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Preah Vihear Khmer Temple

Preah Vihear Temple

  • Preah Vihear Temple (Proper name: Prasat Preah Vihear) is actually a temple of Hindu religion constructed during the rule of the Khmer Empire. It is located on the top of a 525-metre steep high rock face in the Cambodian province of Preah Vihear and positioned along a north-south axis facing the plains to the north in Thailand. After a protracted dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over proprietorship, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia.
  • Prasat Preah Vihear has the most remarkable venue of all the temples constructed during the six-centuries-long Khmer Empire providing a scene for several kilometers across a plain. Being a main building of the empire's spiritual life, it was reworked by succeeding kings and hence displays elements of many architectural designs. Prasat Prasat Preah Vihear is uncommon among Khmer temples because it was built along a north-south axis, instead of the usual rectangular plan with positioning towards the east. The temple derives its name from Preah Vihear province of Cambodia where it is currently situated. Prasat Preah Vihear was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on July 7, 2008.


  • The temple was constructed in the Dângrêk Mountain range which is the natural boundary between Cambodia and Thailand. The temple is 320 kilometres from Phnom Penh and 140 kilometres from Angkor Wat.

Ancient history

  • Construction work of the first temple started in the early 9th century. However, the first remaining parts of the temple date from the Koh Ker era during the early 10th century. But major parts the temple were built in the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II. An engraving discovered at the temple gives a thorough explanation of Suryavarman II celebrating religious events, studying sacred rites and making gifts, including elephants, golden bowls and white parasols to his religious advisor, the aged Brahmin Divakarapandita who himself was interested in the temple. Due to the waning of Hinduism in the area the site was used by Buddhists.

The site

  • The temple compound goes 800 metres alongside a north-south axis and faces the plains to the north, from where it is cut off by the international boundary. Essentially it consists of steps and a causeway rising up the hill to the sanctuary that is on the clifftop at the southern edge of the compound (625 metres above sea level, 525 metres above the Cambodian plain and120 metres above the northern end of the compound). It serves as a stylised symbol of Mount Meru, the home of the gods.
  • There are 5 gopuras on the approach to the sanctuary. The gopuras obstruct a visitors’ view of the succeeding portion of the temple till they pass through the gateway, rendering it impractical to see the whole complex from any one point.
  • Even though the tiled roof has now gone, the 5th gopura preserves signs of the red paint with which it was decorated once. The 4th gopura is a portrayal of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The 3rd gopura is the biggest and is also bordered by 2 halls. The sanctuary is reached through 2 successive courtyards.

Current history and ownership dispute

  • In recent times, Prasat Preah Vihear was rediscovered and turned into a dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.
  • The ruling French authorities in Cambodia and Siam constituted a joint commission in 1904 to establish their common border, which placed virtually whole Preah Vihear temple on Thailand's side. After survey work in 1907, French officers prepared a map to show the boundary which was used by the International Court of Justice in its ruling in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia.
  • Thai forces captured the temple after the departure of French troops from Cambodia in 1954. Cambodia protested and referred the case to International Court of Justice in 1959. In both countries the case became an explosive political issue. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken and warnings of use of force were expressed by both governments.
  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson represented Cambodia in The Hague, while Sir Frank Soskice, a former British attorney general was included in Thailand’s legal team.
  • The court noted that the Thai authorities had not raised objections in different international forums to the temple’s location during more than 5 decades after the map was drawn. The court also ruled that Thailand had accepted other parts of the border treaty. The court ruled 9 to 3 on 15 June 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, and by 7 to 5, that Thailand should return antiquities it had removed from the temple.
  • Thailand reacted indignantly. It boycotted the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization meetings which Thai officials said was in protest against a U.S. bias in favour of Cambodia. In Thailand mass demonstrations were held to protest against the ruling.
  • Cambodia took possession of the site in January 1963. Cambodia’s leader, Prince Sihanouk walked up the cliff. As a gesture of goodwill, he announced that all Thais would be allowed to visit the temple without visas, and Thailand could keep antiquities it may have taken away from the site.

Civil war

  • In Cambodia civil war started in 1970. The temple served as militarily defensible because of its high location. Lon Nol government’s soldiers held it for a long time after the plain below occupied by communist forces. During the war tourists were able to visit the temple from the Thai side.
  • Although communist forces seized Phnom Penh in April 1975, at Prasat Preah Vihear the Khmer National Armed Forces soldiers hold out after the fall of the Khmer Republic government. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by the Khmer Rouge before finally succeeding on May 22, 1975. The defenders crossed the border and surrendered to Thai authorities. Prasat Preah Vihear was the last place to fall to the Khmer Rouge.
  • To overthrow the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Khmer Rouge troops fled to border areas. The Vietnamese attacked Khmer Rouge fighters inside the temple, but did not damage it. After the Vietnamese invasion, a large number of Cambodians took refuse in Thailand. Access to Prasat Preah Vihear was hampered through the 1980s and well into the 1990s due guerrilla war in Cambodia. In 1992, the temple was opened to the public, but was re-occupied by Khmer Rouge troops in 1993. In December 1998, Khmer Rouge soldiers surrendered to the Phnom Penh government.
  • At the end of 1998, the temple again opened to visitors from the Thai side. The construction of an access road up to the cliff was completed by Cambodia in 2003.

Expulsion of Cambodian refugees

  • The government of Thailand led by General Kriangsak Chomanan informed foreign embassies about its plan to expel a lot of Cambodian refugees. He allowed the governments of Australia, France and the United States to pick 1,200 refugees to migrate in their countries. Refugee Coordinator of the American Embassy, Lionel Rosenblatt, a French businesswoman and representatives of the French and Australian selected 1,200 refugees and sent them to Bangkok. About 42,000 remaining Cambodian refugees were sent to Prasat Preah Vihear.

Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site

  • In spite of several protests from Thailand, the World Heritage Committee decided on July 8, 2008 to include Prasat Preah Vihear in addition to 26 other sites, to the World Heritage Site list.
  • Thailand organised a World Heritage application conference in Srisaket in 1994 in which native cultural civilisations were discussed in addition to monuments like Preah Vihear which fuel more patriotic feelings. The use of passages in the Dongrak Mountains reportedly joined together rituals and cultural groups divided by a militarized current border line. The Kui or Suay, a Mon-Khmer cultural minority, used the passages to hunt and catch elephants in the jungles under the Dongrak cliff edge. Kui in Cambodia were experienced ironsmiths using metal from Phnom Dek.
  • Although hunting of elephants in the surrounding area of Preah Vihear was discussed in the International Court of Justice proceedings, the World Heritage plans ignored species protection and local culture to boost national incomes from tourism.