Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple or Prasat Preah Vihear (Khmer: ប្រាសាទព្រះវិហារ, Prasat Preah Vihear) is a Khmer temple which is situated atop Pey Tadi, a cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains in the Preah Vihear Province of Cambodia and near the border of Amphoe Kantharalak, Sisaket Province in northeastern Thailand. In 1962, following a significant dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership of the temple, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague awarded the ownership to Cambodia.

Affording a view for many kilometers across a plain, Prasat Preah Vihear has the most spectacular setting of all the temples built during the six-century-long Khmer Empire. As a key edifice of the empire's spiritual life, it was supported and modified by successive kings and so bears elements of several architectural styles. Preah Vihear is unusual among Khmer temples in being constructed along a long north-south axis, rather than having the conventional rectangular plan with orientation toward the east. The temple gives its name to Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, in which it is located, as well as the Khao Phra Wihan National Park in Sisaket Province, Thailand, through which the temple is most easily accessible. On July 7, 2008, Preah Vihear was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Preah Vihear is translated into Thai as Prasat Phra Viharn (ปราสาทพระวิหาร) or Prasat Khao Phra Viharn (ปราสาทเขาพระวิหาร) [In Thai the"Ph" is pronounced simply "p" ]. Prasat has the same meaning in Khmer and Thai ("castle", sometimes "temple") , and Khao is the Thai word for "hill" or "mountain" (in Khmer: "phnom", Cambodians occasionally refer to "Phnom Preah Vihear" as Thais sometimes refer to "Khao Phra Viharn"). The words "Preah" and "Phra" (พระ) mean "sacred," and the words "Vihear" and "Viharn" (วิหาร) mean "shrine" (the central structure of the temple). In Thai, the word "khao" (เขา) has recently been omitted from the name in order to differentiate between the temple and the cliff it is built on. Thai mass media appear to have begun this convention.

The two versions of the name carry significant political and national connotations (see New dispute over ownership).


The temple sits atop Pey Tadi, a cliff in the Dangrek Mountains which straddle the border between Thailand and Cambodia. During different periods it has been located in Cambodia and Thailand in turn. Following Cambodian independence and the Thai occupation of the temple it was listed by Thailand as being in Bhumsrol village, (which means Village of pine trees) Tambon Bueng Malu, (now merged with Tambon Sao Thong Chai) Amphoe Kantharalak, Sisaket Province (หมู่บ้านภูมิซร็อล ตำบลบึงมะลู อำเภอกันทรลักษ์ จังหวัดศรีสะเกษ) in Thailand. It is 110 km from Amphoe Mueang Si Sa Ket, the center of Si Sa Ket province. After the 1962 ICJ ruling that it belonged to Cambodia permanently settled ownership of the temple, it was listed as being in Svay Chrum Village, Kan Tout Commune, Choam Khsant District, Preah Vihear Province (ភូមិស្វាយជ្រុំ ឃុំកន្ទួត ស្រុកជាំក្សាន្ត ខេត្តព្រះវិហារ) in Cambodia. The temple is 280 km from Angkor Wat and 296 km from Phnom Penh.

Ancient history

Construction of the first temple on the site began in the early 9th century; both then and in the following centuries it was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in his manifestations as the mountain gods Sikharesvara and Bhadresvara. The earliest surviving parts of the temple, however, date from the Koh Ker period in the early 10th century, when the empire's capital was at the city of that name. Today, elements of the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century can be seen, but most of the temple was constructed during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I (1002 -1050) and Suryavarman II (1113 -1150). An inscription found at the temple provides a detailed account of Suryavarman II studying sacred rituals, celebrating religious festivals and making gifts, including white parasols, golden bowls and elephants, to his spiritual advisor, the aged Brahman Divakarapandita. The Brahman himself took an interest in the temple, according to the inscription, donating to it a golden statue of a dancing Shiva.

International dispute over ownership

In modern times, Prasat Preah Vihear was rediscovered by the outside world and became subject of an emotional dispute between Thailand and the newly independent Cambodia.

In 1904, Siam and the French colonial authorities ruling Cambodia formed a joint commission to demarcate their mutual border. In the vicinity of the temple, the group was tasked by the two governments to work under the principle that the border would follow the watershed line of the Dângrêk mountain range, which places Preah Vihear on the Thailand side. In 1907, after survey work, French officers drew up a map to show the border’s precise location. The resulting map, which was sent to Siamese authorities, showed Preah Vihear as being on the Cambodian side.

In 1954, Thai forces occupied the temple following the withdrawal of French troops from Cambodia. Cambodia protested and in 1959 asked the International Court of Justice to rule that the temple lay in Cambodian territory. The case became a volatile political issue in both countries. Diplomatic relations were severed, and threats of force voiced by both governments.

The court proceedings focused not on questions of cultural heritage or on which state was the successor to the Khmer Empire but on technicalities of the border demarcation work early in the century and Thailand's subsequent treatment of the resulting map.

