Nestled in the lush Dongrek Mountains along the Cambodia-Thailand border sits the majestic Preah Vihear Temple, one of Cambodia’s most awe-inspiring ancient sites. Constructed in the early 9th century under King Yasovarman I, Preah Vihear has undergone centuries of expansion and remodeling, culminating in its current form as a stunning Khmer architectural masterpiece.
The journey to Preah Vihear involves ascending a grand stairway flanked by mythical snake statues, leading to the first of the temple’s five ornate entrance pavilions. At the top, the temple complex unfolds over four levels dotted with intricately carved towers, courtyards, and exquisite relic shrines. The third level holds the former royal palace, used by kings during pilgrimages to Preah Vihear’s principle deity.
Perhaps most striking is Preah Vihear’s cliff-edge setting, perched 625 meters above sea level overlooking the Cambodian plains. On clear days, views stretch for miles across northern Cambodia all the way to Thailand. It’s easy to see why Preah Vihear translates to “sacred shrine” – a fitting name for this heavenly temple.
Despite its remote location, Preah Vihear sees modern-day visitors arriving from across Cambodia and Thailand. The temple is accessible via the border crossing from Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani province, with visiting hours from 8am to 4pm daily.
A visit to Preah Vihear offers the chance to take in one of Cambodia’s most significant heritage sites. The temple stands as testament to the mighty Khmer Empire and the ingenuity of Cambodia’s ancient architects and artisans. Trekking to the cliff-top temple complex, wandering through the ornate Khmer structures, and admiring the far-reaching views allows visitors to glimpse Cambodia’s glorious past. For travelers interested in Cambodia’s ancient history and culture, a journey to the heights of Preah Vihear is an experience not to be missed.
The History Behind the Temple
Preah Vihear has a long and storied history stretching back over a thousand years. Construction first began in the early 9th century under the rule of King Yasovarman I, part of the Khmer Empire that dominated Southeast Asia at the time. Yasovarman ordered the temple’s construction as a dedication to the Hindu god Shiva, situated atop the Dangrek Mountains that were considered sacred.
The temple underwent centuries of expansion and embellishment by later Khmer rulers seeking to showcase their power and devotion. The most significant remodeling came under King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, the legendary builder of Angkor Wat. Suryavarman transformed Preah Vihear from a small sanctuary into a monumental complex with elaborate carvings and structures that epitomized Khmer architectural brilliance.
Preah Vihear’s location right on the border between Cambodia and Thailand has also made it the center of political disputes over the centuries. Thailand occupied the temple in the 1950s, leading to a bitter legal battle with Cambodia over ownership. In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded sovereignty of Preah Vihear to Cambodia, cementing its status as a proudly Cambodian national symbol.
Architectural Wonders to Discover
Preah Vihear’s elaborate design showcases the incredible skill of Khmer architects and artisans. The temple complex contains a wealth of intricately carved stone structures that have survived centuries of history remarkably intact.
The main entrance involves climbing a grand staircase flanked by statues of multi-headed serpents called nagas, representing the transition from the human realm to the divine. At the top are five ornate gopura (entrance pavilions), decorated with detailed carvings of Hindu mythology and Khmer symbols.
Connecting the gopura are galleries and libraries with more decorative stonework lining the outside walls. At the heart of the complex on the third level is the former royal palace, made of sandstone and laterite. This long structure has windows and columns ornately carved into the shape of lotus buds.
Throughout Preah Vihear, visitors can spend hours examining the detailed bas reliefs depicting Hindu tales, complex geometrical designs, and statues of Hindu deities like Shiva and Vishnu. This intricate stone artwork stands as a testament to Cambodia’s ancient heritage.
Planning Your Visit
Due to Preah Vihear’s remote cliff-top location, getting to the temple takes some effort but is well worth it. Most visitors access the temple from Thailand, crossing the border from the Thai town of Kantharalak. From there, it’s a short tuk-tuk ride to the base of the stairs leading up to Preah Vihear.
The best time to visit is during the dry season from November to March when skies are clear and temperatures are cooler. The temple is open daily from 7am to 5pm with a small entrance fee of about $10 USD. Wear good walking shoes as climbing the steep ancient stairs takes stamina.
A permit is required to visit Preah Vihear, available at the Thai border crossing point. Arrangements can also be made from the Cambodian town of Siem Reap to visit Preah Vihear on a guided day tour. Multi-day tours are also available for those who want to spend more time exploring northern Cambodia.
Whether you’re interested in ancient architecture, spectacular views, or Cambodia’s storied history, a trip to the sacred heights of Preah Vihear will leave you in awe. Plan your visit to experience the majesty of this Angkorian-era wonder!