Overview of Prasat Preah Vihear
A province in the far north of Cambodia bordering Thailand, Preah Vihear is named after the famous Prasat Preah Vihear temple located in the province. Meaning ‘sacred sanctuary’, Preah Vihear is a place for honouring the ancient Hindu temple that calls this province home.
Buddhist Monk at Preah Vihear.
As well as the temple, Preah Vihear province is home to Preah Vihear city, a number of remote villages, and the dramatic Dangrek Mountains, which rise steeply and form the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Preah Vihear is also one of nine provinces that is part of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve – named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to the incredibly unique ecology surrounding Tonle Sap Lake.
See and Do
The temple at Prasat Preah Vihear is top of the list in this region. Constructed during the Khmer Empire (8th to 14th century) and actually believed to pre-date Angkor Wat by 100 years, this Hindu temple is perched dramatically on top of a cliff called Poy Tadi – which is more than 500 metres in height in the Dangrek Mountains. The well-preserved architecture and impressive location make it easy to see why Prasat Preah Vihear is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Various parts of the temple were built over different centuries, reflecting various architectural styles and influences. Five entrance buildings known as gopuras provide entryways to courtyards and deeper parts of the temple. As Hinduism declined, the temple became a Buddhist temple. Ownership of the temple between Thailand and Cambodia has been in dispute for a number of years, and although the International Court of Justice in The Hague has ruled that it is officially in Cambodia, it is still a point of contention between the two countries. The gorgeous views over a far-reaching plain are also part of the amazing experience of visiting the temple.
A view of Preah Vihear Temple from the outside.
Many people stop or stay in the city of Preah Vihear – known by locals by its former name Tbeng Meanchey – in order to access the temple. For a city, this is a quiet place and while there isn’t much in the way of visitor attractions, it provides a wonderful insight into ‘real’ Cambodia, with locals going about their daily lives.
The town of Sra’em is even closer to Prasat Preah Vihear temple at just 30km away. A small place, this provides another insight into remote Cambodia, with a few simple restaurants to try the local cuisine too.
The region is also home to some other fascinating sights. One of the most significant is Koh Ker, a former 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire. Found in a mystical jungle environment, 180 buildings of this former city have been found over an area of 81km2. Around 30 monuments are accessible to visitors, including a seven-tier pyramid called Prang. There are also the ruins of two palaces, the sanctuary of Prasat Thom and a hill covered with trees called the Tomb of the White Elephant – a well-known legend in South East Asia.
Koh Ker Temple, not for those scared of heights!
The religious complex of Preah Khan Kompong Svay is another archaeological complex of great importance in this region. Thought to date back to the 11th century, it was a royal residence of kings including King Suryavarman II and King Jayavarman VII. There is a large baray (artificial body of water) which was a common means of water supply in Khmer architecture. Impressively, an artificial island has been created in the centre of the baray here to form the site of a cruciform temple with a tower.
Other temples worth visiting in this province include the 7th century Noreay Temples, the Phnom Pralean temple atop an impressive hill, and the Neak Buos temple. The 10th century Krapum Chhouk temple is also worth a visit, as is Kork Beng and the Wat Peung Preah Ko, which is believed to have supernatural powers.
Carvings representing Apsara dancers.
Some people also visit Prasat Preah Vihear temple from Siem Reap – a city with abundant restaurants, bars, markets and shops. It’s most famous as a place where people stay to visit the ancient ruins at Angkor.
Culture and Arts
A region dominated by the fame of its temples, there is plenty of culture and art to be found at the archaeological sites in the province of Preah Vihear.
At the temple at Prasat Preah Vihear, one of the gopuras has an artwork depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk – a well-known episode of Hindu culture – which has been hailed by many as being a masterpiece. One of the most fascinating parts of the temple is an inscription that provides an account of King Suryavarman II studying sacred rituals, marking religious festivals and making gifts such as white parasols.
A pre-angkorian temple, making it one of the oldest in the complex.
The former Khmer Empire city of Koh Ker has also gained worldwide fame for its art, although many of its pieces are now found in museums and private art collections elsewhere in Cambodia and across the world. In particular, it is said that the art of sculpture reached an all-time high under King Jayavarman IV, when Koh Ker was also at its peak. In 2015, 24,000 artefacts were recovered from Koh Ker following an excavation project. These include pottery fragments including Chinese stoneware, Thai and Vietnamese stoneware from the Angkor period and Persian pottery from the 9th century, showing the wide importance of Koh Ker in former centuries. Many of the sculptures that are considered Koh Ker masterpieces are displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Preah Khan Kompong Svay is also important for art and culture. On the temple in the religious site’s baray are the remains of a pyramid called Preah Damrei, which has two stone elephants displayed in its upper corners. There were originally four elephants here, but the sculpture is considered so exquisite, one of the elephants is on display in the National Museum of Phnom Penh, and the other is in the Guimet Museum in Paris. A whole variety of the most famous Khmer sculptures are said to originate in Preah Khan Kompong Svay, which includes a depiction of the head of King Jayavarman VII, which is also on display at the National Museum of Phnom Penh.
A statue of Kuchasa the elephant.
A new museum near Prasat Preah Vihear – the Samdech Techo Hun Sen Eco-Global Museum – is also a fascinating place to visit, as it’s Cambodia’s only ethnological museum. A place for studying, preserving and celebrating culture , it makes sense the museum is located in such a culturally-rich region. This is a museum to get an insight into local customs, cultures, languages and arts, with a focus on the Kuay ethnic group. The museum also has a commitment to conserving flora and fauna, including the traditional medicine rituals from the Mekong River. Given its location near the temple of Prasat Preah Vihear, this is also a place to see some of the archaeological collections that originated from the famous site.
Festivals and Events
As this is such a remote region of Cambodia, there are not any widely-known about events and festivals available for people to visit. For the best insights into local rituals, it’s best to arrange homestays with locals when possible.
Locals celebrating Poun Phnom Ksach (sand topping ceremony)
For those who want to enjoy ancient Khmer architecture and local festivals, it’s best to head over to Angkor for the Khmer New Year in April. This is celebrated via a three-day festival at the site of the ruins, called Angkor Sankranta. A celebration that starts at sunrise and continues until late every day, expect music, dancing, traditional games and local foods. Monks also give blessings throughout the festival.
Food and Drink
Given the remoteness of the region and the proximity of Preah Vihear to Thailand, this is a region to enjoy traditional Khmer staple food and some Thai specialities too. Any urban centres in the region only have a handful of eating options, but each offers something original and interesting.
Traditional Khmer snacks.
In the city of Preah Vihear, typical Khmer food can be found in the garden restaurant of Dara Reas or in Mlop Dong, which also has some international specialities. Phnom Tbaeng restaurant has some Thai specialities such as the hot and sour tom yam, while street food can be found in the city’s market, with Khmer baguettes a particular local favourite. For an upscale option, Apsara restaurant in the Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel serves traditional Khmer cuisine against outstanding views.
Make sure to grab some street barbeque!
In Sra’em, the town closest to the temple at Prasat Preah Vihear, there are some traditional Cambodian options loved by locals and visitors alike. Lemy’s specialises in seafood but has a vast Cambodian menu of other foodstuffs too. Oeng Kong Huey is also a popular spot, serving a mixture of Khmer and international foods.
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