Unique Asia Travel & Tours
Visit Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonders
Preah Vihear, World Heritage Site on the cliff

The temple called Preah Vihear, located in the province of the same name, is one of Cambodia’s most celebrated monuments. The temple is famous for its scenic location and its extraordinary beauty. Almost every traveller visiting Preah Vihear will be stoked.
 
The medieval temple is spectacularly set on top of a 525 metres high cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, that form the natural border between northern Cambodia and northeastern Thailand. The total height is 625 metres above sea level. The mountain site was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, in his mountain god forms called Shikhareshvara and Bhadreshvara. "Shikara" is well-known term for main temple-towers in India surmounting the sanctum, its original meaning is "peak". "Ishvara means "Lord". Shiva resides on Mount Kailash, "Shikhara-ishvara" melted to "Shikahereshvara" is only one of his many names. A local mountain god identified with Shiva and venerated under this Sanskrit name seems to be the original patron of Preah Vihear. "Bhadreshvara", meaning the "promising Lord", originally is the guardian deity of the Cham, the arch rival of the Khmer kingdom. Wat Phu in today's southern Laos, located on a hill, too, seems to have been founded by the Cham, but became a Khmer sanctuary, it remained to be dedicated to Bhadreshvara. According to an inscription at Preah Vihear (K 380) Bhadreshvara of Wat Phu (called Lingapura) arrived miraculously at Preah Vihear (called Shikheshvara) to manifest the splendour of Shiva in the form of light.

Preah Vihear is unusual among Khmer temples in many respects, not only because of its unique setting. The complex is arranged along a north-south axis, instead of having the usual orientation to the east. Most strikingly, it does not consist of concentric enclosures inside one another, but of a row of five Gopuram structures leading uphill, one behind the other, on a length of 800 metres. Such a layout is called linear temple. Each of the Gopuras is prededed by a set of steps emphasizing the rising of the next level.

Preah Vihear 4th and 3rd Gopuram gate

Building activities are said to have started as early as the ninth century, when Phnom Kulen and Roluos were the capitals of what should become the Angkor empire. The earliest remaining parts of the temple date from the Koh Ker period in the second quarter of the tenth century. As a traditional place of worship, Preah Vihear was honoured and modified by many successive Khmer kings. This is why it is a collection of several architectural styles, even the rare most artistic Banteay Srei style from the late tenth century shapes some decorations, but the Angkor Wat style of the last major construction phase is dominant. Most of the structures of the current complex are from the heydays of Angkor, from the 11th and 12th century. The buildings were erected in the eras of Suryavarman I. (1005-1050) and Angkor Wat founder Suryavarman II. (1113 -1150), two of three most influential Khmer kings in history. Detailed inscriptions at Preah Vihear from the reign of Suryavarman II. inform about religious rituals and festivals and gifts to the king's religious advisor, the priest Divakarapandita, who donated a sculpture of the dancing Shiva.
 
Remarkably, the outer Gopuram Gate (counted from the centre as "fifth") is the oldest one, it is in the Koh Ker style. It once had a tiled roof. The next (fourth) Gopuram, with a long crossways hall, is from the reign of Suryavarman I, the Baphuon period. Its southern pediment has one of the most celebrated bas-relief depiction of the common motif "Churning of the Ocean of Milk". The third Gopuram is the largest. Finally, there are two connected successive courtyards leading to the main shrine.

Preah Vihear 2nd Gopuram and relief

The modern name "Preah Vihear" simply means "holy abode", "holy shrine" or "holy monastery". The complex is sometimes called "Prasat Preah Vihear" or "Phnom Preah Vihear". Thais call it "Kao Pravihan" meaning "mountain temple".
 
Preah Vihear is endangered by a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, that escalated in 2011, when soldiers died on both sides. The lengthy ownership dispute between Cambodia and Thailand could not be resolved be the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to award the temple to Cambodia and the historical main access way from the north to Thailand, as Thailand, after agreeing to leave the temple, did later on deny the acceptance of the verdict. In that court case and till the present day Thailand argues that the ICJ decision must not be based on a French map, because that map did not respect that former colonial power's agreement with the independent Siam that the watershed line in the Dangrek mountains should be the border. But the ICJ based its decision to accept that colonial map on the fact that Thailand had never disputed that boundary line during the decades of French colonial rule in Cambodia and had published own maps showing the temple inside Cambodian territory.
 
Astonishingly, during the period of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, Preah Vihear was the last place held by troops loyal to the former Lon Nol government, they allowed tourists to visit the temple from the Thai side. On the other hand, Preah Vihear was also the last place in Cambodia that was under control of Khmer Rouge guerilla fightes in 1998. At the end of the same year Preah Vihear was reopened for visitors arriving from the Thai side. A first access road from the Cambodian side was opened in 2003, but not passable without vehicles suitable for cross-country driving. A new paved access road has been constructed during recent years.
 
On July 8, 2008, Preah Vihear was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under circumstances of a renewed border dispute. A military clash occurred in October of the same year. The most serious fighting took place in February 2011, resulting in deaths on both sides, as already mentioned. The temple structures were damaged by gunfire, Cambodia claimed, by Thai artillerie shelling, too.


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