Strange Affair of Phra Viharn
This is a story that began in the Middle Ages and still hasn’t really ended yet.
Setting The Scene
During the Middle Ages, the Khymer Empire ruled over a huge chunk of South East Asia, and left a legacy of history which included the ruins of fabulous cities, monuments, and temples, spread over vast distances.
One of those was the mountain top temple complex of Phra Viharn (in Thai), or Prasert Preah Vihear (in Khymer), which is perched on the edge of a steep 525m high promontory overlooking the jungles of northern Cambodia, right on the Thai border.
The temple complex faces north across Thailand’s Sisaket province and the main, easiest access to it is from Thailand. Access from Cambodia was originally by scaling the steep cliff face, although a wooden stairway and very steep dirt track road (which can only be used by 4x4 vehicles) were built later by the Cambodian authorities.
For a long time Thailand controlled the temple and it’s surroundings as the border with Cambodia was considered to be the watershed which runs along the edge of the Dangrek Mountains, and the temple was apparently on the Thai side of that line.
This demarcation was agreed with Cambodia’s colonial masters, the French, in 1904.
The area around the temple became known as Khao Phra Viharn, meaning Phra Viharn mountain, and it retains that name to the present day.
Catalogue of Errors
In 1907 the border was mapped by the French on behalf of a joint commission and Thailand believed that it would comply with the 1904 agreement.
However, the French drew a line around the temple on their map, placing it in Cambodian territory; something the Thai side seemed to have missed.
In the 1930s, Thailand carried out a second survey of the border and discovered the mistake in the French map.
In November 1953, Cambodia was freed from it’s colonial oppressors and became an independent nation, and it wasn’t long before it laid claim to the temple based on the erroneous French map.
Thailand agreed to put the dispute before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), believing it’s long occupation of the temple, the watershed agreement with the French, and their realisation of the mapping error, would present a strong case.
However, in 1962 the court ruled that the temple, but only the temple, was on Cambodian territory, based on the French map of 1907. They did not make a ruling on the surrounding territory.
The decision, which basically said Thailand had waited too long to make a protest about the map, wasn’t unanimous. One dissenting judge wrote a scathing opinion of the verdict, stating that the map was obviously wrong.
The verdict opened a can of worms. The result came as a major shock to Thailand, and left much of the population angry at the loss of what was widely seen as an historic Thai icon.
As the Thai government had agreed to abide by what ever ruling the ICJ made, Thailand reluctantly handed over the temple to Cambodia, but retained control of the land around it, claiming it as sovereign Thai territory.
Cambodia also claimed the area around the temple. These conflicting claims, and anger amongst people on both sides, simmered for a good while and seriously harmed bilateral relations.
The temple was occupied in 1993 by renegade elements of the Khymer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia swept them from power in Phnom Penh. They melted into the jungle when Cambodian regulars finally returned to the mountain a few years later.
As there was no demarcated border on the promontory, and both sides claimed the surrounding land, clashes between troops on each side were inevitable. There was also the added problem of unmarked mine fields in the area, some planted by the Khymer Rouge.
Things got so bad that at one point the two countries cut off diplomatic relations, and the Thai Embassy in Phnom Pehn was set ablaze.
Rock bottom was reached in 2008 as an almost full scale war broke out which spread along the mutual border and lasted sporadically for several years. Both sides used artillery and tanks, and both sides were forced to evacuate civilians from the area
Many soldiers from both countries died in the fighting, while many more were wounded. Mines accounted for a large number of casualties and ceasefires were routinely broken.
Sadly a few civilians were also killed and injured in this conflict which achieved virtually nothing for either side.
Fighting eventually died down, but a different sort of disappointment was waiting around the corner for Thailand.
In November 2013 the ICJ also ruled that the land to the east and west of the temple belonged to Cambodia, and ordered all Thai personnel in those areas to leave, which they did.
However, they did not rule on the land to the north. Phra Viharn faces north towards the Thai province of Sisaket, and has it’s back to Cambodia.
Even though Cambodia built a very steep road and stairway up the cliff at the back, the easiest and most practical way to enter is at the front from Thailand.
Things Could Have Been Different
At one time in the late 19th Century, northern Cambodia was an integral part of Thailand, including Siem Reap where the great temples of Angkor Wat are.
The French forced a very unequal land-swop on Thailand, resulting in the border moving north to the Dangrek Mountain range. If that had never happened, the loss of life over Phra Viharn would never of happened too.
The Thais still feel the sting of losing Phra Viharn, and one place where you can see this clearly is at Ancient Siam in Samut Prakarn province.
They built a very realistic one third replica (including the mountain) of Phra Viharn, and proudly fly a Thai flag above it.
Fortunately for everyone, peace now reigns and relations between the two countries have improved. The UNESCO World Heritage status of the temple is secure, but it’s not clear at the time of writing whether the Cambodian military, which controls the temple, is allowing visits from the Thai side.
Be aware that there are still mines in the area despite a big removal program. However, safe areas are clearly marked so don’t wander off them.
Khao Phra Viharn National Park
On the Thai side is this majestic 130sq km national park which has some hidden treasures of it’s own.
From the Pha Mor I Daeng cliff you get a stunning vista across the Cambodian countryside laid out in front of you. You can also see Phra Viharn on the adjoining cliff. A pair of binoculars would be handy for getting a better view.
A safe but thrilling stairway leads down the side of the cliff where several 10th Century bas-relief carvings can be clearly seen. Views from the stairway are pretty good too.
Historical monuments from the Khymer period are scattered in the park, which is also home to a three tiered waterfall and an enormous cave.
Most of the park is natural forest with a considerable amount of wildlife.
Khao Phra Viharn (and access to Preah Vihear) is in Sisaket province about 548km east of Bangkok. From Sisaket city it’s about 101km south at the end of Highway 221.
NOTE that towards the end of Highway 221 there will be a number of police and army checkpoints. Officers have the right to search vehicles, and to turn you back if there are any problems on or near the border.
We hope this story of the Strange Affair of Phra Viharn has been an interesting read. There are many other aspects to it which we have not mentioned, so feel free to do some Googling if your interest has been raised.
Make sure you have travel insurance while visiting Thailand’s wonders. Medical care is world class but worldly expensive!