Spirit in the sky: exploring Cambodia’s mountain temple Prasat Preah Vihear

In Cambodia’s remote north, the ancient temple of Prasat Preah Vihear promises a deeply spiritual journey and space for quiet contemplation that you won’t find in Siem Reap

Pilgrims mount the steps towards the heights of Shiva’s shrine

Words by Colin Meyn Photography by Jack Malipan

When we get to the top of the mountain, to the base of this thousand-year-old temple built for the Hindu deity Shiva, everything changes. The air feels cooler. The sky looks bluer. The sun shines brighter. The spirits are stronger. Preah Vihear, which I have seen in a thousand photographs and experienced vicariously through other writers, is rising before us. And the three of us – me, my wife and Jack, Discover’s photographer – are virtually alone to explore it.

Restoration work remains in the planning stages, as far as anyone knows, and tourists arrive in a slow trickle, despite Preah Vihear becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. For those who expected the throngs at Angkor Wat to start making the four-hour pilgrimage here, the pace of change must feel glacial. But for tourists who do make it to this majestic mountaintop in Cambodia’s north, things couldn’t be better. What’s missing in frills – the hotels and restaurants in the area leave something to be desired – are more than made up for by the main attraction.

Rewind an hour and we are at the bottom of Phnom Preah Vihear, where men with pickup trucks populate the parking lot, chatting or staring into their smartphones. We buy our $25 tickets to the temple – admission for my wife, like all Cambodians, is just 1,000 riel (about $0.25) – and hire a driver for another $25 to take us up.

We cruise up a winding road for a while, before it becomes clear why the standard Toyota Camry taxi, so ubiquitous in Cambodia, isn’t cut out for this job. Just before the paved road gives way to something far rockier, the driver stops, shifts into four-wheel drive and begins the climb. The truck crawls upward as the road dips and dives and tilts around the boulders underneath. Those who make the trip on the back of a motorbike are advised to hold on tight.

The long corridors of the temple lie open to the elements

About halfway up, we pass a pagoda that, we later learn, sends a pair of monks up to the temple every day to offer blessings to tourists and look after the temple spirits. It’s hard to imagine a more sacred daily commute. A few minutes later, the bumpy road comes to an end on a rocky knoll and we get out of the truck. The piercing sun makes you squint. Jack forgot his hat. The driver offers his camouflage bucket hat, and we head toward the temple.

Preah Vihear reveals itself in stages, building anticipation as you pass through each gopura (stone gateways separating the five sections). The main entrance is up a flight of stairs – 162 of them to be exact. If you are going to properly worship Shiva, the ancient architects seem to suggest, you need to get on his level. At the top of the stairs is the first gopura, a solitary pavilion that offers a taste of the stunning stonework spread across the site, which stretches for 800m from front to back.

The intricate designs have lost little of their detail in the millennium since they were carved. In one relief, a king waves at his subjects as he rides a horse under a Bodhi tree. In another, Shiva is dancing to an eternal beat. Yet another shows the “Churning of the Sea of Milk”, a story from the Ramayana epic that is filled with warriors, serpents and Hindu icons. One reason the temple has been so well preserved, experts believe, is its remote location away from people, but perhaps the protective powers of Shiva are also at play. It’s the least he could do to reward the kings, engineers and labourers who brought this place into being.

After the first gopura is a long, stone walkway rising toward the next one. The only other people around are a couple of drink vendors seated off to the side. It feels like we have discovered something, even if it has been discovered a million times before. You can see the effects of time – stones have fallen off their pedestals, moss lines walls that were once covered with paint, and chunks of statues have been lost – but the sense of wonder is still very much alive.

Years of graffiti cut deep into the ancient stone of Preah Vihear. This sacred temple has been the site of fierce fighting throughout Cambodia’s chaotic history

When we get to the next gopura, Jack heads off on his own, caught in a giddy state common to artists at ancient monuments – and kids in a candy store. He reports back occasionally over the next couple of hours to tell us that his last photo would be perfect for the opening spread of this article. God help the person who had to choose just one.

A water cistern off to the left of the walkway is a reminder that this was a place where people worked as well as worshipped. We sit on the grass for a while and imagine the regal ceremonies once held here, when kings Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II made it the spiritual centre of their vast kingdom. In the years after the temple was completed, lines of dignitaries would have passed through here, shaded by white parasols on their way to watch Suryavarman offer golden gifts to his spiritual guru.

The temple has stayed at the heart of Cambodia’s history. When the French were running the country in the late 1800s, they would send explorers and academics on long treks to study the temple and plan for its restoration. During the civil war in the 1970s, soldiers for the Khmer Republic lived with their families on the mountaintop – and it would be the last place to fall to the Khmer Rouge after Pol Pot took power in 1975. Just a few years ago, it was a battlefield between Thai and Cambodian soldiers. The bullet marks can still be found on the walls.

Visitors catch their breath

But you don’t need to be a student of Cambodia’s history to be swept away. The architecture becomes increasingly ambitious as you ascend the temple, building up to a climax at the top. The third gopura is the largest, with stone halls and courtyards on either side. It opens onto a causeway lined with statues of the mythical serpent deities known as naga, which leads to the main sanctuary, where the monks spend their days. We kneel in front of two young monks – sons of soldiers stationed nearby – and they chant a Pali blessing in exchange for a couple of dollars. Jack crosses our path and takes a striking photograph of orange robes set against the grey-brown stones. Feeling blessed indeed, we walk out to the open area for the temple’s final act.

The gradual ascent ends with a cliff that drops 500 metres to the ground. Lush forests stretch out to the horizon. A cool breeze blows through. We sit on a couple of rocks and stare into the distance. No wonder people were willing to go to war for this place.

After a bit, we head back down and catch up with Jack, trading notes about what we just experienced. As we walk out of the entrance, we meet a family from Battambang visiting for the first time. The 71-year-old matriarch moves slowly, but says she is ready for the climb. “The temple gives you energy,” she says. “It makes you feel fresh.”

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