After my March visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site Prasat Preah Vihear I was quite determined to return to this fascinating site before the end of the rainy season. I wanted to see the ancient temple, perched on top of a cliff 625 meters (2,051 ft) above Cambodia’s plains, before the dry season’s unmerciful sun baked the grass and shrubbery to a golden brown.
Located on Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand, in the Dângrêk Mountain range, the site has been used as a place of worship by both Hindus and Buddhists since the 9th century. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the remaining ruins were constructed in the 10th to 11th centuries during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II.
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.
The closest town to Prasat Preah Vihear is Sra’aem, a dusty little settlement that straddles the junction of Highways 62 and 2648. Located less than 30 km from the temple’s main entrance, the town is commonly used as a base to visit the area as there are a number of surprisingly good guest houses on either side of the roundabout that serves as the town center.
Please note that the roads from the Preah Vihear ticket and transportation office up to the temple do not appear on Google maps.
My last trip to Sra’aem did not go smoothly; I mistakenly booked a bus that traveled to a town well to the south of my intended destination. I was required to transfer buses and retrace 20 km of my original route, extending the three-hour journey by nearly four additional hours. Upon reaching Sra’aem I learned that there was a direct mini-bus to the town from Siem Reap, which would have saved a great deal of travel time. I was looking forward to utilizing this service on future trips to the temple.
As luck would have it, when I returned to Siem Reap in September, I was told that the mini-bus had stopped running due to a lack of passengers. Inquiries with several travel agencies and bus companies in Siem Reap town yielded similar replies. I walked a good ways from the town center down Highway 6, stopping and making inquiries with other bus companies yielding the same results. Eventually I gave up on walking under the midday sun and took a tuk-tuk to Siem Reap’s main bus station located five km from the city center.
At the bus station I easily purchased a $7 USD ticket for a mini-bus bound for Preah Vihear City for the following morning. Travelers to this area should be aware that Preah Vihear is the name of a province, city and temple. To avoid confusion when speaking about the temple, it should be referred to as Prasat Preah Vihear. Preah Vihear city is a small town 53 miles (86 km) south of Sra’aem where I intended to find a bus, mini-van or share taxi to complete the journey.
When the 08:30 mini-bus, operated by the “777” company arrived at the station at 09:10, it already had five passengers on board suggesting that the bus’s route must have originated somewhere closer to the town center. Since the bus only carried six passengers there was plenty of room to stretch out allowing for a reasonably comfortable ride. One does not need to travel far from Siem Reap city to experience rural Cambodia. As the bus sped along the province’s newly paved roads we passed through dozens of small villages separated by vast expanses of rice fields. An hour into our journey we were on Highway 64 and the mountain known as Phnom Koulen came into view. I had traveled this same route several weeks ago on my way to the fascinating site of Peung Kom Nuo and now recognized much of the scenery.
Reaching the junction of Highway 62, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a lunch break. It occurred to me that this might be a good place to catch a bus north to Sra’aem. I mentioned Sra’aem to the driver and he quickly pointed out a patron of the restaurant who would be more than happy to drive me the remaining 62 km to my destination. The fifty-minute ride cost me $5 USD and saved a minimum of 40 minutes of travel time.
Upon arrival in Sra’aem I checked into the Heng Sok Chamreun Guest House, which I would call a two-star hotel. I had stayed here during my previous visit and found that the owners were very friendly and helpful. A large, clean, air-conditioned room is $18 USD dollars per night.
The hotel owners organized a motorcycle taxi for the following morning at a price of $11 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.
Prasat Preah Vihear is well off the beaten path for most tourists venturing to Cambodia. One is unlikely to encounter more than a couple of Westerners at the site; most of the visitors are locals. The Khmer-era ruins scattered around the country are active places of worship for the Buddhist majority of Cambodia. It is very common to see worshipers bringing offerings of incense, candles, flowers and food to the temple’s inner sanctuary.Most people will spend an hour our two touring the 1.5 km² site, but with its fresh mountain air, spectacular views and intriguing ruins I can easily spend the better part of the day exploring the ancient temple.
I never formulated a clear plan for my return trip to Siem Reap. After discussing transportation options with the locals in Sra’aem, it appeared that my best option was to catch a mini-bus back to Preah Vihear City. There was also a possibility that a taxi could be arranged to Siem Reap for a reasonable price. Luckily the owner of my guest house offered to make the three hour and fifteen minute drive for $7 USD. I can’t imagine where he came up with that price, but I certainly didn’t refuse the offer.