Sra’aem / Preah Vihear
Prasat Preah Vihear is an ancient temple complex perched on top of a cliff in the Dângrêk Mountain range along Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. At its highest point, the temple stands 2,051 feet (625 m) above sea level. Initial construction of the complex began in the 9th century A.D. and continued under the rule of a number of Khmer kings including Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II. The site’s remaining ruins were constructed during the 10th to 11th centuries.
The site is unique due to its remote location, spectacular mountain view and troubled modern geopolitical history. For over one hundred years the Thais and Cambodians have disputed, often violently, ownership claims to Preah Vihear. In 1954, well after the last French troops left Cambodia, the Thai military occupied the temple. It was not until 1962 that the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple was “situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia”.
In July of 2008 tensions rose again as soldiers from both sides of the conflict began occupying various temples and monuments along the border. By October the standoff became violent when troops engaged each other in firefights with small arms, RPGs and mortars. These sporadic clashes intensified and by early 2011 long range artillery and multiple launch rocket systems were used by both sides. Luckily civilian casualties were relatively low due to the sparse population on either side of the border.
Presently the site is peaceful and perfectly safe for travelers to visit. However, new bunker complexes have been built on both sides of the border and the presence of the Cambodian military is proof that things could change. We recommend visiting this unique site now before conflict resumes or the area is invaded by tour buses.
After my failed attempt to reach the temple from Anlong Veng, I decided to travel to Sra’aem and use the small highway town as a base. Sra’aem is less than 19 miles (30 km) from the temple’s main entrance and there are a number of small hotels and guest houses along both highway 62 and 2625. For independent travelers this is for sure the best way to reach Prasat Preah Vihear.
To reach Sra’aem I visited several travel agencies trying to confirm a bus route and purchase a ticket. There are daily mini buses (vans) that make the three hour journey but I made the mistake of requesting a full sized bus thinking it would be a more comfortable option. I paid $12 USD for a ticket from Liang U.S Bus Company which conveniently provides hotel pick ups. When the booking was made I made it quite clear that I wanted to go to Sra’aem and the sales lady wrote that on the ticket. It wasn’t until I got on the bus that I realized it was bound for Kampong Cham, a town almost exactly five hours in the opposite direction from Sra’aem. As the bus proceeded south on highway 6 I assumed that at some point I would be transferred to another vehicle. I was correct, but unfortunately the stop where the change occurred on was 15 miles (20 km) south of the junction with highway 62. So, instead of taking three hours, my journey took seven and a half hours. By coincidence there was a traveler from Germany on the bus who made the same mistake of not booking the mini bus.
Another option to reach Sra’aem is to take a bus from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear City and change buses to travel the second leg to Sra’aem. Preah Vihear City is a small town 53 miles (86 km) south of Sra’aem and should not be confused with the temple. When speaking about the temple it should be referred to as Prasat Preah Vihear to avoid confusion with the city or province of the same name. One big problem with bus travel in Cambodia is that many buses depart a particular town once or twice in the morning and only make one way trips. Upon arriving in Preah Vihear City, travelers will have to arrange a share taxi, or wait until the next day to catch a bus to Sra’aem.
After stepping off the bus in Sra’aem we met motorcycle taxi drivers eager to take us to the temple. Good, this part was going smoothly, I booked a moto for the next morning at a price of $15 USD. The 18 mile (30 km) trip to the temple took around 30 minutes; we arrived before the ticket office opened at 07:45 AM. The entrance fee is $10 USD, after purchasing the ticket; you go to a second window to arrange transportation up to the temple. The mountain road is very steep. Private vehicles are not allowed to carry tourists from the ticket booth to the temple. There are three options to complete the journey; walk, which will take an hour, motorcycle for $5 USD or in pick-up trucks which will charge either $25 USD per person, or upon filling the truck with travelers, around $4 USD.
Regardless which transportation option is chosen to make the final ascent, visitors are dropped off at a checkpoint at the base of the temple. Adjacent to the entrance is a large area containing food stalls. This is a good place to buy water as the remaining hike to the top of the cliff is hot and tiring. Most people will spend an hour our two touring the ruins but I found the mountain top temple very interesting and spent the entire day there. I highly recommend that visitors to Siem Reap make a trip to this unique site.
Until next time,
The sleepy farming village of Banteay Chhamar is home to one of Cambodia’s largest and least visited temple complexes. The site is said to be “one of the greatest architectural marvels of South East Asia”. Located less than 12.5 miles (20 km) from the Thai border, the town’s remote location and lack of infrastructure keeps the temple off the main tourist path. The temple receives less than 300 visitors per month in high season; there is a very reasonable chance of having the 741 acre (3 km²) site all to you. Just like the Bayon at Angkor Thom, the complex was built under the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the 12th to 13th century. Visitors to Banteay Chhamar will surely recognize the huge face towers that Jayavarman VII commissioned for both Mahayana Buddhist temples.
