Introducing Prasat Preah Vihear

The most dramatically situated of all the Angkorian monuments, 800m-long Prasat Preah Vihear is perched high atop an escarpment in the Dangkrek Mountains (elevation 625m). The views are breathtaking: lowland Cambodia, 550m below, stretches as far as the eye can see, with the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen looming in the distance.

Prasat Preah Vihear, an important place of pilgrimage during the Angkorian period, was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, beginning with Yasovarman I (r 889–910) and ending with Suryavarman II (r 1112–1152), builder of Angkor Wat. Like other temple-mountains from this period, it was designed to represent Mt Meru and was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, though, unlike Angkor Wat, it’s laid out along a north-to-south processional axis.

The best place to start a visit is at the bottom of the grey-sandstone Monumental Stairway. As you walk southward up the slope, you come to five cruciform gopura (pavilions), decorated with exquisite carvings and separated by esplanades up to 275m long. Delicate Gopura V, the first you come to, appears on the 1995-series 50,000r banknote and the 2008-series 2000r banknote. On the pediment above the southern door to Gopura IV; look for an early rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a theme later depicted awesomely at Angkor Wat. The galleries around Gopura I, with their inward-looking windows, are in a remarkably good state of repair, but the Central Sanctuary is just a pile of rubble. Nearby, the cliff affords stupendous views of Cambodia’s northern plains and is a fantastic spot for a picnic.

More recently the long-closed, 1800m Eastern Stairway, used for centuries by pilgrims climbing up from Cambodia’s northern plains, was de-mined for reopening. To get there, turn north off the Sra Em-Kor Muy highway onto a paved road at a point 5km east of Kor Muy and 200m west of the big tree at the bend in the road.

The best guidebook to Prasat Preah Vihear’s architecture and carvings is Preah Vihear, by Vittorio Roveda. These days it may be hard to find in Cambodia, as it was published in Thailand and the text is in English and Thai.

During our most recent visit in January 2012, there was still a large military presence in and around the temple. Ostensibly for security, it might make some visitors uncomfortable, and money or cigarettes are occasionally requested by soldiers. Always check the latest security situation when in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh before making the long overland journey here.