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Preah Vihear in Cambodia

| Words by Zoe Crane |

After a long period of political and occasionally armed conflict, the remote temple of Preah Vihear and its contentious sovereignty has been settled. For travellers making the journey, this remote temple is a new frontier in Cambodia tourism and the rewards are many.

Crowd-free rating: 5/5

In the wild north of Cambodia, sitting atop a mountain, is Preah Vihear temple. Pre-dating Angkor Wat, this Hindu temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva. A remote location, tumultuous past and unimpaired views of Cambodia’s countryside make it a must-see destination for travellers looking to get off the beaten path.

Preah Vihear templePillars of Preah Vihear

A history of conflict

Ownership of this ancient temple has long been disputed by Cambodia and Thailand with the political conflicts occasionally leading to armed clashes.

In 1962 the International Court of Justice declared the temple and its surrounds part of Cambodia, however up until 2013 the Thai government had ardently disputed the court’s ruling. With an agreement now in place, the temple is once again accessible to travellers.

As with many of Cambodia’s holy sites, Preah Vihear was a stronghold for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Though Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge reign came to an end in 1975, it was one of the last places in Cambodia to be occupied by the regime's forces. Indeed, the temple was not fully surrendered by the Khmer Rouge until 1998.

After decades of tumult, 2008 saw the temple finally named a World Heritage site by UNESCO. However, that same year Thai military personnel were killed in one of the sporadic armed conflicts with Cambodia’s army across the border.

Accessing the temple

Getting to Preah Vihear is half the fun. Driving some 210km from Siem Reap, through dusty and remote towns, this is the perfect way to enjoy rural Cambodia.

Stop along the way at Anlong Venh, the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold. This unassuming town is where the Khmer Rouge’s ruthless leader Pol Pot lived until he died in 1998. It is still possible to visit the site of his cremation, now little more than a pile of dirt and sign marker.

Road to Preah VihearThe road to Preah Vihear

On reaching Preah Vihear you will need to pass through the ticket booth. There is no official ticket cost but you will need to bring your passport, and a small donation may be expected. If you travel with a guide, they can take care of all of this. You’ll need to get either a motorbike or pick-up truck to take you up the mountain. The road is steep and we recommend taking the truck, despite the extra expense.

Walking through the temple

Climb the steep stone steps to the first pavilion, where a short set of stairs is decorated with intricate and still-pronounced stone carvings. The temple itself is majestic; a long structure that presents you with some visually stunning architecture and well-preserved bass relief carvings. An avenue passes through the various pavilions and courtyards to the central sanctuary, housing a small Buddhist temple. Once at the back of the temple, the sweeping views over the horizon of Cambodia’s outback 500m below are breathtaking.

Preah VihearPart of the Preah Vihear temple complex

While there is no lack of temples to visit in Cambodia, Preah Vihear is one of a kind. With very few foreign tourists around, it can feel like a secret discovery. Though off-the-beaten-track, this temple has great significance to the local people and is a worthwhile adventure into rural Cambodia.
Travel Indochina run overnight tours from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear. Although politically resolved, we recommend travellers consult government resources on travel advice prior to visiting Preah Vihear. Australian travellers should consult Smart Traveller