Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Related readingPlanning around Thailand's civil unrest
Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
Read 6 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (73)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.