Posts Tagged ‘Preah Vihear’

Unrivalled Preah Vihear

Friday, July 25th, 2014

The temple of Preah Vihear stands alone in its stunning location. Atop the Dangrek Mountains it offers unrivalled views of northern Cambodia. Take a look with Hanuman Travel TV.

 

Prasat Preah Vihear is perched on a promontory high in the Dangrek Mountains and became Cambodia’s second Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. The effect of that and the subsequent confrontation with neighbours Thailand, has improved access to this stunning temple, which can be visited in a day from Siem Reap. At an elevation of 625m the views are breathtaking and the northern Cambodian plains stretch as far as the eye can see. Construction of the temple began in the 9th century and continued through the next three centuries. Access to the temple from Thailand is not currently possible. A day trip to Preah Vihear temple from Siem Reap is possible, or take an overnight stop in the province to make the most of your visit. Ask Hanuman for details.

The King of the Mountain Temples

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

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

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.

Stylish dining 'on safari'

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.

 

Temple-hunting in the jungle

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

One of the ruined brick towers at Prasat Preah Neak Buos

Andy Brouwer’s temple-hunting adventures take him into the remote northern jungle of Cambodia.

Re-discovering Angkor temples lost in the mists of time is an exciting hobby. Back in January 2003 I went in search of the fabled Prasat Preah Neak Buos, a temple built in the eighth century but because of its remote location, inaccessibility and the ever-present danger posed by landmines, it was one of the last remaining ancient Khmer temple sites to escape close scrutiny by archaeologists and tourists alike. It lies at the foot of a promontory of the Dangrek Mountain range that forms a natural border between Thailand and northern Cambodia.

Prasat Preah Neak Buos is an unusual monument. Its location demands that it faces south, and with various structures added during the reign of different Kings, it houses an eclectic cluster of temples rather than one large imposing structure. Early inscriptions call the location at the foot of the mountain, Canandagiri as well as Sivapadapurva. In later centuries, additional monuments were built at the same location, including brick temples with inscriptions facing east, whereas the original temple faced westwards. In the eleventh century, a new group of buildings were erected, with a large brick sanctuary holding centre stage and other smaller edifices and galleries amidst the rocky outcrops and boulders.

Located just a few kilometres east of the small town of Choam Khsan in the far north of the country’s Preah Vihear Province, I enlisted the help of a couple of locals, who’d visited the temple before but who stressed that landmines, lain indiscriminately by both sides during hostilities just five years before, were everywhere so we had to be careful. To get the temple we took motorbikes but with deep sand along the trail we spent most of our time walking the nine kilometers. We criss-crossed three deep and dry riverbeds, meandered along a cool and shady forest section and got stuck in ox-cart tracks before we arrived at a border police checkpoint, a kilometre from the foot of the mountain range. Surprised by our appearance, the police had not encountered foreigners before and took some persuading to let us continue our journey. They confirmed that there were no landmines inside the temple but that we must stick to the main trail for our own safety and waved us on our way. We soon abandoned our motos to continue on foot and stumbled upon a large laterite wall, which my guide confirmed was the southern entrance to Neak Buos. We had arrived. Nearby, a broken statue of a lion and a finely carved colonette lying in the grass was early confirmation that this was indeed the prize I was seeking.

The southern entrance is a mishmash of building styles. On one side is a well-defined stepped laterite wall, whilst the opposite side is a natural ridge with sandstone boulders. The main entrance staircase is overgrown, whilst brick and laterite structures lie in ruin on top of the terrace behind. At one of the outer brick buildings, a damaged lintel at the base of a sandstone doorframe was ferociously guarded by red ants, a common enemy throughout my exploration. Walking through the undergrowth along a path of sorts, we encountered another large entry building, this time constructed of brick with a distinctive sandstone double doorframe, before a laterite gopura signalled the beginning of the inner enclosure, where the largest collection of buildings were to be found. Negotiating our way through the two-metre high vegetation, we stumbled across a sandstone lintel with well-known Hindu motifs carved in minute detail, poking out of the earth and likely to have come from one of the five brick towers to our left, in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Thorn bushes made up much of the foliage we encountered and I silently cursed myself for not insisting that we brought with us some machetes to cut our way through. In the excitement of the morning, I’d forgotten something so fundamental. As the sharp thorns penetrated my shirt and trousers, I vowed not to make the same mistake again.

