Visited: August, 2014
Site Type: Cultural
Opinion and Background:
It is not every day that UNESCO causes a war, but that is exactly what happened in 2008 with the inclusion of Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List. The history is long and complicated, but in short, reports coming from the UNESCO meeting in Quebec, Canada exacerbated a century long dispute between Thailand and Cambodia about where exactly their border lies. This led to a number of cross border clashes between 2008-2011, making Preah Vihear only recently accessible for tourists to see.
While I was not that into UNESCO Sites when I first visited Cambodia in 2010, I was aware of the existence of an amazing temple in the sky. Preah Vihear is a thing of legend and one of the least visited sites to non-Cambodians. It is definitely for anyone who loved Angkor, and would like to go a bit deeper into Khmer history with a site that is off the beaten path.
Built in the 9th century and towards the rise of the Khmer Empire, it is considered one of the most spectacular temples because of its amazing views of the surrounding landscape. Due to its importance as a dedication to Shiva, this Hindu temple was constantly upgraded for centuries following its initial construction.
1) Completeness and Originality (10.5 out of 15): Unlike the infinitely more popular temples of Angkor, this temple was largely neglected until its bid to become a UNESCO site. Nevertheless, it is massive and so much remains in such good conditions that it is hard to ignore.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (3.5 out of 15): The driver who took me up the mountain told me to take about two hours. In perfect conditions, this is about enough to see the whole thing (if not less time). However, during the rainy season you have to be extra careful as I learned the ‘hard-butt-to-the-ground’ way.
3) Cultural Significance (10 out of 25): Records show that during most of the Khmer Empire’s existence, but especially during the Koh Ker period, Preah Vihear continued to be one of the most important temples, visited by the king himself on multiple occasions.
4) Personal Impact (9 out of 15): For someone with limited time, there are so many amazing temples in nearby Angkor that I would recommend they stick to that. However, it is just as stunning as Bayon or Preah Khan in the ancient capital.
5) Logistics (2 out of 10): Siem Reap has an international airport and Angkor therefore is easily accessible. However, there are no public transportation options to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap and the only option is private taxi.
One group of Japanese girls we came across hired a Japanese speaking Cambodian who is apparently pretty popular among the Japanese tourists in Cambodia (especially the girls, rumor has it many have proposed to him). As such this very lucrative and specialized skill doesn’t come cheap. I heard they paid him upwards of $300 for a private tour.
The owner of my hostel offered to have his buddy take me for $80-90. While normally, I would be suspicious, he is the friend of my buddy Barang and he vouched for him. I decided to ask around anyways, and everyone in Siem Reap charged from $130-180 as it is a full day trip. Looks like $80 is as cheap as it gets, and that doesn’t count the motorcycle ride (of death) up that costs $5. If you want to play it safe and take a truck, $20. The temple itself is free.
This is just one of those places you have to bite the bullet and go. Another option would be to rent a motorcycle and attempt to arrive there yourself. However, even Barang who has many years of experience giving tours in Cambodia said he would not dare take someone there by motorbike or tuk-tuk. Looks like the cheapest possible thing you can do is rent a car for a day.
6) Uniqueness (11 out of 20): While a temple or cathedral is probably the most common UNESCO site, one in the sky is quite uncommon. From the sky, you can see Cambodia on one side and Thailand on the other.