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,