Very early on in our planning we had decided we wanted to go to Preah Vihear, even though we knew it would prove difficult to organize. In the end we admitted defeat and rented a taxi for two days to do the trip, with stops in Beng Melea and Koh Ker on the way to and Banteay Srei & Kbal Spean on the way back. Even though we were willing to throw money at the problem, we knew it might still not work out as Preah Vihear lies in an area that’s part of an on-going border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. Luckily, at the moment, everything is calm and you can visit the temple. We reached Preah Vihear in the early afternoon and decided to ride up to the top immediately. The temple is located atop a mountain with cliffs surrounding it on three sides. The views of Cambodia & Thailand are spectacular, even though it was slightly misty when we were there and it is supposedly misty most of the days. The temple itself is built as a long temple. It is similar to some of the temples at Koh Ker, but much much larger.
There is currently no entrance fee for the temple, however you still need a ticket. This is due to the territory it’s in, we were told only Non-Thais are allowed to visit. This is checked at the bottom before you are issued a ticket. Then you need to buy a ride to the top. At first we thought this was just another way to make money for the people in the area, but the ride up to the temple was already an experience itself, on the back of a four wheel drive we went up some steep steep roads at a quite impressive speed. I’m not sure your average car would reach the top, especially since halfway up we started seeing soldiers. We already knew that there were a lot of soldiers stationed in the area, but we didn’t expect them to be carrying bazookas and heavy artillery around. Poor guys were quite far away from the top too.. It was still a long way up for them!
We reached the top shortly after passing two soldiers sitting in plastic chairs. They looked like a personification of being bored out of their mind. Obviously the danger of the Thais suddenly attacking Preah Vihear from the Cambodian side isn’t very real. We walked the final stretch to the entrance of the temple. The atmosphere was quite surreal. Soldiers sitting on the rocks chatting, bunkers on every side and overgrown sand sacks stacked in semi circles as a defense against the Thai filled the landscape. The soldiers were all very friendly, offered us to take pictures of them if we wanted to (we didn’t really) and showed us around. Nevertheless there’s still something intimidating about a group of armed men whose language you don’t understand at all. We tried to stay clear of them as much as possible, as we weren’t sure whether their barracks were off limits to us and if those even were barracks or something more secret. It wasn’t too difficult, most of the temple itself is free of military buildings, though I think I did see a few bunkers and hideouts. There were quite a few soldiers who were showing friends or family around the temple though and one guy told me he was the toilet inspector and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the toilet with him. I politely declined.
The temple is huge and incorporates the natural topology into its design with each level of the temple being higher than the previous one. There are a total of 5 levels, each of which is entered through a magnificent gate or gopura. Many of them have very well-preserved reliefs depicting the typical scenes such as the churning of the sea or Vishnu getting a foot massage. The central courtyard is surrounded by a completely intact covered corridor and is still a holy location to this day. According to archaeologists and historians the temple was built over a long time from the 10th to the 13th century. The first gate is from the Koh Ker time, while the second gate is built in the Baphuon style and so on. In total the temple measures 800m in length from north to south, but you can not see it in its totality because the large gopuras are blocking the view of the next lower level. Today, there’s a lot of green grass and vegetation between the individual gates and some isolated trees as well. A huge set of stairs is leading from the bottom of the mountain up to the temple itself. At one point in time it had been our plan to walk down those stairs after visiting the temple, but we stayed up at the temple far too long. It was already getting dark when we started going back. So we rode back on our 4WD and then on to Along Veng, where we made a point of not visiting Pol Pots tomb or anything else for that matter.