The temple at war

The ancient Khmer temple of Preah Vihear is at the centre of a long-running dispute between Thailand and Cambodia that’s left many soldiers dead.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

Preah Vihear temple, Cambodia

A temple should be a sanctuary of peace and harmony. It should not be a weapon of war. But for the temple of Preah Vihear, it seems inescapable. It is surrounded by soldiers.

Built on top of a cliff more than 500 metres high, the best way to reach it is in the back of a 4WD pickup truck. As you drive up the steep and (at times) rough road, you can see the presence of the Cambodian army.

Their camps line the side of the path. Many of them live here with their families and while the soldiers try to look busy, their wives run drink stalls and their children run around with toy guns.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

When you reach the top, the camps include bunkers and lookouts. There’s a feeling of calm and probably even boredom, but that doesn’t mean the army is nonchalant about the threat, which they see as coming from Thailand.

The official border is just a few hundred metres away and you can see it clearly. I say ‘official’ because the border is disputed and that is at the heart of this conflict. Although it feels safe today, the last exchange of fire in 2011 led to deaths and injuries on both sides.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia
Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

Preah Vihear is the jewel in the crown of this region and both countries want it – not just for religious reasons or pride but because of the potential for tourism revenue.

If you’re interested in visiting Preah Vihear, it’s very difficult to get there on your own. There are a few options for tours, though.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia
Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

Preah Vihear border dispute

The problem started in 1907 when French officials drew up a boundary to separate French-controlled Cambodia and what was then Siam. Both sides agreed it would follow a certain route that would give Preah Vihear to the Siamese but the final result actually put it in Cambodia.

The Siamese didn’t object, though, and nothing more was thought of it for decades. But in 1954, when the French withdrew, Thailand invaded.

The matter was fought in the highest legal echelons and in 1964 the International Criminal Court ruled the temple belonged to Cambodia and the Thais moved back across the official border.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia
Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

Without boring you with all the details since then, let’s just say legal disputes and outright warfare between the two countries have continued even to this day. There have been boycotts and diplomatic stoushes and UNESCO’s decision to place Preah Vihear on the World Heritage List under Cambodia’s name in 2008 did nothing to help ease tensions.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia
Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

It’s all quite unsettling and, in some ways, curious because it’s not even close to the most impressive temple to visit from the Khmer Empire around the Angkor region. It is large and quite unique, though.

Rather than the traditional square or rectangular design, it is designed along a singular north-south axis. Five gates, sometime separated by more than a hundred metres, lead to a central tower which has been knocked down by time and war.

Hindu motifs decorate some of the walls while more modern Buddhist elements have been added over the centuries.

What is left of the tower is still a Buddhist place of worship and locals coming to pray easily outnumber the small amount of foreign tourists who make the trek out each day.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia
Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

Preah Vihear was built almost a thousand years ago, primarily in the 11th and 12th centuries. It took generations to construct and would have been an enormous task to transport all that stone to the top of a mountain.

Visiting Preah Vihea temple, Cambodia

This current dispute has lasted for just a tenth of its existence. It occurs in a world unimaginable by those who set out all those centuries ago to honour the Hindi god Shiva.

They just wanted a peaceful place for worship but their legacy is now the cause of a bitter international battle that has no end in sight.

If you’re interested in visiting Preah Vihear, it’s very difficult to get there on your own. There are a few options for tours, though.

Where should you stay in Siem Reap?

If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Onederz Hostel which is clean and modern.
For something affordable but comfortable, Central Privilege Hotel is a great place.
For good value luxury, you should try the Moon Residence and Spa with a pool and large rooms.
And if you want to really splurge for somewhere incredible, have a look at Phum Baitang.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

19 thoughts on “The temple at war”

    • Who knows how I always end up in strange places! I guess I just find the standard things to be a bit boring and overdone. I do like to try and find sites like this to share with people – this should all be about learning, not just seeing more of the same!

      Reply
  1. Looks very similar to Phanom Rung Temple in North-east Thailand, the structure style, brickwork, even the steps leading up to the temple.

    Shame the 2 countries can’t settle the dispute, the revenue from 1 temple is surely not worth going to war over.

