The Road to Preah Vihear
If you like old places, Cambodia has temples, palaces and cities to spare. Most people rush to Angkor and its famous Wat, others seem to drift to Phnom Koulen, then there are those intrepid few who like to go off the beaten track and visit some of the less seen places and sometimes rarely seen ones. Of the latter, Preah Vihear is a must see, and the one less seen by visitors to Cambodia.
The temple of Preah Vihear is a beautiful example of Angkorian monumental construction, and the journey to get there is a monumental adventure. This journey begins, of course, in Phnom Penh.
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Getting to Preah Vihear
As is the case with most places in Cambodia, there is more than one way to arrive at the destination. However, for Preah Vihear, the Sorya bus company provides the most convenient, and direct, way to the temple. The Sorya bus terminal has a central location in Phnom Penh, in fact it is next to the Central Market.
The first part of this journey is to Preah Vihear City: where else. There are only two or three buses a day, so get your ticket the day before and make sure the bus you catch is the earliest one. On a side note, the Sorya bus terminal conveniently uses English in its public address system, which makes it easy to know when the bus leaves and at which bay it can be found, which is not important if you are Khmer.
The bus makes it way through the tangle of the capital’s traffic and once clear of the city roars up National Highway 6. At first, it is a somewhat uneventful trip with a stop at the small town of Skun where if you turn right you travel to Kampong Cham and if you turn left it continues your journey.
Temples and Bridges
The first largish town the bus stops at is Kampong Thom, namesake of the province it is located in. Now, this is an interesting place which has the temples of Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk, Prasat Andet and Sambo Preykuk. All these places are within easy striking distance from Kampong Thom City. But more on them at a later time.
There is also a fascinating Angkorian bridge not that far up the road. Well worth a visit if you find your way back to Kamphong Thom. Again, more of that later. Time to get to Preah Vihear City.
The bus drops you off at a broken bus shed in the dusty town of Preah Vihear City; don’t let names deceive you. The bus arrives about mid-afternoon and it takes a full day to visit Preah Vihear, which means you need to stay the night. There are a handful of cheap and cheerful places to stay in town and most are close to the bus shed.
Taxi to Preah Vihear | Destination in Sight
There is still a bit of a hike to the temple which consists of a couple of travel stages. The first is a private taxi. Now, by private means share taxi and share taxi means you share it with a lot of people: two people in the driver’s seat, two in the front passenger seat with their children, six in the back with their kids and a fighting cock. And if a foreigner is in the car, the Khmers will complain how this person is taking up too much space. Off you go.
The taxi will drop you off at the ticket office, which is at the base of the mountain. The temple was built on the ridge of a mountain in the Dangrek Range. The ticket includes a motorcycle ride to the temple. The ride to the top is spectacular. At times the road seems to have an incline of 45 degrees. At the entrance to the temple the rider will arrange a time to pick you up.
Preah Vihear A Short History
In recent history there have been times when Preah Vihear was forbidden territory. This first instance was during the civil war and especially during the time of the Khmer Rouge. The second was a recent spat with the Thais. At the latter time, rather polite soldiers would turn you around and send you back to where you came from. As for the former time, well, the soldiers weren’t so polite.
The first part of the Preah Vihear temple you see is Gopura, or gatehouse, five with gatehouse one at the top. To the left the steep staircase takes you down into Thailand and to the right is the causeway that takes you to the top. The beautifully carved sandstone of the Gopura remains, but the tiles and wood that made the roof have long gone. There are five Gopuras along the way to the Sanctuary at the top, each different to the other.
The walk along the pillared causeway to gatehouse four takes you past a large reservoir. As you approach the next gatehouse you notice it is designed to block your view of what lays beyond. The nearer you get the more it looms over you. It is built on a platform and the steep steps announce the next rise in the walk to the top.
Beyond the Gopura
Beyond this Gopura the pillared causeway continues. The next Gopura is large and has a palace and extension attached to it. It is worth wandering around here to examine the extraordinary craftsmanship of the stonemasons and sculptors. The structure is largely intact and is a fine example of Angkorian architecture.
Built during the 11th and 12th centuries, it was an engineering marvel how the Khmers built the temple edifice from sandstone with the tools they had.
After this gatehouse, the pillared causeway changes to a naga balustrade. Nagas being the mythical serpents that guarded temples, as the next gatehouse begins the entrance to the Sanctuary.
After you pass through the last Gopura you enter the Sanctuary. On either side and at the back of the Sanctuary are galleries. Outside the U-shaped galleries are two buildings on each side of the Sanctuary.
However, the gem at the top is when you step outside the sanctuary and take in the view of the Cambodian plain. It is then that you think that maybe the temple had another function, and that was one of a lookout.
Next Cambodian Tour
It is after taking in this magnificent temple of Preah Vihear that you remember “I have to return to Phnom Penh”. Oh well! That’s the great part of Cambodia, there is always an adventure to experience.
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