Arguing in the Hague for Cambodia was former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson, while Thailand’s legal team included a former British attorney general, Sir Frank Soskice. Cambodia contended that the map showing the temple as being on Cambodian soil was the authoritative document. Thailand argued that the map was invalid, was not an official document of the border commission, and violated the commission’s working principle that the border would follow the watershed line, which would place the temple in Thailand. If Thailand had not protested the map earlier, the Thai side said, it was because Thai authorities had practical possession of the temple, due to the great difficulty of scaling the cliff from the Cambodian side, or had not understood that the map was wrong.

On June 15, 1962, the court ruled 9 to 3 that the temple belonged to Cambodia and, by a vote of 7 to 5, that Thailand must return any antiquities such as sculptures that it had removed from the temple. In its decision, the court noted that over the five decades after the map was devised, the Siamese/Thai authorities did not object in various international forums to the map’s depiction of the temple’s location. Nor did they object when a French colonial official received the Siamese scholar and government figure Prince Damrong at the temple in 1930. Thailand had accepted and benefited from other parts of the border treaty, the court ruled. With these and other acts, it said, Thailand had accepted the map and therefore Cambodia was the owner of the temple.

Thailand reacted angrily. It announced it would boycott meetings of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, with Thai officials saying this step was to protest a U.S. bias toward Cambodia in the dispute. As evidence, Thai officials cited the pro-Cambodia vote of an American judge on the court and Acheson’s role as Cambodia’s advocate; the U.S. government replied that Acheson was merely acting as a private attorney, engaged by Cambodia. Mass demonstrations were staged in Thailand protesting the ruling.

Thailand eventually backed down and accepted to turn over the site to Cambodia. Rather than lower a Thai tricolor national flag that had been flying at the site, Thai soldiers dug and removed the pole on which it was flying. The pole was put at Mor I Daeng Cliff until now. In January 1963, Cambodia formally took possession of the site in a colorful ceremony attended by close to 1,000 people, many of whom had made the arduous climb up the cliff from the Cambodian side. A fit Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia’s leader, bounded up the cliff in less than an hour, paused to sip lemonade, then made offerings to Buddhist monks. In the ceremony, he made a gesture of conciliation, announcing that all Thais would be able to visit the temple without visas, and that Thailand was free to keep antiquities that it had taken away from the site.

Civil war

Civil war began in Cambodia in 1970; the temple's location high atop a cliff served to make it readily defensible militarily. Soldiers loyal to the Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh continued to hold it long after the plain below fell to communist forces. Tourists were able to visit from the Thai side during the war. The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, but the soldiers at Preah Vihear continued to hold out after the collapse of their government. The Khmer Rouge made several unsuccessful attempts to capture the temple, then finally succeeded on May 22, 1975 by shelling the cliff, scaling it and routing the defenders, Thai officials reported at the time. It was said to be the last place in Cambodia to fall to the Khmer Rouge.

Full-scale war began again in Cambodia in December 1978 when the Vietnamese army invaded to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge troops retreated to border areas. In January, the Vietnamese reportedly attacked Khmer Rouge troops holed up in the temple, but there were no reports of damage to it. Large numbers of Cambodian refugees entered Thailand after the invasion. In June 1979, Thai security forces forcibly expelled tens of thousands of them back into Cambodia in the vicinity of Preah Vihear. Unknown numbers were killed by landmines, gunfire and exposure; the government that Vietnam installed in Phnom Penh put the number of fatalities at more than 300.

Guerilla warfare continued in Cambodia through the 1980s and well into the 1990s, hampering access to Preah Vihear. The temple opened briefly to the public in 1992, only to be re-occupied the following year by Khmer Rouge fighters. In December 1998, the temple was the scene of negotiations by which several hundred Khmer Rouge soldiers, said to be the guerrilla movement's last significant force, agreed to surrender to the Phnom Penh government.

The temple opened again to visitors from the Thai side at the end of 1998; Cambodia completed the construction of a long-awaited access road up the cliff in 2003.

Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site

On July 8, 2008, the World Heritage Committee decided to add Prasat Preah Vihear, along with 26 other sites, to the World Heritage Site list, despite several protests from Thailand.

As the process of Heritage-listing began, Cambodia announced its intention to apply for World Heritage inscription by UNESCO. Thailand protested that it should be a joint-effort and UNESCO deferred debate at its 2007 meeting.

Following this both Cambodia and Thailand were in full agreement that Preah Vihear Temple had "Outstanding Universal Value" and should be inscribed on the World Heritage List as soon as possible. The two nations agreed that Cambodia should propose the site for formal inscription on the World Heritage List at the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2008 with the active support of Thailand. This led to a redrawing of the map of the area for proposed inscription, removing the 4.2sq kilometres of border territory awarded to Cambodia but still occupied by Thailand and leaving only the temple and its immediate environs.

Thailand's political opposition launched an attack on this revised plan (see New dispute over ownership) , claiming the inclusion of Preah Vihear could "consume" the overlapping area of the dispute lands. In response to the political pressure at home Thailand withdrew its formal support for the listing of Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage site.

Cambodia continued with the application for World Heritage status and, despite official Thai protests, on July 7, 2008 (July 8th in Cambodia) , Preah Vihear Temple was inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites.