We headed for the largest of the towers in the center of the inner enclosure. Like so many of the more dramatic of Cambodia’s ancient temples, this was partly engulfed in the clutches of a strangler fig tree whose trunk sprouted skywards from the top of the tower. As we got closer we could hear the bats inside the tower signal our presence and the smell of their droppings was overpowering as I peered into the gloom of the sanctuary. The tower is of brick construction and has a stepped-pyramid or tapered appearance, opening out to the south. It was built later than most of the other structures and had survived in a much better condition. The main doorway, the three other doorways are false, boasted half a decorative lintel with an elephant and hermits in meditation, and a broken colonette. Lying closeby was the other half of the lintel where apsara dancers flying above elephants had their heads chipped away. No temple in Cambodia is safe from the temple thieves who seek to cash in on the trade in Angkorian material. I could find no other decoration on the tower as we inched our way through the brush to a large laterite gallery, with crude sandstone pillared windows, on the east side of the courtyard. Climbing to the top to gain a better view of our surroundings, we could just make out the pinnacle of at least eight towers but it emphasized exactly how wildly overgrown with vegetation the whole complex was. We rested for a while, listening to the quietness of the surrounding forest as our exertions had been tiring, with perspiration soaking my skin and clothes even though the overhead sun had not yet reached its’ hottest.

Our adventures continued on a more difficult route around the rear of the central brick tower, stepping gingerly through the thorn bushes and on top of discarded bricks and boulders. There was no path, we made it up as we went. A sandstone lotus flower, fallen from the summit of a tower and another half lintel protruding from the ground led us onto another two ruined brick towers. Both opened out to the east and both had inscriptions on their sandstone doorframes in Pali, an old Khmer script and in Sanskrit. Closeby was the original temple, known as Sivapadapurva, built in the eighth century and with its main doorway opening to the west. The base of the tower was laterite, whilst the top half was made of brick and housed another Sanskrit inscription, with some modern graffiti superimposed, as well as a perfectly rounded colonette and an intricate piece of carving. A few bats had also made their home in the upper reaches of its sealed tower. Another brick tower, opening out in a southern direction, stood a few metres away.

From atop the gallery we had spied another set of structures, lying in the southeast section of the enclosure and that’s where we headed next. We were more than two hours into our exploration of the temple complex and whilst we hadn’t uncovered anything as remarkable as the main temples of Angkor, the thrill of exploring a virgin site was no less palpable. Reaching the southeast corner, next to the surrounding laterite wall were two very ruined brick buildings. In front of the first was a large decorative lintel with gods, hermits and dancing figures carved in intricate detail. Scrambling around in the undergrowth nearby, we found more finely-carved stonework. At this point the vegetation was almost impenetrable and I just managed to reach two more small sandstone towers with carvings of demon faces, both in situ and lying in the undergrowth. Balancing precariously on fallen blocks of stone, I decided safety was the best option and that we’d seen as many of the structures as we could within the main enclosure. We now headed for the large brick gopura with the double sandstone doorframe we’d seen on our earlier arrival. A row of rectangular sandstone posts preceded the doorframe where I noticed a date carved on the stone, 8.2.1904, most likely from one of the French archaeologists that documented this and many of Cambodia’s ancient temples in the early part of the twentieth century.

After a final inspection of the outer southern entrance, we ended our visit to Neak Buos. The thick undergrowth, the vicious ants and the incredibly hot and muggy conditions had made it a hard slog for more than three hours but the thrill of uncovering a major temple complex that few, if any, had visited for many decades, made it all worthwhile. We called in at the police station to rest, eat our lunch and to mend two punctures on one of the motos. If you are seeking to explore a temple that doesn’t conform to the more popular versions you find at Angkor and you aren’t afraid of a fair amount of discomfort then Prasat Preah Neak Buos may be just what you’re looking for. If you do pay a visit, make sure you heed seriously the warnings about landmines and are accompanied by a knowledgeable local.

