In a nutshell
The ancient Hindu temple Prasat Preah Vihear has a long and intricate history. The temple’s construction started in 893 during Yasovarman’s reign and was dedicated to….right, Shiva, of course. Yasovarman erected main temples, galleries and staircases. All the sequent sovereigns multiply added the complex on, led up galleries, gopuras and sanctuaries what speaks for this place’s importance.
Prasat Preah Vihear or God’s Temple stands on Preah Vihear cliff of Dangrek mountain chain, which is why it is also known as a stairway to heaven. Due to perfectly chosen place of its construction in fine weather it’s feasible to see neighbouring Kingdom of Thailand, Laos and even Kulen peak which is only 96km away.
The temple assembly stretches out for 800m; the main temple practically hangs on the ridge. In contrast with traditional Khmer temple style Preah Vihear fully corresponds to Hindu construction patterns having axial arrangement and north-south orientation.
Less as general complex arrangement and its merging with the landscape strikes you the most than as adherence to unique architectural technique and dignified style. Cultivated water basins are especially noteworthy with their rectangular form. By all odds the builders mastered well-honed skills to achieve tremendous results.
The scenery is mind-blowing. Uphill road at the temple’s foot leads to a 100m long stairway putting you high up to the first gopura (temple). Upper stairs sections are topped with many-headed snake statues in stone aka Nagas.
Passing by first temple already familiar to us from the Cambodian banknotes, you find yourself in a masonry square extended to the south, ending up with second stairway and yet second temple and then another stairs and another temple and so further and further, higher and higher as though flying up above the cliff. This eminence hosts shrine buildings overlooking a plain which used to be a bottom of the ancient sea that once ebbed off this margin.
Yet another merit of the place is the isolation allowing feeling its grandeur; you’d come across some random tourists and soldiers and some watch posts mostly on Thai side. But everything seems to be quite in terms of disorders or disturbances.
The territory in dispute
For years back Preah Vihear had been the territory in dispute. Both Cambodia and Thailand claimed for its possession one-by-one.
In Khmer Rouge times fierce battles took place here. The temple complex was ravaged and partly ruined. They broke out bas-relief fragments for sale. Followers of Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty regime executed death penalties here. They forced refugees down from Dangrek to make them snuggle across minefields. God knows how many people died... after regime’s fall up until 2000 the territory was controlled by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Should you go?
Last skirmish dates back to 2008 when UNESCO established the temple as a World Heritage Site. In December 2013 the international court pronounced the verdict securing Prasat Preah Vihear to Cambodia and nowadays the place can only be reached from there. It is not believed to be safe and free from danger to travel to Prasat Preah Vihear, though it’s better to check Internet about this frontier region situation for more detailed info and updates or to consult your tour operator or the Embassy of Cambodia in your country.
Ok, are you ready to go against all odds? That’s nice! Hitch your wagon to a star! Prasat Preah Vihear is breath taking; and the most “taking” part is the last 200 m on your way to it. The temple is at the mountain foot and right there at the foot there’s a reception selling tickets (USD10) and offering to hire an 8-seat truck (USD25 per vehicle) or a bike with a driver (USD5). Personal transport is forbidden.
You may wander around for the whole day, but actually 2-3 hours are enough to run through the complex in case of hurry. Your driver would pick you up and launch down when you’re finished.
When to go
When choosing the time to visit the temple bear in mind that middays can get scorching hot, especially from March through May, and thus morning seems to be the best time to come as it’s not too hot. But here comes another risk – namely, high chance of fog. Actually some say the temple looks more mysterious dressed in a misty veil – it is up to you to decide, anyway. The gates are open from 7.30am till 5.30pm, but tickets are sold only up to 4pm, which is reasonable. Good luck!
Getting in and out
Oh, wait, we didn’t get to Preah Vihear province yet. One step at a time. The easiest and most comfortable way to get to the place is by taxi from Siem Reap; USD100 total; 3 hours.
Another option is to get to Preah Vihear by public transport – just catch a bus heading to Tbeng Meanchey town or Sra Em village. This road will be harder to handle with all those huge potholes, besides it’s longer due to assigned route observance.
Tbeng Meanchey is a grey unremarkably looking town 100km away from Preah Vihear, so probably it’s better to stay in Sra Em which is the closest village to Preah Vihear (only 30km) with a few guesthouses (USD7-USD12) and motor-taxies to get right to the temple’s ticket booth. The ticket will be USD10 without a guide.
Tip You can also check Siem Reap’s tour agencies for a package tour to Preah Vihear (about USD50), but honestly speaking they do it rarely due to rather a low demand.
Getting to Preah Vihear from Thailand
You may have heard about possibility to reach Preah Vihear temple from Thailand. Indeed it was possible to visit the temple from Kantharalak town/ Sisaket town, both in Sisaket province of north-east Thailand. Both are easily reached from Bangkok or any of the larger centres in Isan, including Nakhon Ratchasima or Khon Kaen, by a public bus or a taxi, but remember that neither Kantharalak nor Sisaket provides you with full access to the temple.
Note: As technically Prasat Preah Vihear belongs to Cambodia, you need to cross the border to reach it and at present there is no border crossing opened for foreigners in the vicinity to Preah Vihear.
The only thing you can still do is to take a motorbike taxi or an ordinary taxi to Khao Phra Wihan National Park what will allow you seeing the temple over a 500 m distance. Remember, that the area around the park is more like a military object with lots of checkpoints where they ask for the passport even for buying ticket. Make sure you have it.
Places to eat near Preah Vihear
Now about meat-and-potatoes. Between the ticket booth and the temple itself driving up the steep there are some local houses serving food and a few stalls selling water and snacks with more fundamental meal found only at one of the accommodations in Sra Em.