The Temple of Preah Vihear is Cambodia’s Little Known Treasure
When one talks about Cambodia, it is impossible not to mention its most popular destination: Angkor Wat. After all, the Angkor Wat, a Hindu and Buddhist temple, is considered as the main centerpiece of the country—the main temple of the Angkor is even featured in the national flag of the country. If the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the United States of America, then the Angkor Wat symbolizes Cambodia to foreigners—and perhaps even to the locals. And this analogy is not without proof: the famed temple attracts more than four million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited single attraction in Asia. In comparison, the Statue of Liberty attracts more or less the same number each year.
But Cambodia is not just Angkor Wat; a country as rich as Cambodia obviously has a lot to offer. Although its history is somewhat infamous, due in part to the rule of the Khmer Rouge that killed so many people in the country, Cambodia offers a number of world-renowned destinations and attractions. These include the Kampong Som (where the famous white sand beaches of the country are locatwed), and the Battambang (Cambodia’ second largest city, which displays the country’s colonial buildings and structures), among others. But as with the Angkor Wat, some of the most arresting destinations in Cambodia are those that are religious or spiritual in origin. After all, the area of Angkor is filled with several old temples, each of them displaying distinct features and characteristics. Many say that seeing one temple in Cambodia would mean that you’ve seen them all. But this is not the case. The religious history of Cambodia itself is deep, owing for a very interesting trip.
One of the lesser known but equally stunning attractions in this beautiful Asian country is the Temple of Preah Vihear. This Hindu temple was built during the 11th century, although primary construction began as early as the 9th century, predating the construction of the Angkor Wat. That it was built before the Angkor Wat makes it a more interesting temple. Although not as structurally known, the Temple of Preah Vihear also demonstrates the range of Cambodian architecture and art. There are also some parts of the Preah Vihear temple that are similar to the Angkor Wat, since the famed temple got its inspiration from many existing temples at that time.
Even although it was only recently named part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, there is no doubt that the Temple of Preah Vihear is as important as any other temple or attraction in the country. Also, the location of the temple makes it one of the most picturesque temples in Cambodia, its natural surroundings making for a great backdrop. The serene location—far from the rustle and bustle of the center of the Khmer Empire—fits the religious function of the Temple of Preah Vihear. This is because the Angkor Wat was located at the center of the seat of power—Angkor Wat itself was used as the base of the whole empire. Remember that at this time, religion and government were always one.
Also, the Temple of Preah Vihear is unusual primarily because of its location since while most temples in the country are within the rectangular plan of the Khmer Empire, towards the east, the Temple of Preah Vihear is located near the border of Thailand. It sits atop the cliff of the Dangrek Mountains, and is 280 km away from Angkot Wat. The temple is located in an isolated location, since most of the major temples in the country are near each other, or within the Angkor area. It is also far from Phnom Penh, making it inaccessible to most people during the Khmer Empire, when it was built. Of course, while it is not exactly within the heart of the country, the Khmer Empire still considered it as key location in Cambodia’s spiritual life. However, it is its location that made it one of the most well preserved temples in the country, an outstanding feat considering that it is older than the older temples in Angkor.
Dedicated to Shiva, the supreme god of the Hindu, it resembles an earlier Hindu temple, the Banteay Srei, which is considered as one of the jewels of Khmer art. Like the Angkor Wat, however, the Temple of Preah Vihear became a Buddhist temple, particularly during the decline of the Khmer Empire. This was because at one point, the head of the Khmer Empire was Buddhist. Therefore, he dedicated his people to follow the same religion as well. Again, just like the Angkor Wat, this shift became evident in the Temple of Preah Vihear. Almost Hinduism and Buddhism are somewhat similar, many aspects of the two religions are different, hence the additional in decorations so the temple would be more in tune with Buddhism.
The Temple of Preah Vihear is considered as one of the beautiful existing temples in Cambodia because of its complex architectural features. The detail in the decorations are superb and is still evident until today, while the plan of the complex is considered as “pure,” without the overly complicated decorations that can be found in some of the temples of Angkor. Note that many materials regarding the Temple of Preah Vihear do not elaborately describe its architectural features. However, to say that the temple is simplistic is also inaccurate. The UNESCO citation, for one, considers it to be a masterpiece. In fact, the temple bears several distinct Cambodian architectural styles.
Unfortunately, the location of the Preah Vihear temple, often considered as it main asset, caused conflict for Thailand and Cambodia for many years. This is because this previous structure is located very near the Thai border. Nonetheless, with the conflict over the ownership of the temple resolved (Thailand fought over ownership, although the temple was recently named part of Cambodia), people should see why Temple of Preah Vihear is considered as pure and picturesque. Seeing Temple of Preah Vihear offers a clearer picture of what Cambodia can offer, a little known treasure that gives an unadulterated perspective of the country.