Hidden heritage

Cambodia

Hidden heritage

That it pre-dates Angkor Wat, that it inspired the construction of the Angkor itself, that it is located picturesquely at high altitude, and above all, that it has been coveted and fought over by two countries on the borders of which it lies — what other compelling reasons could a travel bug with wheels for feet ask for! So here I am, heading out with my family, from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear, 210 km away, an off-the-beaten-track jewel in Cambodia’s crown, 625 metres above sea level, bordering Cambodia and Thailand.

Our drive takes us three hours on good motorable roads, flanked by tracts of land with cassava chips drying under a blazing sun, palm groves and pastoral environs to reach the foot of the Dangrek Mountains. En route we halt at few places to watch the making of palm jaggery, brewing of toddy and crafting of utilities and artefacts using coconut shell. 

Mystic mountains

Once at the base of Dangrek, our passports are checked and we are issued tickets to ascend the mountain. We change vehicles here to climb uphill since four wheel drives are the only vehicles that can negotiate the several hairpin bends along the steep, almost vertically inclined serpentine road, leading to Preah Vihear, meaning “sacred monastery”. The more adventurous visitors and perhaps those not short charged on time we observe, wend their way to the temple on foot along the same road.

Our driver Narin, who also doubles up as a guide, informs us that it would take us a good two hours if we choose to follow them! The Ancient Pathway on the east side of the temple with over 2,000 ruined stone staircase through the forest, or a newer flight of wooden steps that runs parallel to it, are alternative ways to reach Preah Vihear, time permitting. A pair of stone lions flanks the path and the stairs themselves are guarded by sculpted nagas, the multi-headed serpents.
We wonder at the presence of soldiers on our ascent and upon arrival at the temple as well. In fact, the armed men seem to be living here with their families as we observe little kiosks out of which their wives sell cold and hot drinks and small items of snacks while their children run around and play. Narin comes to our rescue again as he narrates Preah Vihear’s history. Often referred to as the Temple in the Sky, Preah Vihear had been a bone of contention between Cambodia and Thailand, resulting in several armed conflicts between them, through many decades.

It was awarded to Cambodia by a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962. Yet, the land surrounding the temple remained mired in controversy, coveted by both countries. Conflicts notwithstanding, the temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. A more recent ruling, in 2013 by the ICJ, gave Cambodia sovereignty over this area also.

It is evident at once that gunfire exchanged in the region between the two countries has damaged the temple significantly. Narin tells us that even today the surrounding areas are infested with land mines. We climb a few steps to come upon the awe-inspiring monument that looks magnificent even in ruins. A trio of flags — that of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage, flutter on top of the iconic first gopura or tower, which is actually Gopura 5. Unlike most temples of the time that were built on an east-west axis, Preah Vihear is laid out along a north-south processional axis. The five towers defining the temple complex spike majestically heavenwards, aligned along a 2,600-foot-long central causeway that proceeds dramatically to the edge of a cliff.

Ancient architecture

The roof of Gopura 5, built in the Koh Ker architectural style, is missing. Remnants of carvings with traces of red paint used in its décor are visible in places. Each of the towers is embellished with exquisite carvings, revealing episodes from Hindu mythology. We walk the length of the temple accompanied by the ceaseless songs of cicadas, emphasising the sounds of Cambodian summer. The towers, each one accessed by a flight of steps, are separated by long esplanades, marking a change in height.

The temple towers are so structured that until we pass each gateway, we do not get to see the temple towers in entirety at one shot from any single point. A faded depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, one of the masterpieces of Preah Vihear, is visible on the pediment above one of the doors to Gopura 4. While sections of the temple complex are in a fairly good state of preserve and reveal the exceptional architectural and sculptural quality of construction, the central sanctuary is a pile of rubble.
The foundation stones of the temple near Gopura 1 stretch to the edge of the cliff as it plunges precipitously, a 500-metre vertical drop to the plains of the Preah Vihear province below. The view of the plains from here is spectacular.

Originally built as a Hindu temple to honour Shiva, Preah Vihear is an emblem of Cambodian pride that pre-dates the famed Angkor Wat. Though not as large as Angkor, it is considered the most prominent of the Khmer Empire’s architectural wonders. In fact, the design and layout of Preah Vihear, with its galleries surrounding the central sanctuary, served to inspire the architecture and alignment of Angkor, built 300 years later.

A Shivalinga brought from Laos was originally installed in the temple sanctum. One of the most venerated pilgrimage sites during the Angkorian era, Preah Vihear was built by a succession of seven Khmer kings, beginning in the 9th century during the reign of Prince Indrayudha, son of King Jayavarman II, the founder of Khmer empire.

The temple was completed in the 12th century, during the period of Suryavarman II, when the construction of Angkor Wat was begun. However, with the decline of Hinduism in the region, Preah Vihear became a Buddhist house of worship, palpable by the statues of Buddha in one of its sanctums which is active to date.

Fact file

 Reaching: Preah Vihear is 210 km from Siem Reap, Cambodia. Since no public transport plies on the route, private cabs may be hired to undertake the three-hour journey.

 Accommodation: Siem Reap has plenty of budget and star hotels to suit all pockets.

There are neither boarding-lodging facilities nor hotels/restaurants to catch a quick bite i and around Preah Vihear. The closest town, Sra Em, 30 km away, has modest eateries.

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