In 2008 Preah Vihear was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple Preah Vihear in Preah Vihear province is famous for the beauty of its architecture and its setting. The 800 m long complex is spectacularly located atop the 525m high cliff Pey Tadi, 625m above sea level. It is situated in the Dangrek mountain range, which is a natural border between northern Cambodia and north-eastern Thailand.
Preah Vihear is notoriously fought over between the two neigboring states. The International Court of Justice in Den Haag ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia. Thailand claims that the border agreement with French Indochina defined the watershed in the Dangrek mountains as the border and the temple is on the Thai side of the watershed. The International Court of Justice argued that Thailand failed to protest in time, when French maps showed the temple area included in French Indochina's territory.
Preah Vihear means "sacred shrine". "Preah" is derived from the ancient Khmer term "vrah" for "holy", with the connotation "of Indian origin". "Vihear" is derived from the Sanskrit word "vihara" for monastery, originally meaning "abode". The Thai name of the temple is Khao Phra Viharn. "Khao" means hill.
Preah Vihear is a linear temple from the Angkorian era. Most vast Angkorian temples are arranged in concentric enclosures, with the main sanctuary in the centre. But there are important exceptions. Prasat Thom in Koh Ker and, to some degree, Banteay Srei are very long rectangular complexes arranged along an axis, with one court after another (instead of inside one another) and with the main sanctuary at the end of a procession alley. Preah Vihear is the most significant example of such a linear layout. The other two linear temples mentioned above are flat temples. Preah Vihear, due to natural conditions of the sloping mountain plateau, is built on different levels, with the main sanctuary at the highest point. Preah Vihear's five Gopuram buildings on each level are of the size of whole temples. This is why the visitor has the impression to cross a series of temples on that mountain. Due to the natural setting, there is another exception from the rule: Whereas almost all other Khmer temples are arranged along an east-west axis, Preah Vihear is facing north.
Preah Vihear was a prestigious provincial sanctuary. Like Preah Khan in Preah Vihear province and Phimai in Thailand, it played an important role throughout many centuries of the Angkorian empire, because many different kings contributed to Preah Vihear's enlargement or embellishment, which is quite unusual for Angkorian monuments.
The temple was dedicated to Shiva in his manifestations as local mountain gods Shikhareshvara and Bhadreshvara. Presumably, there was a secluded mountain hermitage in the beginning on top of the cliff. Holy men at extraordinary places in South and Southeast Asia often attracted pilgrims, which could have been the reason why also kings payed attention to this remote sanctuary. Parmentier thinks, there may have been a first royal temple on this mountain already in the late 9th century, when Yashovarman I founded Angkor. He assumes, it was built of perishable material only. Later on, the wooden construction was replaced by stone monuments, erected by many different Khmer kings, as already mentioned.
Usually most of Preah Vihear's structures that can be visited today are ascribed to King Suryavarman I, who erected many provincial temples, some of them on natural hills, such as Phnom Ek near Battambang and Phnom Chisor in the south of Cambodia. A detailed inscription found at Preah Vihear mentions Suryavarman I and his Brahmin priest Divakarapandita, who is reported to have donated a golden statue of Nataraja, the dancing Shiva.
Nonetheless, some surviving parts of Preah Vihear are from earlier periods. The oldest stone construction is the (exterior) fifth Gopuram from the Koh Ker period in the first half of the 10th century. Elements influenced by the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century can be seen, too. After Suryavarman I (1006-1050) contributed the core structure of the temple, Angkor Wat founder Suryavarman II restored and enlarged it in the 12th century.
The outer Gopuram (counted fifth, as mentioned above) in the Koh Ker style is located at the end of an 8 m wide and altogether 78 m long stairway of 162 steps. It is leading to the plateau from the north, divided into different flights. There is an impressive 32 m long Naga balustrade in front of the upper flight of steps leading to the Gopuram. The monolithic Naga-head has seven hoods, representing an early example of this typical Khmer railing sculpture. The other landings of the stairway are flanked by Lion guardians.
The old Gopuram building is partly in ruins, it is a pavilion of pillars, beams, joists and frontons on a cross-shaped basis. All Gopurams of Preah Vihear are cruciform edifices. They are of immense size, and beautiful eye-catchers. Their roofs were of tiles. They have remarkable stone carvings on lintels and pediments.
An inclined alley, flanked by 65 milestones on each side, leads to the next Gopuram (counted fourth). It is an even longer structure, at right angles with the access avenue. It is from the era of Suryavarman I or slightly earlier. The outer pediment facing south depicts the "Churning of the Milk Ocean". Though Preah Vihear is a Shiva sanctuary, most of its lintel and pediment carvings show Vishnuite motifs, many depict scenes from the Mahabharata in particular. A characteristic feature of Preah Vihear's reliefs is the depiction of a tree surmounting the figures.
The next section of the procession alley has 35 milestones on each side. The third Gopuram is the largest single continuous building of Preah Vihear, it is flanked by two adjoining halls called palaces. The very prestigious three-wing complex of this Gopuram is believed to have been the king's residence when he came to pay homage to Shiva in the mountains. The two wings could have been shelters for his entourage or for ordinary pilgrims coming alone. Many inscriptions dated 1026 have been found in the palace rooms.
The fourth Gopuram has door inscriptions from the later years of King Suryavarman I's reign. The fourth gate leads into the first of two successive courtyards, they form Preah Vihear's largest ensemble, with the sanctum in the centre of the courtyard in the rear. It is close to the 80 m escarpment at the southern end of the mountain plateau. The central sanctum enshrined the Lingam Bhadreshvara. The principal court is flanked by two separate complexes with own courtyards.