Cambodia: Preah Vihear Temple: A Place Of Profound Historical Significance

While AngkorWat is more famous, and as such gets all of the attention internationally, there is another temple structure that holds great significance among the people of Cambodia, and that is Preah Vihear. Located 140 km from Angkor Wat (around 22 miles) this temple predated the main Angkor Wat site by approximately 300 years and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since July 7th, 2008. Construction of

the site was begun sometime between 800 and 900 A.D. as a tribute to the Hindu God Shiva, and is one of nearly 1000 temple sites that were part of the Angkor empire.

I, along with my wife Vennes, were lucky enough to accompany a Cambodian family who we had become friends with to Preah Vihear Temple as part of their annual Khmer New Year celebration. The day before they had taken us to Angkor Wat where we were absolutely blown away by the sheer magnificence of it all. However, despite the excitement surrounding that part of the trip, the trip to Preah Vihear seemed to hold more significance for our hosts and as we learned more about it we came to realize why.

You don’t just go to Preah Vihear; It has all of the feelings of a spiritual pilgrimage. This is not only because of it’s location, perched atop Pey Tadi (a steep cliff in the Dangrek Mountain range which forms a natural border between Cambodia and Thailand), but also because of recent (and ongoing) border disputes with Thailand where both countries lay claim to this 1200 year old site. The dispute is steeped in national tradition and pride for both countries and has been part of both their histories for centuries.

With all of the turmoil that Cambodia has endured over the years (both internal as well as external) these ancient temple structures represent a large portion of the “soul” of the country. Without these remnants of their ancient history they would have very little. While, if for nothing more than sentimental reasons, it would be easy to take sides in the conflict between the two countries it is a very complicated situation and it doesn’t get any clearer whether looking from the Thai side or the Cambodian side.

That being said, in June of 1962 an international court ruled on the side of Cambodia and awarded ownership of the site to them. Thailand reluctantly agreed to abide by that judgment but it has been an obvious thorn in their side ever since. Since the time of the ruling there have been numerous conflicts. The most recent round of conflicts (April 2009, February 2011, May 2011) resulted in over 40 deaths of both military personnel and civilians ( ) during which time the temple site itself was shelled. The damage from the Thai artillery bombardments are apparent from the holes on the temple walls as well as on some of the structures in the small encampment/shrine located just below the temple site itself. To this day there is a Cambodian military presence all up and down the mountain side keeping a watchful eye on the area. It’s a little unnerving seeing bunkers placed at strategic locations throughout the area, which gives you the feeling that the soldiers are most definitely at the ready for any provocations from across the border. Our hosts claimed that a Thai fighter jet actually strafed the temple complex during the conflicts in early 2011 but there is really no way of substantiating that story.

The Preah Vihear site was also the scene of another tragic event in recent Cambodian history, again involving their Thai neighbors. In June of 1979, after Vietnam forces invaded Cambodia to remove the murderous Khmer Rouge regime from power, an estimated 42,000 Cambodian refugees were expelled from Thailand and pushed back across the border at Preah Vihear. At the time Thailand was struggling alone to bear the burden of the huge influx of refugees so it was somewhat understandable as to the reasons behind the action. In their own peculiar way they were protesting that they were bearing too much of the burden themselves. The manner in which it was done is where the tragedy lies. Preah Vihear is at the top of a 2000 foot cliff and, according to historical accounts (Thompson, Larry Clinton. Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2010) “The refugees were unloaded from the buses and pushed down the steep escarpment. “There was no path to follow,” one said. “The way that we had to go down was only a cliff. Some people hid on top of the mountain and survived. Others were shot or pushed over the cliff. Most of the people began to climb down using vines as ropes. They tied their children on their backs and strapped them across their chests. As the people climbed down, the soldiers threw big rocks over the cliff.” At the foot of the cliffs were minefields placed by the Khmer Rouge during their rule in Cambodia. The refugees followed a narrow path, the safe route indicated by the bodies of people who had set off land mines. The refugees used their bodies as stepping stones to cross the three miles of land mines to reach the Vietnamese soldiers, occupiers of Cambodia, on the other side. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later estimated that about 3,000 Cambodians had died in the push-back and that another 7,000 were unaccounted for.” While our hosts didn’t mention this very tragic event one can’t help but feel that it contributes to the feeling of the sacredness and significance that this place holds for the people of Cambodia.

As the temple is located at the top of a 2000 foot cliff the amount of physical effort it takes to get there lends itself to the feeling of it being a pilgrimage. The climb takes it’s toll on vehicle’s cooling systems and drive chains, both being pushed to their very limits due to the relentless heat (we went during April which is the hottest month in Cambodia) and steep ascent. Because of this, all who were up for a walk volunteered to get out and walk up the mountain. At times you honestly felt as if you were scaling a wall rather than walking up a mountain road. Thankfully MOST of the road, until the very end as you enter the temple grounds, is paved which makes it easier for pedestrians and vehicles alike.

Near the top we came upon a small encampment whose primary purpose is for housing a small Buddhist shrine. Our guests lit incense, prayed and wrapped friendship bracelets around our wrists. How long the shrine has been housed there is any body’s guess. There was a special feeling there that was offset by the sandbag bunkers surrounding both the parameter of the shrine as well as lining the road that leads up to Preah Vihear. There was little doubt as to the reasoning behind their existence as there are still bullet holes covering the walls of the shrine and the Preah Vihear Temple itself, serving as a stark reminder of the bad blood surrounding the border disputes. Glancing out over the valley you can overlook the plains saddling both countries and you can’t help but feel a sense of awe at seeing where the borders of two ancient civilizations converge.

We left Preah Vihear, our last stop prior to returning to Phnom Penh, so impressed; not only with the structure itself but also by the reverence and respect that our hosts had for this place and we hope to return again sometime soon.

Priya Harrison

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