Choam Khsan district, Preah Vihear province – There is a centuries-old temple at the summit-that much is certain. But white-knuckled, gripping the back of a straining motorbike halfway up a steep, mostly dirt mountain road, it’s hard to fathom why anybody would put one there. The view, however, from the Preah Vihear temple puts all questions to rest.
Perched along the Thai border, the temple offers breathtaking glimpses of the Thai and Cambodian countryside. The curiously thin forests of Preah Vihear province stretch out into the distance, eventually getting lost in the hazy horizon. To the north, mist shrouded peaks roll into Thailand, dense with dark foliage.
The temple itself is actually a string of four increasingly impressive structures arrayed in a straight line along the summit. It is not the best preserved of Angkorian temples, with only the uppermost temple having any of its roof intact.
Still, it is beautiful in its lofty setting and has a few stylistic features that one does not see at the more famous temples in Siem Reap’s Angkor Archaeological Park.
The structure with the intact roof reveals corridors with beautifully rounded ceilings-perfect narrow arches that stand in sharp contrast to the triangular jumble of rocks that usually constitute a ceiling in Angkorian temples.
Even more noticeable are the distinctive naga carvings that dot the temple complex. Images of the mythical, multi-headed snake can be found on ancient temples and modern monuments throughout Cambodia, but they are typically heavily stylized. The snakes’ flattened faces are often almost lost in a swirl of decorative carving.
The nagas at Preah Vihear temple, however, look like actual snakes rather than stylized motifs. The two giant specimens atop the temple’s main stairway are as imposing as any statuary at the Siem Reap temples, if not more so.
But the temple also serves as a reminder of Cambodia’s years of conflict and ongoing border issues with Thailand.
Landmines still cover much of the mountain, though most areas in the immediate vicinity of the temple have been cleared. Around the edge of the temple-or sometimes directly abutting to it-one still sees bunkers and stone pillboxes.
The Preah Vihear temple had long been a site of contention between Thailand and Cambodia, with both nations having claimed it in the past. Although firmly within Cambodia these days, there are more than a few none-too-subtle reminders as to who is running the show.
A large Cambodian flag adorns the top of the temple’s only stairway (which, incidentally, faces Thailand). A rusty artillery piece is still perched on the mountain with its barrel pointed squarely at Thailand. And in case anybody’s a little slow on the uptake, there is also a large, prominently displayed sign reading “I have pride to be born as Khmer.”
But despite Cambodia thumbing its nose at Thailand, most of the tourists that visit the temple are Thais. Ticketing official Chum Chamrong said that around 100 visitors come to the temple from Thailand each day, significantly more than the 30 tourists the provincial tourism department says show up from the Cambodian side.
This discrepancy is likely due to the freshly paved, straight, wide road Thailand has built directly to the temple.
But the flow of Thai tourists has subsided since the 2004 anti-Thai riots that saw the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh ransacked by an angry mob, vendors and officials at the temple said recently.
Many vendors said that since that time, the Thais that do show up have been instructed by Thai authorities and soldiers not to buy anything on the Cambodian side of the border. As a result, vendors say sales of everything from fake elephant tusks to bottled water have plummeted by around 90 percent.
After spending some time milling about the ruins, strolling into Thailand or admiring the scenery there is still one last adventure to be had: the trip back down the mountain.