Published/Last edited or updated: 9th January, 2017
By far one of the most stunning temples in Cambodia, Preah Vihear sits atop a 650 metre bluff with views sweeping across a vast area of the north. The temple itself is almost a kilometre long and takes you along a long causeway punctuated by beautifully carved gopuras (gates) until you reach the temple proper. It is not hard to get a sense of the powerful mystical effect this temple must had had on people long ago.
Preah Vihear temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, was built to represent Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas, the home of Shiva, a fitting representation given its imposing position. The inscriptions here, as at Angkor, specify the name of the sanctuary as Sri Sikharesavara or Lord of the Mountain, a reference to Shiva, even though Suryavarman I, the king credited with starting construction on the temple, reportedly favoured Buddhism.
Although construction on the temple we see today started in the 11th century, the site’s formal origins go back much further. Inscriptions refer to a hermitage at the site that can be dated back to the ninth century and the hermits’ grottoes can still be seen in the cliffs. Some sources suggest there was a hermitage here as far back as the sixth century.
Unusually, the temple runs on a north-south axis, conforming to the geographical environment, and placing the main sanctuary on the highest point of the mountain, 652 metres up. The north-south axis also links Preah Vihear with Wat Phu in Laos, and a fragment of a Wat Phu linga representing Shiva is believed to have been placed on top of Preah Vihear in the ninth century.
Aside from evidence in the inscriptions, Suryavarman I’s association with the temple is compounded by the art style of the main sanctuary which, an example of the Baphuon style, can be dated to the late 11th century. However, several other kings also made adaptations and additions to the temple over successive centuries, including Suryvarman II, the man who built Angkor Wat.
In fact, almost all the Angkorian kings would have visited here at some point, their authority as god-kings derived from the blessing of Shiva.
At the top of the unnervingly steep drive, your driver will stop at the bottom of a small rock outcrop. If you pass that and head towards the causeway, keep left as you need to go down before you can go up and appreciate all of the temple and its glories. The path will take you to the first gopura (gate). Head down the steps from there to get to the bottom. Down here, you’ll find a small selection of huts selling snacks and drinks. On a hot day, you will certainly need water to fuel and cool you on the way up.
Starting at the bottom, 525 metres above sea level and technically in Thailand (Khao Phra Wiharn national park is the closest you’ll get from that side officially), there is an 80-metre, 163-step staircase that narrows as you approach the top. This is topped by a stone platform with two seven-headed nagas on each side. Nagas are a frequent feature in Khmer architecture, ancient and modern, and represent a serpent god and protector of waters. In Khmer mythology, nagas often marry humans and Cambodians claim they are descended from the union of a foreigner and the daughter of the naga king.
The gopura is not in brilliant shape though maintains a sturdy elegance, but if you look to the left, you’ll find a path that leads alongside neat trenches dug by the Khmer army as a result of the hostilities with Thailand. It culminates in a mid-sized, barely-concealed gun emplacement. Somewhat incongruously, the trench is topped with some rather lovely flowers that someone took the time to plant. Continuing on, you’ll find yourself at the top of the Ancient Staircase, an extraordinary 2,442-step wooden construction that leads all the way down to the foothills to the southeast of the temple.
Back up on to the procession, the causeway widens out to a long, flat sacred path of stones that runs for 275 metres and is flanked by 67 small lotus bud pillars. On the left a rectangular reservoir is guarded by a lion. The procession ends in a gopura that links to the next 150-metre long level of the sacred path.
Atop a steep set of steps (on which we were mortifyingly overtaken by an eager woman in her 70s), another gopura is the largest and most elaborately decorated and is flanked by two galleried annex halls, known as palaces. This is a nice place to explore and perhaps take a break from the long climb.
Following this a short causeway flanked by naga balustrades leads to the main sanctuary and central courtyard, with surrounding galleries. This also leads to the peak of the mountain with its astonishing views, of which we were deprived on our last visit thanks to the rains.
The origins of the dispute with Thailand lie in the first attempts to demarcate an official border between Cambodia and Thailand. A full explanation of the history can be found here.
2011 was the last time that hostilities kicked off, and many of the villages along here were evacuated with people fleeing to camps further south, just north of the provincial capital in Krong Preah Vihear (then called Tbeng Meanchey). It was a traumatic experience for many, and revisited painful memories for some. The authorities handled the situation well, and families were well provisioned, with support from international NGOs.
It now costs $10 to see the temple, and you’ll need a moto or car to take you up the hill—unless you choose to go by the Ancient Staircase. A moto is $5, while a car/truck will be $25. They will wait for you at the top and bring you back down as well. They will ask for your passport or other form of identification when you buy your ticket.
You can buy snacks and drinks at the numerous stalls in the car park, or bottom of the staircase at the base of the procession. There are toilets at the bottom. Be warned that we have used some pretty horrifying facilities in many places, but these ones really took the biscuit. US the most dire cases only, and even then we reckon you’d find a way to make it up the hill to the next facilities which are about half-way up on the right hand side. These are in infinitely better condition. It is customary to tip the attendant.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
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