From 2008-2014 the Global Heritage Fund over saw a 1.5 million USD project to survey and protect the site from further deterioration. The work included the reassembly of much of the outer enclosure walls where some of the best bas-reliefs can be viewed. The interior of the temple is very much in a state of ruins; trees, vines and dense foliage growing on, over and through collapsed sandstone walls. The visual effect is stunning and one can’t help but think this would have been the perfect location to have produced an Indiana Jones movie. In addition to the main temple, there are a number of smaller satellite structures and a large, mostly dry, man made lake known in Khmer as a baray.
There are no hotels or guest houses in the village or surrounding area but home stay is available through the Banteay Chhamar Community-Based Tourism Group (CBT). Their website, Visit Banteay Chhamar, provides a wealth of information on touring the area, lodging, meals and contact information. Rooms cost just $7 USD per night and while the facilities are typical of rural Asia they are very primitive by Western standards. Delicious and inexpensive meals are provided by the organization at the visitors’ center across the road from the temple entrance.
The CBT staff can organize taxis from either Siem Reap or Battambang or taxis can be booked in Siem Reap for around $120 USD each way. After visiting a few of the many travel agencies in Siem Reap, I decided to get on a bus headed to Bangkok through the Poi Pet border crossing. This route up highway 6 passes through the town of Serei Saophoan, 64 miles (103 km) from Siem Reap. From there it was supposedly easy to find a motorcycle taxi to travel north to Banteay Chhamar. For $7 USD I got a seat on a tourist bus which conveniently picked me up at my hotel. Unfortunately, we spent one hour picking up passengers before leaving the city. Once we got on the highway the trip took two hours including a quick bathroom break. The bus dropped me off in front of the Nasa hotel at the junction with highway 56 in Serei Saophoan. As soon as I got off the bus a motorcycle taxi appeared to complete the remaining 35 mile (57 km) of the journey. We arrived at the temple entrance an hour and a half later. The taxi fare was $15 USD.
On the return trip to Siem Reap I got a car from Banteay Chhamar for $25 USD, which only took an hour to arrive at the old bus terminal in Serei Saophoan. From there I bought a bus ticket from Capitol Tour which cost $4 USD and arrived in the center of Siem Reap in less than two hours.
The next thing on the agenda is another attempt at Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. I’ll get on a bus Friday morning and make the three hour trip to the town of Sra’aem. Sra’aem is less than 19 miles (30 km) from the temple so with any luck I will arrive around noon. I might try to get to Koah Ker on the way back to see Prasat Thom (temple). Either way I will be back in Siem Reap early next week.
Until next time,
On February 29th I started my journey from Thailand to Cambodia. My plan was to travel to Anlong Veng and use the town as a base to visit Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. My second goal was to see Banteay Chhamar, a seldom visited temple in Banteay Meanchey province. Much of the following information will be included in the existing Thailand and the upcoming Cambodia pages.
Bus number 1485 departs the terminal in Surin Thailand for the Chong Chom border crossing every 15 minutes between the hours of 05:30 AM and 06:30 PM. This is a regular intercity bus which makes many stops, dropping off and picking up passengers as it works its way down highway 214 towards Cambodia. The trip takes at least an hour and a half and costs 45 baht. This bus is not a full sized motor coach, any baggage storage that the bus had was not utilized and my bag took up an entire seat which no one seemed to mind. The final stop in Chong Chom is about 300 feet (92 m) from the Thai immigration booth. This step is the same as departing Thailand from an airport, hand over your passport, receive an exit stamp and you are free to go.
Another 300 feet past Thai immigration on the Cambodian side is a small building with two windows, one signed “visa service”, the other “immigration”. Go to the visa service window to receive a visa application form. Complete the form and return it to the same window with your passport, one passport sized photo and $30 USD. It should be noted that the fee for tourist visas increased from $20 to $30 USD on October 1st, 2014. Your passport will be handed back to you with a 30 day tourist visa decal affixed in it. At this point you need to take your passport to the immigration window, complete an arrival form and wait for an entrance stamp. The entire process from departing Thailand to entering Cambodia takes about 40 minutes.
While going through the process of completing forms and waiting for Cambodian immigration to hand the passport back, taxi drivers touted their services virtually non stop. At immigration I was quoted a fare of 1500 Thai baht to Anlong Veng which I declined. Taxi and tuk tuk fares always decrease the further you get from the bus or train station exit. It is no different at a border crossing, as I walked down the road the taxi driver reappeared with a counter offer of 1000 Thai baht. Looking down the long road from the border I really didn’t see too many other options. I took this particular taxi but unfortunately when we arrived in Anlong Veng he just dropped me off in the center of town, refusing to try and locate my guest house.
Upon being dropped off at the roundabout that serves as the town center, a moto taxi stopped at my side and offered to take me the rest of the way to my guest house. After checking in to my room and eating lunch I went for a walk around this dusty little town. Many motor cycle taxis stopped and offered to take me sight seeing and were more than willing to take me to Preah Vihear the next day. The trip up to the temple should have taken at least an hour and a half each way. The small motorcycles that are the popular among the locals were not my ideal transportation choice for a number of reasons. I never did ask for prices as I put this idea on the back burner.
