The object of a longstanding territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, which has at times turned lethal, Prasat Preah Vihear is one of the kingdom’s most stunning creations, not just because of the temple itself but thanks to the spectacular views across northwest Cambodia afforded from atop the 650 metre-high cliffs at the temple’s apex.
Access to and security at the temple has vastly improved in the last few years, with a smooth new road from the nearby town of Sra’Aem and a cessation in hostilities between the neighbouring nations for whom the temple’s disputed status has too often become a convenient kicking ball for political parties keen to distract electorates or whip up nationalistic fervour. It is an acutely cynical kind of politics that has cost lives and resulted in entire communities being displaced as rockets rained down on villages around Sra’Aem and beyond. International teams who surveyed the areas after the conflict in 2011 found evidence of banned cluster munitions fired by Thailand, which will continue to exact a toll on farmers and other land users.
Old Cambodia hands wax nostalgically about how the road to Preah Vihear temple used to be not much wider than the wheels on their motorbikes, and in need of frequent thrashing to clear vegetation. And that was before you got to the tough bit. The temple starts 525 metres up virtually sheer cliffs, whose inaccessibility to any but the hardiest meant that for a long time the only way to get there was from the Thai side.
Today, there is a concreted road, which is still frighteningly steep — we discovered that the hard way in 2009 when we rode up there on a motorbike with a dodgy engine that stalled on one of the really, really, really steep bits. It turns out that you can’t dismount a motorbike when it’s inclined at what feels like 45 degrees. Being rescued by the soldiers who were camped there (and still are) following the hostilities in 2008 was somewhat humbling. And that was the easy part. Going back down again was terrifying. It’s much easier if you get someone else to do it and the drivers here are so practised in getting up and down that hill that they’re likely to casually take a call from their family at the very point where you’re considering whether hyperventilating will be embarrassing.
But it’s truly worth the brief moments of anxiety on the way up, and down, for the sheer pleasure of walking the 800 metres of impressive causeway up towards the main structures of the temple and those amazing views. Your main companions will be small groups of Cambodians who’ve come to enjoy a particular point of pride in their national heritage and there has been an infectious sense of family fun each time we visited.
While you’re heading back to town, keep an eye out for the oddly-named Eco-Global Museum on the right side of the road towards Sra’Aem. Slated to open in 2012, and although Prime Minister Hun Sen conducted a formal ceremony here last year, this was still closed when we found it but there were staff on site so we nagged them to show it to us, which they very kindly did. They say that it should be open properly in late 2015 and if it is, it will certainly be worth a visit.
Set in beautiful tree-filled grounds, this small museum features displays on the indigenous Kuoy community that lives in Preah Vihear, the flora and fauna of northwest Cambodia, and on archaeological finds from the area. It will be a more than worthy diversion for an hour or so.
Sra’Aem is a small market village 30 kilometres south of Preah Vihear temple, and the best staging post for a visit. It only really has three roads: one west towards Anlong Veng and Siem Reap, one south towards Krong Preah Vihear (formerly Tbeng Meanchey) and Kampong Thom (and Phnom Penh), and one north towards the temple.
There is not a lot going on here, though the market is lively and worth a wander. Increased tourism to the temple though means that a series of new guesthouses have bloomed on the western road including, rather surprisingly, a modern boutique resort. The others are standard local establishments offering clean, air-con rooms at very reasonable prices, though with little in the way of embellishments.
There is no local hospital, but a handful of small, local pharmacies can be found on the road to the west, and also to the north. You will need a translator — if there is someone at your hotel or guesthouse who speaks English, they might help. If you already know what you’re looking for, standing and pointing works well too.
There is an Acleda bank 300 metres from the roundabout on the road north that has international ATM services.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 12th November, 2016.