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–south processional axis. Along this axis are five cruciform gopura (pavilions), decorated with exquisite carvings and separated by esplanades up to 275m long.
From the parking area, walk up the hill to crumbling Gopura V at the north end of the temple complex. From here, the grey-sandstone Monumental Stairway leads down to the Thai border. Back when the temple was open from the Thai side, this stairway was how most tourists entered the temple complex. Thailand claims that this part of the temple is theirs. That Gopura V appears on both the 50,000r and 2000r banknotes is an emphatic statement that Cambodia disagrees.
East of Gopura V, you'll see a set of stairs dropping off into the abyss. This is the 1800m Eastern Stairway. Used for centuries by pilgrims climbing up from Cambodia’s northern plains, it was recently de-mined, rebuilt as a 2242-step wooden staircase and reopened.
Walking south up the slope from Gopura V, the next pavillion you get to is Gopura IV. On the pediment above the southern door, 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.
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, 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.