Standing high atop a towering escarpment straddling the border between Cambodia and Thailand are the majestic, heavily damaged ruins of Preah Vihear temple. From one side of the ruins the view stretches for miles out over the plains below. A Cambodian army base lies on the opposite side of the temple, facing off against their Thai counterparts a mile away who claim the temple belongs to Thailand. Welcome to the worlds most contested temple.
Most travellers in Cambodia naturally gravitate to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and the many other Khmer temples in the region. Very few people make the long trip to see the more remote ruins of Preah Vihear. Those that do are rewarded with a rare experience, as they get to explore ruins in a unique location without the crowds.
History Of Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear is one of the many temples and cities built by the powerful Khmer empire, which dominated Cambodia and much of SE Asia from 800-1250AD. The first temple was built on the site in the 8th century, but no buildings survive from this period. The buildings you see today were mainly built in the 11th and 12th centuries. The site was first dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, but subsequently was taken over as a Buddhist place of worship.
In modern times the history of the temple has been dramatic, with the site a cause of serious conflict between Cambodia and Thailand. When French forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1954 the Thai army moved in and occupied the temple, claiming the 1904 border map put it in Thailand. Cambodia appealed, pointing out the French had revised the border in 1907, and in 1962 the International Court of Justice awarded it back to Cambodia.
Peace in the area didn’t last long, and Preah Vihear was one of the last areas to fall to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975. The most horrific event at Preah Vihear happened in 1979. After the Khmer Rouge had been defeated in Cambodia thousands of Cambodian refugees fled to Thailand. The Thai government claimed they couldn’t cope, so the army transported over 40,000 refugees to the border at Preah Vihear, and forced them to climb down the steep cliffs. Many people fell to their deaths or were blown up by mines, with hundreds of others being shot by the Thai army. In total over 3000 people died.
There was sporadic fighting in the area in the 80s and 90s, and from 1993 it was the last major stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. There was heaving fighting in the mountains before the last of the Khmer rouge fighters surrendered in 1998. Despite the temple being declared a UNESCO site in 2008, there were three there clashes between Cambodian and Thai forces in the next few years. Several hundred soldiers died in the fighting. Unsurprisingly parts of the temple have been heavily damaged by all the battles.
Exploring the site
Just reaching the temple is an adventure, as from the ticket booth at the bottom the only way up is by moto taxi or shared jeep. I chose to go on the back of a motorbike, with the driver blasting up the twisting road to the top 520 metres above. Wide stone steps took me up the final ascent to the plateau, from where I was able to see the sun rising over the mountains.
Preah Vihear temple is still impressive despite the extensive damage. The temple is laid out in an unusual design for a Khmer temple, with four enclosures laid out in a row taking you higher each time. The first enclosure has seen the most damage, it’s riddled with bullets and many of the columns have been knocked over. It’s sad to think of all the damage caused by the senseless fighting over a temple.
Wondering around the temple it’s still possible to get a sense of how beautiful and elegant it must have looked in the past. There are numerous sculptures and intricate designs, including many dragons which are a common theme in ancient Khmer architecture. The most impressive part of the temple is the two enclosures at the top, which are the most intact part of the buildings. Here you can walk down the original corridors and get a feel for what it would have looked like in the past. This part of the temple was empty when I explored it, which makes a change from some of the more popular sites in Cambodia.
Preah Vihear army base and surroundings
Past the end of the temple you come to the top of the towering cliffs, where the escarpment plunges hundreds of metres down towards the plains below. The views are immense, with the pancake flat plain stretching to the far horizon. From here you can take some steps down to a series of ledges cut into the cliffs, which have been turned into part of the areas defenses. When I went down there one soldier was on duty, who told me the Thai army had shelled this area during 2011. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be there while under bombardment. Hopefully there will be no more fighting over this temple in the future.
Next to the entrance is a small Cambodian army base, complete with barracks and trenches. The trenches were empty, and I was able to walk along them past several heavy machine guns pointing towards the Thai army on the other side. It was surreal to stand in a place that had seen heavy fighting, and would be the first place that was attacked if the conflict flared up again. Past the trenches a path snakes down through the forest to the Thai entrance to the temple at the bottom of the escarpment.
More solderers were stationed on the far side of the temple, with a couple of observation points. The soldiers allowed me to look through their telescope, which was trained on the Thai soldiers positioned a mile away on the other side of the escarpment, who were in turn watching the soldiers here.
Exploring Preah Vihear was a unique experience. I’d been to many Khmer temples before, but the location and situation of the temple made it more than just another temple visit. Like a few other sites in Cambodia part of the draw of the site is also it’s dark history, which in this temples case is very recent history. Some people don’t like to talk about it, but many travellers have a grim fascination with visiting places where atrocities have happened. It even has a name now: dark tourism. Part of the allure is it shocks us out of our largely comfortable lives, and reminds us of the fragility of human existence. It’s also a warning of the savage depths that humanity can all too often sink to.
It felt outlandish at times to be exploring ancient ruins amid such a heavy military presence, but the atmosphere was very relaxed. I went in 2015 and there has been no fighting since, so the area is even safer to visit now. The journey is also worth it for the great views from the top of the surrounding countryside.
Getting there and away: The nearest town is Sra Em, from here you can take a moto taxi to the site entrance for $5. Only a few buses and shared taxis run each day from the town to other cities in Cambodia.
Accommodation: The nearest accommodation to the site is in Sra Em, a tiny but growing town with a large military presence. When I was there the town had no electricity after 7pm, and two very basic hotels. The town is changing fast though, and you’ll find a few options there now.