    Reply
    • I think it’s probably about more than just the revenue, there’s a matter of pride there too. But in the long run it could be a lucrative tourist site so I’m sure that’s something that comes into the consideration.

      Reply
  2. You tell the most amazing stories of off-the-beaten-path destinations. What a fascinating conflict and I didn’t realize there is still a battle between Thailand and Cambodia. I guess I really don’t know much about that part of the world, so it makes it even more exciting we’ll be going to Thailand later this year.

    Reply
    • I hadn’t heard about it either until I started doing some research into visiting the place. It was fascinating t find out more about it and realise that it’s still going on and there was fighting there less than two years ago!

      Reply
  3. Why didn’t you mention that the whole Thailand before was a part of Khmer Empire (Cambodia)? Thailand snatched the land from Cambodia and twisted the history. If you have time, you should visit Thai provinces at Cambodian-Thai border, most of they are Cambodian descents. It is not about revenue. You guy seem to be ignorant. It is just that Cambodia can’t afford to lose more to Thailand. Don’t be biased. You are an Aussie who used to rob aboriginal people. No wonder, you don’t know the feeling of being robbed, but said the native is the problem.

    Reply
    • Saying that Thailand was once part of the Khmer Empire is like saying that France was once part of the Roman Empire. The dispute over the ownership of the temple is based on much more recent boundary issues.
      I think this article presents the facts quite accurately and refers to the decisions by international authorities. Of course people on different sides of the argument will feel strongly that their view is correct (and you sound like you are on one of those sides) but I’ll leave the readers to make up their mind based on the information I’ve impartially provided.

      Reply
  4. Wow…cambodia just got over of civil war. More tourist going to that temple place it’s about the reevenue and land. Thailand and cambodia have many many war ages ago. They want to see cbodian suffer for sure. They can’t stand that cvodian is getting a bit better then before. Thailand conguer cbodian and have succeeded but now its not enough for them, they want more. Check out history a long time ago, during Angkor time, they don’t want to give credit or admites. They hided. Thailand attempt to get the land little by little. Cambodia is getting smaller and smaller. Thailand claim they originated from China, obviously that temple look anything like chinese .

    Reply
    • There’s definitely a lot of argument over this temple and there are a lot of ways to look at it. Sometimes people say it’s about revenue, sometimes it’s just about pride, and sometimes it’s about heritage. Personally, I think that the international ruling is the best thing to use in any discussion about the temple.

      Reply
      • You should spend more time researching , the Khmer Empire(Cambodia) stretches north to China and Myanmar. Later there’s pirates for china came and established a society called Siam later it expand and Khmer king those days keep stealing and killing each other and claim the throne while they didn’t realize that the Siam is stealing there land. When you cross the thai border and white your country name khmer they’ll get piss off.

        Reply
  5. You’re part of my Cambodian research, Mr Turtle. I hadnt even considered visiting the ‘Temple at war” and now I’m so looking forward to it!

    I’m there later this week so I’ve just booked your recommended accomodation.

    Now I’m off to read the rest of your Cambodia tips!

    Reply
  6. I will soon have a EMPIRE of (20* MUHAMMAD ALI STYLE FIGHTER PLAKAT BETTAFISH.) That means they will have a fightstyle like boxer MUHAMMAD ALI. the question is who in cambodia has a 5* or 6* plakat fighter bettafish to fight mine.

    Reply
  7. The problem today is some people in cambodia say their plakat fighter bettafish are champion fighters I’ve studied them they fight like boxer /Brian London/ and boxer /George foreman./

    Reply
  8. Preah Vihear is an ancient Hindu temple, which is situated within the city of Siem Reap. It is one of Cambodia’s most famous temples ever. Inside Preah Vihear, many temples and beautiful places are for traveling like the sunrise of Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple, Banteay Srei, the gorgeous temple of Pre Rup, Hindu and Buddhist temples. Before 2 weeks I had visited this place with my family and we enjoyed a lot. At that time we had contacted Siem Reap Private Tour (siemreapprivatetour.com). They helped us to visit all the places there.

    Reply

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