If visiting a remote temple grabs your imagination, Hanuman can look after you in comfort with our Temple Safaris to the large temple complexes of Koh Ker, Preah Khan of Kompong Svay and Banteay Chhmar. Contact us for more details.

Peace at Preah Vihear

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Preah Vihear in the mist

Hanuman’s Adventure manager Jake Corke makes his first visit to the World Heritage mountain-top temple of Preah Vihear.

The arrival of a familiar name in Thai politics has had a big impact on Cambodia-Thai border relations. Early last month Yingluck Shiniwatra (younger sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) was unveiled as the new leader of Thailand. This seemed to have an almost immediate effect on the border issue involving the Unesco World Heritage site of Preah Vihear. The previous few months had seen numerous border skirmishes resulting in several military and civilian casualties on both sides. Tens of thousands of local villagers became overnight refugees and there were reports of damage to the temple itself as a result of Thailand’s use of rocket propelled grenades and other ordnance.

The temple site was closed to tourists as an uneasy peace emerged as both sides bickered and exchanged accusations. However, the new government has a much more sympathetic relationship with Cambodia and things have calmed down significantly, and although nothing has been formally resolved, the temple is again receiving visitors. Having never visited Preah Vihear, I jumped at the chance to see the Kingdom’s most dramatically located temple. So I set off with a colleague in mid-afternoon, our destination, Sra Em, a small town close to the border and on the approach road to Preah Vihear. The journey was just 2½ hours, considerably quicker than before I was told. Sra Em was evacuated a few months back due to the ongoing battles between the respective troops. Today, it’s experiencing a mini economic boom. All the hotels and guesthouses were full. I spotted a group of Korean visitors in one but most guests were Cambodian visiting their relatives stationed with the army nearby.

We departed at 6am the following morning and drove for about 30 minutes on a good sealed road to our meeting point with our motorbike taxis. The final stretch of road has actually improved a lot by all accounts, but it is still necessary to use a 4×4 or a motorbike on the final stretch. As we climbed several hundred metres to the mountain-top temple we soon found ourselves in thick cloud, visibility limited to about fifteen metres. We were greeted by many smiling and waving road construction workers and soldiers who appeared cheerfully out of the mist. Road works are underway and appear to be making good headway.

Preah Vihear was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, the final touches added in the 12th Century by Suryavarman II, the king responsible for Angkor Wat. We were guided through the five levels of the temple by our 10 year old guide Boran. Fully kitted out in military fatigues, Boran was the son a soldier based at Preah Vihear for the past two years. Born in army barracks, he had never attended school, but he was quick-witted and knew everything about the temple and the current situation between the two opposing forces. There was still a strong military presence and the squatter settlements that could be previously found on the mountain-top had been replaced by bunkers and small huts made from sandbags, where soldiers were living with their families. Even our 10 year old guide stayed in the bunkers during the worst of the fighting, along with the other children and their mothers. Needless to say, he proudly reported that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up.

As the cloud lifted the extent of the military presence was apparent. Most of the living areas were at the base of the temple but more and more soldiers could be seen patrolling, making offerings and lighting incense to the spirits for good luck. The mood was up-beat and the soldiers cheerful and friendly. As the cloud beneath us cleared, the cloud above us let loose a sudden downpour. We sheltered in the temple with a gaggle of kids who had become our chaperones and some of the soldiers. Beneath us, we could see the Thai road, perfectly built but empty. Closeby was an area of no-mans land, home to the 5 + 5, land occupied by five Khmer soldiers and five of their Thai counterparts. Although the situation has calmed down considerably, there is still a lot of distrust on both sides. The word is that both parties will soon sit down and come to some kind of solution. Preah Vihear is now open to visitors from the Cambodian side (but not from the Thai side) and while visitor numbers are low, it offers a very different and interesting experience. Leaving early from Siem Reap makes it possible to do in a long day. In the wet season, the cloud generally doesn’t lift until around 9 or 10am. Otherwise you need to stay overnight in Anlong Veng some  120kms away or Sra Em just 20km’s from the foot of the mountain, though the accommodation in the latter is pretty basic.

Jake's young Preah Vihear tour guide, Boran