where I am going. On this occasion, I would have definitely have avoided going, but, as it happens, although it was a difficult journey with a disappointing outcome, I can look back at it now with a certain fondness. Mistakes and bad experiences can sometimes make the best stories.

    The next day I whined my moped in 1st gear back up the steep hill to explore the site. I thought: I've come so far, I might as well try and see it. Some soldiers were friendly, explaining the border feud with the Thais and showed me where the Thai army were over the hills. Army outposts, complete with waving flags and distinctively Thai roofs stood on precarious looking mountain tops just a few miles away.

    In this long drawn out stand-off, the army milled around seemingly aimlessly. Some seated themselves on ancient lion statues whilst listening to their superiors. Others used the site as a toilet. Sandbags had been erected here and there and large flags were raised stating: Preah Vihear is Ours!

    Without knowing much about the dispute, one thing that strikes you about Preah Vihear is how the architecture seems distinctively Khmer. The building designs and carvings are very similar to those seen at the Angkor temples. My guidebook was still useful in explaining the history, layout and various features some of which are incredibly. Inside one room, a monk sat on matting next to a delicate buddhist alter. Seeing that site of peace and serenity made what was going on outside seem even more foolish. This was certainly no place for a war.

    There are also some great views from Preah Vihear, one direction showing a vast dusty plain that seems to go on for miles, and the other direction, towards Thailand looking hilly and green.

    Before leaving a friendly looking soldier beckoned me to share some food with him. We ate in his tranch next to his grenade launcher. I asked: Could you take a photo of me in the trench? Of course! But first he unboxed some grenades for me to hold for the photo. In this slightly surreal morning, he reminded me that the Cambodians are hospitable, kind and generous, and I left happy that I had an interesting experience.

    Posted by marcopaulo on 7th September, 2011

  • I was up Preah Vihear a few days ago;22nd Nov no worries about security. The new but unfinished gravel road only goes half way up. The last part is as steep as ever. One of the Tourist police pointed out a few bomb craters and some small amount of shrapnel damage to the temple; but it was less damage then I expected to see.
    There are still a few Cambodian troops up there; but not as many as a year ago!

    Posted by peaceofangkor on 27th November, 2011

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