The renewed national boundary dispute of 2008 has been a reminder that despite the World Heritage ideals of conservation for all humanity, operating a World Heritage site often requires use of national authority at odds with the local cultures and natural diversity of the landscape. Prior to listing, Cambodia considered Preah Vihear part of a Protected Landscape (IUCN category V) defined as "Nationally significant natural and semi-natural landscapes that must be maintained to provide opportunities for recreation." However, Category V is generally defined as "Land, with coast and seas as appropriate, where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant aesthetic, cultural and/or ecological value, and often with high biological diversity. Safeguarding the integrity of this traditional interaction is vital to the protection, maintenance and evolution of such an area."

Around 1994, Thailand held a World Heritage proposal conference in Srisaket in which the local cultural traditions were considered along with monuments like Preah Vihear that stimulate more nationalistic sentiments. Reportedly the use of passes in the Dongrak Mountains tied together cultural communities and practices divided by a militarized (and imperfectly demarcated) modern border line. A Mon-Khmer ethnic minority, the Kui or Suay (the ethnonyms have multiple spellings), used the passes to hunt and capture elephants in the forests below the Dongrak cliff edge, including the Kulen area now a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary. Kui in Cambodia were skilled ironsmiths using ore from Phnom Dek.

While elephant hunting in the vicinity of Preah Vihear was touched upon in the International Court of Justice proceedings, the World Heritage plans overlook local culture and species protection to facilitate national revenues from tourism. One international law professor has urged that practicality calls for laying aside exclusive sovereignty in favor of an "international peace park. A scholarly article concurs in concluding: "since Thailand and Cambodia have brought only blood and bitterness to this place, it might be desirable to preserve it from both. It could be given back to nature and the indigenous peoples, to be managed cooperatively between the two governments in equal partnership with local communities, as a transborder Protected Landscape-Anthropological Reserve (IUCN category V and old category VII). Given the massing troops in 2008, perhaps such a transborder reserve would create not only a demilitarized buffer zone in which any future demarcation can be amicably undertaken, but a recognition of the added ecological and cultural aspects of an area which both Cambodia and Thailand may still save from the destructive and exploitative impacts of rapid development so often suffered in other ASEAN countries.

New dispute over ownership

2008 Cambodian-Thai stand-off began between Thailand and Cambodia as the latest round of a century-long dispute involving the area surrouding Preah Vihear Temple between Amphoe Kantharalak, Sisaket Province and Choam Khsant District, Preah Vihear Province where Thailand claims that demarcation has not yet been completed. . It has now extended to the Ta Moan Thom complex between Surin Province and Oddar Meancheay Province which eventuate from Preah Vihear stand-off. Furthermore, historians and scholars expect that this stand-off will be extended to Sdok Kok Thom Temple, currently located in the boundary of Amphoe Aranyaprathet, Sa Kaeo Province, Thailand


Preah Vihear can be approached via Tbeng Meanchey in Preah Vihear province or from Siem Reap in Siem Reap province via Anlong Veng. Although the highway is bitumen when it leaves Siem Reap, both roads are (occasionally) graded gravel once they begin to approach the Dangrek escarpment.

The temple can be approached from Kantharalak district, Sisaket Province of Thailand. Cambodia allows day-trip access to the temple on a visa-free basis from Thailand. Cambodia imposes an entrance fee of US$5 or 200 baht for foreigners (as of 2006, reduced to 50 baht for nationals of Thailand) , plus a fee of 5 baht for processing a copy of the passport. In addition, Thailand imposes an access fee of 400 baht for entering the National Park.

Cambodia has from time to time cut off access from Thailand during times of dispute with the Thai government.

The site

The temple complex runs along a north-south axis, and consists essentially of a causeway and steps rising up the hill towards the sanctuary, which sits on the clifftop at the southern end of the complex (above the northern end of the complex, above the Cambodian plain and above sea level). Although this structure is very different from the temple mountains found at Angkor, it serves the same purpose as a stylised representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods.

The approach to the sanctuary is punctuated by five gopuras (these are conventionally numbered from the sanctuary outwards, so gopura five is the first to be reached by visitors). Each of the gopuras before the courtyards is reached by a set of steps, and so marks a change in height which increases their impact. The gopuras also block a visitor's view of the next part of the temple until he passes through the gateway, making it impossible to see the complex as a whole from any one point.

The fifth gopura, in the Koh Ker style, retains traces of the red paint with which it was once decorated, although the tiled roof has now disappeared. The fourth gopura is later, from the Khleang/Baphuon periods, and has on its southern outer pediment, "one of the masterpieces of Preah Vihear" (Freeman, p. 162) : a depiction of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The third is the largest, and is also flanked by two halls. The sanctuary is reached via two successive courtyards, in the outer of which are two libraries.


See also


  • Coe, Michael D. (2003). Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28442-3.
  • Higham, Charles (2001). The Civilization of Angkor. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23442-1.

External links

Search another word or see Preah Vihear Templeon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature