From the very start, this temple was meant to be special.
Why else would people build it on top of a mountain that, more than a thousand years after the first structure was erected, is still a long and arduous climb to reach?
That this temple—meant for prayer and meditation—got entrapped by battles over a border was unforeseen. When a Khmer prince took a stone fragment representing a Hindu deity up the steep mountain in the ninth century, the whole region was part of the Khmer empire.
But what John Burgess’ book “Temple in the Clouds” makes clear from the first page is that today, as it was a millennium ago, Preah Vihear remains magical.
“It’s a spiritual journey in stone,” he writes in the book, recently released by River Books in Bangkok.
“The ascent to heaven is never easy, but at Preah Vihear you get help from a guy with a motorbike,” he writes of the long climb. “You take your place on the seat behind him…. Before you know it, the curves have become hairpins, the grades fearsomely steep.”
But the mototaxi driver can only take you so far: One still has to walk the 800-meter central avenue to reach the main structure of the monument atop that 520-meter hill overlooking Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the north.
Over the last 50 years, the temple’s strategic location has led to Preah Vihear being embroiled in numerous armed conflicts between the two countries, turning it into a symbol of national unity in the process, Mr. Burgess said in an interview.
“There’s probably not one Cambodian who has never heard of Preah Vihear: Everybody knows about this temple, everybody knows it’s a Cambodian temple, and they’re immensely proud of this place,” he said.
In his book, Mr. Burgess explains the history of the monument and especially the events of the last 100 years or so, which have included it twice being the subject of cases at the International Court of Justice.
As a journalist writing for The Washington Post, he first visited Preah Vihear in 1974 while civil war was raging in Cambodia and soldiers of Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic were battling the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Republic forces lived on top of the hill with their families and, as shown in photos in the book, had even built a school for their children and set up a vegetable garden.
“From 1970 to 1975, the Khmer Republic…occupied the temple,” Mr. Burgess said during the interview earlier this month. “The temple was actually the last place in Cambodia to fall to the Khmer Rouge, approximately five or six weeks after the fall of Phnom Penh [on April 17, 1975]: The Khmer Republic lived on for another five weeks at Preah Vihear.”
More recently, skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers, in the 2000s and 2010s, which led to firefights and deaths, took the monument far away from its original purpose—a site for prayer.
Although the first written mention of Preah Vihear dates from the early ninth century, with a stone inscription stating that a son of King Jayavarman II took a sacred stone to the mountain, it is believed that a small Hindu temple already stood there, Mr. Burgess writes.
“Probably small, located right at the summit, and built of wood, assuring that any traces of it have since long disappeared.”
Being a religious retreat dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, several Khmer kings are believed to have built structures at Preah Vihear, which was linked by road to their capital of Angkor, located in today’s Siem Reap province. But indications now are that the temple as it now stands was built during the reign of King Suryavarman I in the early 11th century.
Since the mountains are made of layers upon layers of stone, builders dispatched by the king found the required stones on location, Mr. Burgess writes. “That yellow stone with wine-red elements, dating to one hundred forty million years ago, became the masons’ main material.”
The builders created the 800-meter entrance avenue along with five sets of buildings. The structure at the top included a tower now reduced to a pile of stones, so completely demolished that it is believed to have been deliberately destroyed centuries ago.
What happened at Preah Vihear once Cambodian kings left Angkor and relocated their capital remains unclear, Mr. Burgess writes.
“What we do know is that as the Nineteenth Century neared its end, the temple was an untended ruin…. Wild elephants foraged on its grounds. Weeds sprouted from cracks in its stones. A few local people sometimes came to conduct small religious rites. Treasures hunters visited to see what they could find. But otherwise hardly anyone knew that Preah Vihear even existed.”
The temple had become nearly inaccessible.
In August 1863, King Norodom, who had acceded to the throne with Siam’s military backing, signed the Protectorate Treaty with France as a way to curb Siam’s control over Cambodia.
French researchers lost no time in searching for remnants of a mighty empire. They began studying Angkor’s monuments and making restoration plans, despite having no authority at Angkor, as Siem Reap and other northwestern provinces had been under Siam’s control since the 18th century.
They soon realized that there were also major monuments away from Angkor. The first Frenchman to reach Preah Vihear around 1883 was the linguist Etienne Aymonier, who crisscrossed the country to inventory monuments and make rubbings of stone inscriptions.
Next came Etienne Lunet de Lajonquiere in March 1905. The French military officer and draftsman sketched highly accurate plans of the site and buildings. He even drew—from the ground—a bird’s-eye view of Preah Vihear.
“The image has been reproduced over and over, including on modern Cambodian banknotes,” Mr. Burgess writes. “Aerial photographs just can’t compare.”
The third French visitor was an artist, writer and future founder of Cambodia’s National Museum: George Groslier, then in his mid-20s. Assigned to tour remote Khmer monuments, he had been told to look out for wild elephants, tigers and Siamese rebels at Preah Vihear. He arrived in July 1913 and spent 11 days at the monument, measuring and drafting every structure.
Finally, in the 1920s, Henri Parmentier of the Ecole francaise d’Extreme Orient—the French government’s research institution in charge of monument restoration in Cambodia—made three trips to Preah Vihear to study and sketch it in fine detail.
It was Henri Parmentier who, upon hearing from a contact in Bangkok that a prominent Thai political figure, Prince Damrong, was planning a visit to Preah Vihear, embarked on a four-day trek to reach the monument, had a pavilion built to receive the prince and a pole erected to hoist the French flag.
When on January 30, 1930, Prince Damrong and his entourage arrived from the Thai side, they were greeted by Parmentier and French representatives in full official uniforms. The French saw this as an opportunity to make clear that Preah Vihear was Cambodian property, Parmentier would explain later.
On that day, everyone remained courteous and, although the Thai prince later described this as French “impudence,” he later thanked the French authorities and even sent them photographs taken during his visit.
Incidents that had led to the monument being officially on the Cambodian side of the border had begun in the 1890s, Mr. Burgess writes. With control of Vietnam and Cambodia, France had its sights set on Laos, which the Thais considered within their sphere of influence.
Following a few incidents, two French gunboats headed for Bangkok and, after an exchange of gunfire with casualties on both sides, the French ships dropped anchor near their embassy in Bangkok.
Profoundly humiliated, Thailand—then called Siam—reluctantly let the French take control of Laos, expand Cambodian territory along its southern border and get its northwestern provinces back. (Thailand would take advantage of World War II to re-occupy most of those provinces from 1941 to 1946.)
A French-Thai commission was formed to delineate Cambodia’s border, as it had never been clearly defined. This meant fieldwork in the Dangrek mountains where Preah Vihear is located.
The document defining the border was agreed upon and signed in March 1907. The French were charged to draft the map and send copies to Prince Damrong, then Thailand’s interior minister. The French first sent him 50 copies and later 15 more, which he requested for Thai provincial governors. And on each map, Preah Vihear is clearly depicted as a two-barred cross on the Cambodian side of the border.
During the late 1940s and the 1950s, conflict over the monument worsened. Thailand kept posting guards at Preah Vihear, refusing to withdraw them in spite of complaints filed by Cambodia.
At a Bangkok meeting in August 1958, the Thais mentioned that Cambodia, by then an independent country, could not expect Thailand to fully respect treaties agreed upon when Cambodia was a French protectorate. The Cambodians interpreted this as Thailand coveting not only Preah Vihear but also the country’s western provinces.
In November 1958, Cambodia’s head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, broke diplomatic relations with Thailand and in October 1959 had the case of Preah Vihear submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The trial in early 1962 lasted 25 days, during which Thailand questioned the validity of the 1907 map, saying that the watershed line mentioned in a 1904 document that put Preah Vihear on the Thai side—according to their expert witness—should determine the border.
“The issue that eventually sank the case for the Thais was that they had not protested all along the way from 1907 into the 1950s,” Mr. Burgess said in the interview. “They had officially received the map, which showed the temple as being in Cambodia. And they had never through diplomatic channels, treaty negotiations or any of the ways through which countries formally make their feelings known to each other, had never mentioned this issue of ownership of the temple.”
In their decision in favor of Cambodia, released on June 15, 1962, the judges mentioned Prince Damrong’s visit to Preah Vihear.
“A clearer affirmation of title on the French Indo-Chinese side can scarcely be imagined. It demanded a reaction. Thailand did nothing,” the judges said. “What seems clear is that either Siam did not in fact believe she had any title…or else she decided not to assert it, which means that she accepted the French claim, or accepted the frontier at Preah Vihear as it was drawn on the map.”
However, the decision’s wording would lead to Cambodia resubmitting the case of Preah Vihear to the international court in April 2011. The decision stated that Thailand had “to withdraw any military or police forces, or other guards or keepers, stationed by her at the Temple, or in its vicinity on Cambodian territory.”
Thailand would interpret this as Cambodia only being entitled to the monument’s actual footprint plus a few meters of ground around it.
In the mid-1990s, Preah Vihear turned into one of the Khmer Rouge’s last strongholds, with Ta Mok, once the regime’s Southwest Zone commander, using the monument as a sort of personal retreat where he met with his staff in a purpose-built pavilion.
The Khmer Rouge vacated the site in March 1998 and the monument was reopened to tourists a few months later.
In the 2000s, Preah Vihear was used to rally domestic support around a Thai political faction that became known as the “Yellow Shirts.”
They sparked controversy when Thailand supported Cambodia’s request to list Preah Vihear on Unesco’s World Heritage List—it was inscribed in 2008—and inflamed the situation at the monument, which led to casualties when Thai and Cambodian soldiers traded fire in 2008.
When this escalated to soldiers firing artillery shells and rockets, Cambodia went back to the World Court in April 2011 to determine what “vicinity” the country was entitled to at Preah Vihear.
On November 11, 2013, the judges unanimously decreed that Cambodia had rights to the whole promontory up to the cliff line on the south, east and west sides of the monument plus additional land to the north. Although this gave Cambodia a wider “vicinity,” the country did not get the additional 4.6 square km north and west of the monument that had been shown as Cambodian territory on the 1907 map.
In December 2014, an international coordinating committee was created with Unesco support to restore Preah Vihear structures. Thailand is one of eight countries that have agreed to assist the project.
“Let us hope that as time goes forward, cool heads will prevail and Preah Vihear will resume the mission for which it was built close to a thousand years ago, praise of heaven and display of the marvelous artistic powers of the human mind,” writes Mr. Burgess.