A four-hour drive north from Siem Reap brings you close to the Thailand border, where a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site sits atop a steep cliff in the Dangrek Mountains. Yet a visit to the Hindu Preah Vihear Temple will not only bring you into contact with an archaeological site built during the ancient Khmer Empire, but an area of military confrontation as a result of on-going border tensions.
Visiting this temple is not only painstaking to get to (both in distance and in administration for entry) but is accompanied by a surreal policed presence as you wander around. It’s not frightening at all, but it’s obvious.
As soon as you enter the temple grounds from the steep climb up the first thing you see is the small military base – sporadic housing, bunkers and watchpoints are accompanied by groups of Khmer army keeping guard.
In the distance is a Thailand flag flying high on the parallel cliff face, its military also standing their ground.
Yet this is marked by the juxtaposition of an impressive temple structure – one of the sources of contention.
Why is There Conflict Over Preah Vihear?
Preah Vihear has long been a dispute between Thailand and Cambodia since the early 1900s over various maps drawn up regarding where the border lies. Thailand made its claim by occupying the temple in 1954 after the French troops left Cambodia. In protest, Cambodia asked the International Court of Justice to investigate the situation with Preah Vihear being officially handed over to the Cambodians in 1962 (based on Thailand’s long-term acceptance of a map drawn up 1907). Threats of force continued from both sides.
Then came the years of the Khmer Rouge who captured the temple in May 1975 and later occupied the border areas; the Vietnamese army invaded to overthrow the Khmer Rouge and attacked troops at the temple in December 1978; war continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s; the temple was re-occupied by the Khmer Rouge in 1993; and in 1998 negotiations took place at the temple whereby hundreds of members of the Khmer Rouge surrendered to the government.
It’s never been a peaceful place.
In July 2008 Preah Vihear became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, applied for by Cambodia with initial agreement and support from Thailand. As a result, a new map was drawn up but this only later reignited former tensions with the political opposition in Thailand withdrawing support of the new boundary line agreed. The conflict has been ongoing between the two countries ever since, with outbreaks of violence in October 2008, April 2009 and February 2011. The International Court of Justice was called in again but it could take years to come to a resolution over the border dispute.
There is a ceasefire. For now.
I felt slightly uneasy walking along the path that led to the first entrance of the four-layered temple. The military men were not at all hostile but, despite the current cease-fire, the atmosphere was a little intimidating.
At the same time, it was fascinating to see how two nations are in dispute over what appears to be a small area of land. Is the temple really that important to Thailand?
What a big price to pay for a temple that is actually Khmer.
Visiting Preah Vihear Temple
Although tourist police and other military guards were on patrol throughout the temple complex, it wasn’t too much of a distraction during our temple ramblings.
In hindsight, it is better to feel safe, although the presence of so many men was a little unsettling at times.
However, it doesn’t detract from the temple’s magnificent structure. It’s one of the most picturesque and more interesting temples I have visited, more so because of its unique layout.
A beautiful, crumbling, ruin, you enter each level through a Gopura (entrance pavilion) after climbing a series of steps, scaling higher and higher until you reach the very top of the cliff face, where you can look out across the vast Cambodian lands that were once lush, dense jungle. Sadly only a small part of it remains now following the destruction that comes with modernisation.
Former Khmer Rouge bunkers are scattered throughout and some bullet holes are visible on the temple structures. Yet the overall grandeur of the place helps to drown out this somewhat unnerving reminder of past conflicts.
Entrance is free but you must present a copy of your passport on arrival at the ticket desk at the bottom of the hill. A ticket is handwritten and attached for later ticket inspections along the steep road route to the top which can be arranged via a $25 truck for up to five people or $5 for a moto ride (not for the faint-hearted!).
A contentious but beautiful place. Who knows what will become of Preah Vihear. Cambodia is certainly standing its ground, but who knows if it will ever end up on Thailand soil again.
See it while you can, while there is still relative peace in the area.