After several long days exploring the Siem Reap Temples of Angkor, we headed out to the countryside to peruse the more remote Angkorian temples. The only way to get there is by private taxi or moto. Considering the spotty road conditions, we booked a private taxi for $125 from RTR tours near the Siem Reap night market on Pub Street. The driver picked us up at 6am for the 3 1/2 hour journey north (140km from Angkor Wat) to Preah Vihear at the Thai/Cambodian border.
In 1962, following a lengthy dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the temple to Cambodia. In 2008, Preah Vihear was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An ongoing conflict between the countries over land adjoining the site has led to periodic military clashes of violence.
Preah Vihear “Sacred Sanctury” (10am – 12pm)
We had read about the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and weren’t sure how to visit safely. Originally, we planned to visit from the Thai side, which is much more convenient….. but found out that Cambodian authorities currently restrict access. Both sides maintain a military presence and the most recent violence took place in February 2011 with several casualties. The ICJ has ordered both parties to remove their troops, but neither have budged as they await the official court decision. So, why would we want to visit Preah Vihear?
Our drive from Siem Reap towards Anlong Veng started off on a paved highway and ended with dirt roads at the Dangrek mountain range. En route, we started to notice the unfortunate deforestation activities promoted by the Cambodian government. Acres upon acres of forest were hallow and ablaze to some degree. This theme would continue for the rest of our stay in Cambodia. We also noticed that the government was spending a ton of resources in paving the roads to Preah Vihear…. suggesting a future plan to draw Siem Reap tourists a few hours north and east.
Upon arrival, we haggled for moto transport up a super steep dirt road to the temple site. Admission is free, but you have to buy transport. The moto cost $5 each person and taxi is $20. Our driver stayed in the dirt lot for the two hours we spent atop the 1,722 foot cliff.
Preah Vihear Temple is a Hindu temple (later converted to Buddhist) built during the reign of the Khmer Empire. Prasat Preah Vihear has the best location of all the temples built during the Khmer Empire. It was supported and modified by successive kings and showcases several architectural styles. Preah Vihear is unusual among Khmer temples in being constructed along a long north-south axis, rather than having the conventional rectangular plan with orientation toward the east.
As we set off on our hike through the temple site, dozens of military troops surrounded us. They were docile and several said hello as we passed their barracks and sleeping quarters. It was hard not to notice where they station their guns in case of battle. Military family members also lived on site selling various concessions while sporting camouflage attire. We were prepared for admission bribe attempts, but no such thing took place.
Construction of the first temple on the site began in the early 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The earliest surviving parts of the temple date from the empire’s capital city Koh Ker in the early 10th century. Elements of the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century can be seen, but most of the temple was constructed during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I (1002–1050) and Suryavarman II (1113–1150).
The temple complex runs 2,600 feet along a north-south axis facing the plains to the north. It consists essentially of a causeway and steps rising up the hill towards the sanctuary, which sits on the cliff-top at the southern end of the complex. Although this structure is very different from the temple mountains found at Angkor, it serves the same purpose as a stylized representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods.
We climbed a few steep stairways up to Gopura five. Each Gopura is reached by a higher set of steps, building the anticipation as you approach the sanctuary after Gopura one. The difference in height between Gopuras make it impossible to see the complex entirely from any one point. So, our pictures are mostly of specific Gopuras and areas around the site.
The fourth Gopura was our favorite. It depicts the “Churning of the Sea of Milk”. At the end, the sanctuary libraries are in complete ruins. The final approach leads to a narrow walkway along the mountain cliff. There resides a few military men monitoring the Thai border while taking pictures with visitors . We spent some time imagining life at such high elevation overlooking thousands of miles of mountains and plains.
Promptly, our moto drivers picked us up for a memorable ride down the mountain. Brett shot some video footage while following Christie’s driver from paved to dirt road. Upon exit, our taxi driver slipped 1,500R to the policeman guarding the dirt parking lot.
Koh Ker “Island of Glory” (1:30pm – 3pm)
After a nice lunch at Sra Em village (where kids were shooting at us with plastic guns), we headed southeast to the old empire capital of Koh Ker (pronounced “Koh Kay”). Koh Ker was briefly the capital of the Khmer empire between 928 and 944. A large number of temples were built in this short time, until the successor king returned to the Angkor area.
The area is a three hour trip from Siem Reap and recently de-mined. Roads are being improved and tourist accommodations slowly built. Hundreds of temples and ruins exist and are still being discovered in the jungle. This gives us the same feeling that the government is prepping to promote additional temple sites in the future. For now, Koh Ker is very quiet and you feel like you are alone with the forest overgrown ruins and birds. Admission is $10 per person.
Prasat Thom is Koh Ker’s main attraction. It sits 35 meters tall with beautiful views of the surrounding forest. You can even see the Dangrek mountain range to the north. The 7-tiered pyramid temple is made of sandstone and resembles something from the Mayan people. It is in remarkable condition for such a structure from the 10th century.
Beng Mealea “Lotus Pond” (4pm – 5:30pm)
Beng Mealea was added to the tentative UNESCO World Heritage site list in 1992. It has a similar style to Angkor Wat and many say it was one of its inspirations. Thanks to a new road built to Koh Ker, Beng Mealea is no longer difficult to reach. The primarily sandstone temple was built by Hindus, but there are some Buddhist carvings. We loved how the Temple towers and courtyards are entangled with trees and forest brush. There are tons of stones scattered across the site warranting a guide to complete the hike. We started our tour alone and quickly latched onto a local guide who kept showing us which stones to step on and entry ways to use. Much like Samantha Brown’s visit, this was our Indiana Jones experience! It was odd paying only $5 for admission to Beng Mealea while Koh Ker cost double.
Since the temple is identical in architectural style to Angkor Wat, it is believed to have been built during the reign of king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. The site is one of Angkor’s largest, but smaller than its relative Angkor Wat. The layout is three galleries around the collapsed central sanctuary. There is extensive carving of scenes from Hindu mythology, including the Churning of the Sea of Milk and Vishnu being borne by the bird god Garuda.
We arrived back in Siem Reap around 7pm enthralled and exhausted simultaneously. Our day trip left us wondering what the forgotten temples will look like restored when our children visit. How will the same experience feel with loads of tourists? Are there undiscovered temples of significance left in the Preah Vihear Province?
See our Photo Album:
Forgotten Angkorian Temples, Cambodia