Following Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, the third destination of our road trip was Prasat Preah Vihear, a sacred temple on the border with Thailand in a spectacular cliff top location overlooking the Cambodian plains. Built during the Khmer Empire from 10th to 12th century, with most of its current form attributed to the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-1050) and Suryavarman II (1113-1150), it was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and later converted to use by Buddhists. The temple has been a subject of an international dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, with each side claiming it as its own. This even resulted in some border incursions from the Thai side in recent years, an increased Cambodian military presence in the area, and on and off closures to tourists. On the other hand, the road connecting the area to the rest of Cambodia had been greatly improved. As bad as wars can be to infrastructure, a threat or planning of them once created the Alaska Highway and the German Autobahn...
We woke up to one of the chilliest mornings of the year. It was definitely below 18 C, quite cold by Cambodian standards. A hearty soup for breakfast at our motel in Srah Emm warmed me up. There was a lot of smoke in the air from forest fires and man-made burns by local villagers to clear forested land. In spite of the visibility, we could still see the temple up on a ridge of Dangrek Mountains above the plains. Our driver brought us to an outpost that looked like a school. There, a trip up to the temple could be arranged. Even though the road to the temple itself had also been improved, a passenger car would have a hard time negotiating the very steep grade. Visitors were offered two options - going up on a motorcycle ($5) or in a 4WD pick up truck ($20 for both). We opted for the latter. We hopped into a Toyota pickup, and some ten locals came along for the ride in the truck bed. We passed numerous soldiers on the way up and we were asked to show our passports. We gathered we were OK because we were not Thai...
|Pho soup||Omelette||School tuk-tuk||Road toward Preah Vihear||Ticket classroom - window||Ticket ladies|
|Dreamy look||Smile||Checkpoint||Our truck bed companions||Four wheel drive stick shift||Soldiers|
|Irina and her uniformed suitors|
We were dropped off at the bottom of the complex near a small village catering to tourists, quickly acquainted ourselves with some local kids, and posed for photos with various uniformed personnel. From differing looks of their uniforms, it seemed it took several branches of the military, police, and border patrol to defend the temple from the Thai. We headed up to the temple, or its second level structures. From there, we walked down the stairs that originally served as the main entrance to the complex. There were signs next to the stairs reminding visitors that the area had been cleared of mines. We saw many of the signs in other places too. The effort was financed mostly by France and Germany. Perhaps, these countries remember from their own conflicts what a toll these devices can take. The mines have brought and continue to bring suffering to the Cambodian people. They were laid in large quantities during the war against Khmer Rouge and are extremely difficult to remove.
Back up above the long staircase, we continued up on the walkway, and came to understand the extent of the site - Preah Vihear Temple is a large complex built on several levels along a north-south axis. Starting from the bottom, five gopuras, entrance buildings, are successively passed. They are connected by a walkway and stairs. Each of the gopuras blocks the sight of the next before passing through its gateway.
|Cambodian kids||Little Khmer figthers||Make a face||Myself and the kids||Cambodian and UNESCO flags|
|Minefield signs||Boy at the bottom of the complex||Uniformed official||Family||Guarding the walkway||Temple ruins|
|Doorways||Little warriors||Head stand||Tumble|
We continued on the walkway and stairs higher toward the top of the mountain. As we passed each gopura, a new view and a new part of the complex revealed itself until we reached the temple on top. The location, at 625 meters above sea level and more than 500 meters down the cliffs to the plains below, is impressive and only adds to its spiritual significance. Back in 1979, tens of thousand of Cambodian refugees were expelled from Thailand and forced to climb down the cliffs into the minefields laid by Khmer Rouge below, and many perished. There was no sign of this tragic event. Only a monk and more uniformed officials kept us company. Similar to our visit of Koh Ker the day before, a refreshing change about Preah Vihear was a lack of tourists. There was a fair number of local Khmer visiting their sacred temple but not very many Westerners, and none of the hordes of Asian tourists seen at Angkor. The scarcity of westerners made us an attraction to the locals, including the kids that followed us around the ruins. In some sense, they complemented the ruins, which represented a long bygone era of Cambodian history, with what I had grown to like the most about the country - its lively young energetic, and at least at first look, optimistic spirit.
|Kids||Temple gym||Commemorating Norodom Sihanouk||Commemorative boat||Second gopura||Preah Vihear courtyard|
|Beauty among the ruins||A monk and the temple||Smiling monk||Donations||Irina|
|Lichen patterns||Doorways at Preah Vihear||Irina||Irina and a friendly official||Girls||Irina|
|Looking over to the Thai side|
Back at the end of the 4WD road, we waited to be picked up while observing local life. The locals were playing volleyball. I noticed volleyball nets and people playing in many other places around Cambodia. This time, I felt like joining in, but we had to go back down to continue our road trip through the Cambodian countryside on the way back to Siem Reap.
|More uniformed personnel||Serve||Set||Toyota pickups|