Having recently been removed from the UK Foreign Office’s watch list of places to avoid, Preah Vihear is gearing up for a steady tourist stream. Editor Marissa Carruthers takes a trip to the ancient site that has been at the centre of a century-long border dispute with the Thais.
A sense of serenity comes coupled with the views from the 625-metre summit of Dangrek Mountain; a sweeping ocean of green takes in both Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand, interrupted only by the smooth rise of hills on the horizon, a haze and then a sky of unspoilt blue.
Unlike its celebrity sister, the at times claustrophobically congested Angkor Wat, here a handful of locals mill about on the stone plateau taking selfies in front of the breath-taking backdrop. Some lay incense sticks at the small shrine that sits at the peak, while others seek solace from the relentless midday heat, enjoying a picnic in the dappled shade of the many trees that dot the area. Visiting with my Khmer friends, I am the only Westerner in sight.
The last two hours have been spent slowly making our way up the mountain that is home to the ancient temple complex of Preah Vihear. At its base, we jumped on board one of many open-back jeeps waiting at the visitor centre to take those who choose not to tackle the 2,242 stairs to the temple’s first level. The exhilarating 15-minute drive along at times almost vertical dirt tracks, snaked through small villages and battered stone army barracks, up to ear-popping heights before dropping us off near the border with Thailand.
Until recently, fighting over the area surrounding Preah Vihear temple in northern Cambodia led to the area being deemed unsafe for visitors. In 2013, the International Court of Justice declared the area Cambodian and ordered Thailand to withdraw all soldiers.
Despite the declared end of any conflict, Cambodian soldiers are permanently posted to guard the border – a flimsy mesh fence topped with menacing knots of barbed wire that juts through rugged jungle. However, they remain jovial, and happily hand over their weapons to visitors wanting to strike a menacing pose for the camera – especially when handed cigarettes. “They sit here all day and night with nothing to do,” one of my Khmer companions said, dipping his hand into a plastic bag filled with packets; something he repeated as we continued on our journey.
Paying testament to the great architectural achievement, elite engineering and exquisite landscaping achieved by the Khmer Empire, Prasat Preah Vihear (temple of the sacred mountain) is a series of impressive structures, built between the 9th and 12th century by several kings. Stretching more than 800 metres up the gentle slopes of the mountain, the archaeological feat is spread across four levels, each containing four courtyards and four grand gopuras (entrance pavilions).
As the levels near the summit, the architecture grows grander and the views more astounding. And while time has taken its toll on many of the crumbling structures, conservation efforts to maintain the iconic religious ruins are at least in their infancy, and will, hopefully, improve with the anticipated hike in the volume of visitors. However, this only adds to the rustic charm; being able to ramble across the boulders that block narrow corridors, teeter down uneven worn steps, and soak in the surroundings from crooked stone windows – pretty much alone.
Hopes are high that with the removal of the area from watch lists, the tourist boom sweeping across Cambodia will start to trickle into the province. Signs of this sit in the recent opening of the nearby town of Sra Em’s first hotel that sits within Western standards, Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel, and the imminent launch of the Eco-Global Museum, offering a historic insight into the region. However, if you enjoy eating anything other than Khmer cuisine then you are going to starve because the typical roadside restaurants found scattered across the countryside are the only offerings.
Standing atop Preah Vihear, the tranquillity of the religious land and its surroundings sit in stark contrast to the looming armed presence. Remaining under military control, the pristine sunsets and sunrises are off bounds, with the site only open between 8.30am and 4.30pm. Lone young soldiers sit in stone enclaves that dot the landscape, binoculars and guns aimed at Thailand, and throughout the rural province, peaceful paddies are interjected with rows of new white stilted houses, strategically situated out of range of potential Thai attacks, for families of serving soldiers.
Rich in history, both recent and ancient, untouched panoramas, almost deserted temple ruins, all laced with a slight sense of edge, and Preah Vihear looks set, for better or worse, to become a hot spot on tourists’ hit list.