Preah Vihear Temple – World Heritage Site

Located atop a 525 metre cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains, in the Preah Vihear Province, Prasat Preah Vihear is an ancient Hindu temple built during the period of the Khmer Empire. Following many years of contention between Cambodia and Thailand over ownership, the International Court of Justice ruled, in the Hague, that the temple is in fact in Cambodia, but only the temple, while the most direct access route is from Thailand.

Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple, in the Dângrêk Mountains

The temple was built on top of Pey Tadi, a steep cliff in the Dângrêk Mountain Range, which are the natural border between Cambodia and Thailand.

Thai authorities have the temple listed as being in Bhumsrol Village of Bueng Malu sub-district (now merged with Sao Thong Chai sub-district), in Kantharalak District of the Sisaket Province of eastern Thailand.

Cambodian authorities list the temple as being in Svay Chrum Village, Kan Tout Commune, in Choam Khsant District of Preah Vihear Province in northern Cambodia. the temple is 140km away from Angkor Wat.

Lintel showing Shiva fighting Arjuna, gopura three

Lintel showing Shiva fighting Arjuna, Gopura 3

The temple complex runs 800 m (2,600 ft) along a north-south axis facing the plains to the north, from which it is now cut off by the international border. It 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 (120 m or 390 ft above the northern end of the complex, 525 m or 1,722 ft above the Cambodian plain and 625 m or 2,051 ft 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 they pass 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 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.

Gopura 5, of Preah Vihear Temple

Gate of Gopura 5, of Preah Vihear Temple

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, since the map implied Cambodian ownership of disputed land next to the temple.

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, leaving only the temple and its immediate environs.

However, Thailand’s political opposition launched an attack on this revised plan, claiming the inclusion of Preah Vihear could nevertheless “consume” the overlapping disputed area near the temple. In response to the political pressure at home, the Thai government withdrew its formal support for the listing of Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage site.