Onwards and upwards on the trail of the ancient temples of the Khmer Empire, read all about a ‘Temple Safari’ to Preah Vihear, the height of architectural audacity during the Angkor period.
The following article originally appeared in Fah Thai, Bangkok Airways inflight magazine. Hanuman has not been running Temple Safaris to Preah Vihear since border skirmishes broke out between Thailand and Cambodia in 2008. However, as relations between Cambodia and Thailand are fast improving, a visit to this most mountainous of mountain temples may soon be possible once again. The new road from Stung Treng to Siem Reap via Tbeng Meanchey is improving dramatically and should be finished in 2013, offering new overland links from Champasak to Siem Reap and Ratanakiri to Siem Reap via the majestic temple of Preah Vihear.
Former Temple Safari at Preah Vihear
Location, location, location, you know the old adage and the magnificent temples of the ancient Khmer empire are no exception. The classic Khmer temple of Phnom Rung boasts Thailand’s boldest location, perched atop an extinct volcano, while in Laos the Khmers left their legacy under the shadow of Lingaparvata mountain in the elegant lines of Wat Phu. But both these perfectly proportioned prasats (temples) pale into insignificance when confronted with the dramatic profile of Preah Vihear temple, clinging to a cliff face in the Dangrek Mountains, towering hundreds of metres above lowland Cambodia below.
The views from this most mountainous of temple mountains are breathtaking, the foundation stones of the temple stretching to the edge of the cliff as it plunges precipitously away to the plains of Preah Vihear province below. The holy mountain of Phnom Kulen and the great lake of the Tonle Sap are vaguely visible in the distance, suggesting a horizon hundreds of kilometres away.
We are on a Temple Safari tour, a pioneering trip established by local company Hanuman Travel to take adventurous tourists to the lost temples of Preah Vihear province. Using fully furnished luxurious African bush tents, complete with bathroom facilities, Hanuman take visitors to places other companies fear to tread. The mysterious faces of Banteay Chhmar, the usurper capital of Koh Ker, the massive city of Preah Khan and the forgotten temple of Neak Buos, all become accessible on a Temple Safari. We journey by 4WD into the heart of northern Cambodia and experience the magic of these temples with not another visitor in sight. Spiritual sunsets, personal sunrises, this is Angkor 20 years ago before it became Cambodia’s golden goose.
Once at the summit it is late afternoon, but we are exhilarated explorers, buoyed by the befuddled looks of Thai tourists wondering from where on earth we have appeared. Curiosity compels us to explore by torchlight, a privilege not possible at the popular temples of Angkor. We have come prepared with chloh, the traditional torches made from bark and sap and make our way through by the light of the flame, deciphering the architecture for clues to its age. Reaching the drop-off of the Dangrek Mountains we sit in silence, awed by the audacity of the ancestors, the light of the moon bathing the temple in ethereal splendour.
We retire to our tents for the night, appreciative of little hotel-like touches such as antique fans, silk throws, slippers and bathroom amenities. There is even electricity thanks to the distant murmur of a generator. It’s a world away from the usual remote temple experience of hammocks and a mosquito net. The next morning, our hosts wake us early for a coffee on the porch. It is still dark and we make our way to the ridge to see the sun cast its subtle light over the Cambodian countryside. This is one of Cambodia’s most moving places and will be well worth its Unesco World Heritage status when approved.
This temple was considered so sacred that a succession of Angkorian devarajas (God kings) left their mark from Yasovarman I (ruled 889-910) to the great Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-1150), builder of Angkor Wat. In all seven monarchs contributed to the construction of Preah Vihear in work spanning three centuries, including celebrated kings Jayavarman V (ruled 968-1001) and Suryavarman I (ruled 1005-1050).
The 300-year chronology of its construction is reflected in the progressive gopuras or sanctuaries stretching up the mountainside and offers an insight into the metamorphosis of carving and sculpture during the Angkor period. There are several impressive pieces, including a rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk so perfectly mastered at Angkor Wat.
Preah Vihear was built, like other monumental mountain temples from this period, to represent Mt Meru and was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. The complex includes five principal sanctuaries, and their state of preservation improves with their elevation. The central sanctuary is constructed right up to the edge of the mountain and the foundation stones of the temple blend into the cliffs, further proof of the architectural genius of the ancient Khmers.
Over breakfast, our guide Tra tells us a little of the modern history of the place. Long contested by Cambodia and Thailand, Prince Sihanouk took the controversy to the International Court after the Thais seized the temple in 1959. The court ruled in Cambodia’s favour and the temple was returned to Cambodian control in 1962. “It was a proud moment for my people, as Preah Vihear was acknowledged as Cambodian by the international community,” Tra added. Later it became the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge as the civil war rumbled on and one of the most heavily mined places in all Cambodia. Today it is once again at peace and looks set to become the leading destination in the far north of Cambodia.
Preah Vihear, known as Praa Viharn to the Thais, translates as sacred monastery and it was a prominent place of pilgrimage during the Angkor period, with the faithful coming from as far as Preah Khan or Phimai. Pilgrims of old would have made their way on foot or cart before climbing the mountain on the ancient bandai stairway carved into the mountainside, partial remains of which are still visible today. Like the pilgrims of old, we have journeyed far from the Cambodian capital to earn our encounter with this king of the mountains, the majestic temple of Preah Vihear.