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Getting to Preah Vihear



by Daniel Robinson

The best staging point for a visit to Preah Vihear Temple is Sra Em (also spelled Sa Em), 19 miles by road from the temple. Two years ago, it was a sleepy crossroads hamlet with a single grimy restaurant and one rundown guesthouse. These days, in the wake of the area’s military build-up, it feels like a Gold Rush boomtown, with haphazardly parked four-wheel-drives instead of tethered horses; karaoke bars sporting pink fluorescent lamps and coloured lights, instead of saloons; and the gleanings of Cambodia’s recently doubled defence budget, instead of gold nuggets glinting in the stream. Armed men in camouflage uniforms abound.

Preah Vihear Temple Sra Em’s accommodation options are rudimentary, to put it politely. My room’s star amenity was a cold-water spigot for filling the plastic bucket used both to bathe and to flush, and below the cheap plastic mirror and its public access comb, dust bunnies had formed around the hair of guests past. Each time I returned to my room, I found a dead cricket, a new one every day, hinting, perhaps, at the presence of some sinister insecticide.

Preah Vihear Temple is, obviously, not quite ready for mainstream tourism. During the two days I spent at the temple in October, I saw only four other Westerners, including an unhappy German couple whose day trip from Angkor Wat had been rather more trying than expected, and perhaps 50 or so Cambodian tourists. But intrepid travelers who brave the diabolical (though improving) roads, substandard accommodations and alarming government travel advisories are richly rewarded.

For 40 generations, Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims have trekked to this temple, seeking to ascend toward the holy and the transcendent. Today, the awe-inspiring nature of this Angkorian masterpiece, accentuated by the challenges of getting there, confer on every trip the aura of a pilgrimage.

GETTING THERE

With the visa-free crossing from Thailand closed for the foreseeable future, getting to Preah Vihear Temple requires battling Cambodia’s famously potholed roads, which are at their worst during the wet season (about June to October). Share-taxis, which have no set schedule and depart when full, link Sra Em with Siem Reap via the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng ($7.50 a person; 130 miles; three hours) and with the provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey ($6.50; 65 miles; two hours). The U.S. dollar is widely accepted. The taxis, usually “jacked-up” Toyota Camrys, carry six or seven passengers in addition to the driver, so if you want the front seat to yourself you’ll have to pay two fares. Ante up six times the single fare and you’ve got yourself a private taxi. From Sra Em, a ride to Kor Muy on the back of a motorbike will run about $3.75. Then the three-mile ride up the mountain to Preah Vihear Temple, on a concrete road whose gradients will impress even San Franciscans, is $5 by motorbike or $20 to $25 by four-wheel-drive pickup.

WHERE TO STAY

Glassless windows, sinkless bathrooms, towels with the absorptive capacity of a plastic bag, fans that run only when a generator is sputtering outside your window (usually from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and laissez-faire housekeeping are, alas, the norm in Sra Em’s guesthouses. I should have stayed at the 25-room Tuol Monysophon (855-99-620-757), which opened this year. A brown, barn-like structure topped with a red tile roof, it has basic rooms downstairs with private baths, mosquito nets and wood-plank floors, for $10; smaller upstairs rooms with shared facilities are $7.50. To get there from the triangular crossroads, head west (toward Anlong Veng) for 500 yards.

WHERE TO EAT

The Preah Vihear area’s best restaurant, hands down, is Sra Em’s Pkay Prek Restaurant (855-12-636-617), an unpretentious complex of open-air, fluorescent-lit pavilions with plenty of geckos. The specialty is phnom pleoung (hill of fire; $3.75), a meat and veggie feast you grill yourself at your table on an aluminum “volcano” suspended above glowing coals.