Some of the great attractions for visitors to South East Asia are the Angkor period Khmer monuments that can be found stretching from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the various monuments that can be found in North-East Thailand. The principal monuments in Isaan are Prasad Hin Phimai, Phanom Rung Hill and Khao Phra Vihaan.
Prasad Hin Phimai and Phanom Rung are probably the most well known of the three principal Khmer monuments in Isaan with the subject of this blog – Khao Phra Vihaan not as well known due to its relative isolation.
Khao Phra Vihaan can be found in the Isaan province of Sisaket and sits atop a ridge on the Dangrek mountain range, which forms part of the border with Thailand and Cambodia. Although geographically in Isaan, the monument itself is actually on Cambodian soil. This came about after a World Court decision in 1962 that recognised Cambodian sovereignty over the monument – a continuing sore point between Thailand and Cambodia.
In the past 30 years Khao Phra Vihaan became a backdrop to the catastrophes that have befallen Cambodia during those times. Occupied by the Khmer Rouge, fought over by Cambodian factions and seeded with land mines – the monument became more military outpost than a place of historical importance.
My wife Mali and I first attempted to visit Khao Phra Vihaan in 1997 and got to within 1000 metres of the monument. We were turned back by a small contingent of Thai soldiers who advised that Khmer Rouge Guerillas had reoccupied the monument. Between 1997 and 2003 we attempted to visit several times but luck of the draw had it that the monument was closed due to either strife in Cambodia or nitpicking between Thai and Cambodian bureaucrats.
In November 2003 we tried again, were successful and the following is what happened the day of our trip. After arriving in Sisaket province we drove to the top of the Dangrek range to the Thai/Cambodia border. The border abounded with uniformed officials and police who just shrugged us past the first checkpoint. The next gauntlet was purchasing two entrance tickets (one Thai and the other Cambodian)
We then moved through a small Cambodian market that sold everything from handicrafts to “Alain Delon” cigarettes. It even had a few gold stores with much of the merchandise sourced from pawn shops at Cambodian Casinos which of course are heavily frequented by Thai gamblers. At the market a young Cambodian girl latched herself to our party, refused to accept no and we ended up engaging her as a guide for the day.
Entering through a steel gate we commenced to ascend the first staircase, which was relatively difficult due to the sharp slope and the unevenness and disrepair of the stonework. The weather was cool with misty rain at times which only added to the atmosphere.
We soon came across some of the modern realities and history of Khao Phra Vihaan – landmines. There were roped off areas with skull and cross bone warning signs. Parties of Cambodian mine clearers were hard at work. As we slowly ascended the monument the atmosphere of the place increasingly captivated us. At the middle of the monument we found a small Buddhist Shrine which had a resident Mae Chee (Buddhist Nun). Mali stopped to light incense and offer prayers.
Throughout the tumble down nature of the Monuments impressive stone reliefs were further evidence of Khao Phra Vihaan’s experience with modern times – two concrete lined bomb shelters constructed by the Khmer Rouge and an old artillery piece. We also came across several amputee Cambodian vendors selling flower garlands and soft drinks.
When we reached the end of the complex we were presented with a magnificent view right across North-West Cambodia. Through the scuddy clouds you could see a still green terrain, dirt roads and the sheer drop down the mountain range into Cambodia.
It had been a magic visit. Not many visitors (though I believe it gets very crowded on weekends/Public holidays but I suppose what else is news) unlike Angkor Wat which we visited in 2004. But best of all it had atmosphere and for a few hours at least we held it in our embrace.
Of course Khao Phra Vihaan has now been discovered, but I hope that Thailand and Cambodia work out their differences and ensure that this very special place be preserved forever.