There is not a bus station or terminal in Anlong Veng but at least three busses owned by different companies operate from the town. They each have a parking space and next to the bus is a plastic table and chairs which is the ticket “office”. No one I met in this town spoke more than a half dozen words of English, this makes it difficult to do much more than to determine the departure time and buy a ticket. After “talking” with the ladies at the plastic table I was informed that I could get a ride at 06:00 AM for Preah Vihear. I assumed it was a share taxi and had some doubts about the return trip to Anlong Veng.
I arrived at the bus stop at 05:45 the next morning for the trip to Preah Vihear but after speaking to different women it was confirmed that it would be a one way trip in a van operated as a share taxi. I could only return the following day with another share taxi. It quickly became apparent that it would be much more difficult to arrange transportation than I had anticipated. At 06:30 I made the decision to go get my bags from the guest house and get on the 07:00 bus for Siem Reap. When looking at the list of destinations posted at the bus stop you can’t help but notice that one bus is scheduled to make numerous stops in cities and towns which are nowhere near each other. In fact, some are in completely opposite directions. What happens is that the bus stops at major highway junctions and passengers are transferred to share taxis arranged and paid for by the bus companies. About forty minutes from Siem Reap I was put in a car with two other passengers for the remainder of the journey. The entire trip took around two hours and cost $5 USD. The share taxi stops at a bus station on the outskirts of the city but from there it’s very easy to find a tuk tuk into the city center for $3 USD.
I spent the last four days in Siem Reap visiting the temples of Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire. In addition to sightseeing I have been planning another attempt at the country's northern most temples. In Cambodia it is not possible to rent a car without having a local driver. To hire a car and make the round trip drive to Preah Vihear or Banteay Chhamar costs in the range of $110- $130 USD. In the case of Preah Vihear, one can join a group tour which departs Siem Reap at 07:00 and returns at 05:00 for around $70 USD. I may do the latter, but in the mean time I believe that I have a bus route sorted to Banteay Chhamar and plan on making this trip on Saturday. Regardless of how this trip pans out, I will have a full report on the journey next week.
Until next time,
After visiting three of the best known cities in northeastern Thailand, my train journey through the Isan region is coming to an end. I’m currently in Surin; Tomorrow I’ll catch a bus south to Chong Chom and cross the border into Cambodia.
None of the cities that were on my route are particularly interesting or have much to offer travelers; they are most definitely off the tourist path. I like to visit working town and cities, places where tourism is of lesser importance or non existent. Mostly I picked these places because they are all within striking distance of ancient Khmer temple ruins. Also, from Surin the border town of Chong Chom is easy to reach by bus. Chong Chom has a reputation as a stress free border crossing point and is close to my first stop in Cambodia Anlong Veng.
Here is a list of towns that I visited and a summary of Isan’s best known Angkor era temples:
Korat / Phimai / Prasat Hin Phimai
Located 37 miles (60 km) from Korat’s city center, in the town of Phimai, is Prasat Hin Phimai Thailand’s largest Khmer built temple. This fantastic historical site is considered to be the most important of the Thai Angkor era temples. This is not only due to its impressive size but also its position at the end of the ancient “highway” from Angkor Wat. Most of the temples built at this time (11th-12th century) were oriented in an east to west direction. However, Phimai faces to the south, in the direction of Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire. After extensive restoration this temple is now in excellent condition and is well worth a visit. Also worth a visit is the Phimai National Museum, a ten minute walk from the historical park. This is an excellent museum which contains many interesting artifacts recovered from Phimai. In addition to the local finds, the museum displays antiquities from a number of different areas and time periods of Thai history.
It is very easy to reach Phimai from Korat by either bus or van (mini bus). Large air-conditioned city buses depart bus terminal number two approximately every 40 minutes to an hour. The fare is 50 baht and the trip takes around an hour and fifteen minutes. The Phimai Historical Park is less than a five minute walk from the bus stop in Phimai’s town center.
Buriam / Nang Rong / Prasat Phanom Rung / Prasat Muang Tam
Located 43 miles (70 km) south of Buriam City are the restored temple complexes of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam. Built in the 10th-13th centuries Phanom Rung is the larger and more impressive of the two, it sits at an elevation of 1,319 (402 m) on the rim of an extinct volcano. Muang Tam lies another 4 miles (7 km) to the south of Phanom Rung.
My original plan was to visit Phanom Rung by bus from Buriam’s bus terminal but after thoroughly researching a suggested route I found on the internet, deemed this journey to be impractical. These temples can really only be reached from Buriam by car or motorcycle. Tours can be arranged using taxis at a cost of $50 USD which includes stops at several sites. The other option is to use the town of Nang Rong as a base. However Nang Rong is still 26 miles (40 km) away without any public transportation options. I decided to give these two sites a pass as I still have many more Khmer temples to visit.
Surin / Sikhoraphum / Prasat Sikhoraphum
Prasat Sikhoraphum is a small temple complex built in the 11th to 12th century, located in the town of the same name. Sikhoraphum is easily reached by train from Surin, the 22 mile (35 km) trip takes approximately 40 minutes and third class tickets can be purchased for as little as 7 baht or 20 cents each way. Tuk tuks and moto taxis are available at the Sikhoraphum railway station or take a twenty minute stroll through town, past the central market, to the temple.
Until next time,