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Khao Phra Wihan National Park

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Named after the magnificent 11th century Khmer sanctuary known to Cambodians as Preah Vihear, Thailand’s Khao Phra Wihan National Park covers a forested escarpment with soaring views into remote Northern Cambodia. At the time of writing, the ruins remain off limits from the Thai side, but you can get enticingly close.

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Prasat Khao Phra Wihan as seen through our fully extended 105 mm lens.

Prasat Khao Phra Wihan as seen through a fully extended 105 mm lens.

Built in dramatic fashion to honour the Hindu god Shiva some 1,100 years ago, Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (also spelt Viharn; we’re using the Thai name for this listing) is situated at the crest of a rugged 500-metre-high slope amid the Dandrek mountains. A half-kilometre west of the Cambodian-controlled ruins, Pha Mo E Daeng cliff is part of Thailand.

When drawing up borders between French Indochina (including Cambodia) and independent Siam (now Thailand) in 1907, the French mappers diverged briefly north of the agreed-upon watershed border demarcation in a lasso of the pen that put Khao Phra Wihan on French land. The Thais remained silent about this until the mid-20th century, when the issue was resolved by a 1962 International Court of Justice ruling that granted the site to Cambodia.

For several years, Khao Phra Wihan could still be accessed from the Thai side by purchasing a visa-free day pass. When the Cambodia-friendly government of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra was in power in the early 2000s, it seemed that the ruins would remain accessible from both sides for the forseeable future. That changed in 2006, when Thai nationalists helped to oust Thaksin from power and began to press the issue as a matter of national pride.

A Thai army lookout.

A Thai army lookout.

The renewed dispute heated up in 2008, when Cambodia applied for UNESCO world heritage status for the ruins. An armed conflict soon erupted, the worst of it unfolding over the first half of 2011. Soldiers and civilians were killed and mortar rounds damaged the sanctuary itself. Around the world, governments warned travellers to avoid the unstable area.

The fighting finally ceased after another court ruling reaffirmed Cambodian ownership over most of the site later in 2011, but soldiers remain entrenched on both sides as of mid 2015. In late 2014, Khao Phra Wihan National Park was partially reopened to travellers.

What can be seen from the Thai side?
Apart from the breathtaking views from atop Pha Mo E Daeng, the main attraction on the Thai side is a 1,000-year-old bas relief carved into a sandstone wall that depicts a pair of mysterious Khmer figures. When we visited, a chain-link fence had recently been put up to protect the images from vandalism. A small hole in the fence allowed for a glimpse from a couple of metres away.

What people or gods the images represent is a mystery.

What people or gods the images represent is a mystery.

A breezy trail leads past golden statues of Brahma and Buddha on the way to a viewpoint, where Khao Phra Wihan can barely be seen by the naked eye. Pointed towards the ruins from a half-kilometre away, a set of panoramic binoculars allow visitors a closer look, though most of the site is obscured by trees and no details can be seen. A pair of ancient stone towers situated just inside Thai territory were off limits during our visit.

When taking in the geography first-hand from the Thai side, it’s easy to see why many Thais feel that the site should belong to Thailand. If it weren’t for the border, you could easily walk straight to the ruins along a mostly flat path. From the Cambodian side, visitors must traverse a steep 800-metre stairway after passing through miles of remote forest. We’re not taking sides; only pointing out that the internationally unpopular Thai point of view made more sense after we came here in person.

Shot of the complex without zooming.

Shot of the complex without zooming.

The atmosphere atop Pha Mo E Daeng was slightly surreal. Thai soldiers in full camo fatigues strolled side by side with Buddhist monks. Nationalists from Bangkok struck up a conversation with us, the only foreign visitors, before snapping selfies with Cambodia in the background. Fragrant incense smoke rose from a Buddha image surrounded by large loops of razor wire.

A short walk from the clifftop viewpoint, the national park continues to operate a visitor centre and other facilities, including a couple of large bungalows, which go for 2,000 baht a night. We were surprised to see so many vendors set up in front of the car park selling drinks, meals and souvenirs. Even on a Saturday, crowds were thin.

The national park covers 130 square kilometres in total and includes a couple of small waterfalls and a cave. When asked about these natural attractions, park rangers provided no info while discouraging us from going anywhere beyond Pha Mo E Daeng cliff.

A statue of Brahma atop Pha Mo E Daeng.

A statue of Brahma atop Pha Mo E Daeng.

So, is Khao Phra Wihan National Park worth a visit?
Probably not, especially considering how the park now charges a steep 400 baht per foreign adult entry fee. Compare that to Phanom Rung, a similarly exquisite set of Khmer ruins which can actually be seen up close for only 100 baht. Located in a far-flung corner of Si Saket province, the park also takes considerable effort to reach.

On the other hand, adventurous types might get a thrill from travelling to a disputed border region where machine gun touting soldiers guard the park’s ticket booth. The view is fantastic, and seeing first-hand how easily Khao Phra Wihan could be accessed from Thailand is important for anyone trying to gain a deeper understanding of this complex dispute.

A view of the watershed/border to the southwest.

A view to the southwest.

At time of writing, we see no reason not to visit the park if safety is the main concern. It’s always possible that something will reignite the conflict on the ground, but this seems unlikely after several years of cease fire and the ’11 court decision that would now cast Thailand clearly as the aggressor. Do however make sure that your travel insurance will cover you in the disputed border area.

It’s also very important to stay on the main roads and trails if you explore deeper into the park, as unexploded mines from the Khmer Rouge days are still fairly common here.

The bottom line
Above all else, what we took away from our trip to Khao Phra Wihan National Park was a sense of frustration. Not so much due to the 400 baht ticket or being denied access to the ruins (although that was a letdown), but rather from reflecting on the nationalist squabbling that resulted in considerable bloodshed over an ancient monument that was supposed to be a religious sanctuary.

Razor-wire Buddha.

Razor-wire Buddha.

Where to direct that frustration is another story. Perhaps the Cambodians should have compromised by allowing for joint administration of the site. Perhaps the Thais should have spoken up about their perceived land rights 100 years ago. Perhaps Thai nationalists shouldn’t have pushed the issue in ’08. Perhaps leaders on both sides should have stepped back before the situation degraded into an armed conflict. And yes, perhaps the colonial-era French (and British/Dutch, for that matter) should have stayed out of Asia altogether.

Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, the Thai and Cambodian governments will once again agree to allow travellers access to Prasat Khao Phra Wihan from either side of the still-hazy border. With a military junta currently ruling Thailand and stubborn-as-ever Hun Sen still in charge of Cambodia, we’re not holding our breath.

If you’re still keen to see Preah Vihear up close, check out our account from the Cambodian side .

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