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.
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 from their enemy.
In this case the enemy is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.