Khao Phra Wiharn
Khao Phra Wiharn might be the most impressive Khmer monument in Thailand. It’s an Angkor period temple complex dramatically perched on the edge of a 600m high cliff on the rim of the Khorat plateau. It might be, but it is is not. Despite its being virtually inaccessible from the Cambodian interior, the World Court decided in 1963 that the land on which it stands is part of Cambodia. This is still a cause of resentment in Thailand, and a matter of sensitivity with the Cambodians. When, about 3 years ago, a popular Thai chanteuse suggested that it was really Thai, there was rioting in Cambodia.
Since the temple is only accessible from Thailand (Cambodian soldiers and officials have to walk 6-8 hours to reach the site) visitors have to pay two sets of admission charges: 400 Baht to the Thai government, and a further 200 Baht to the Cambodian authorities. (Thais, of course, pay 1/20th of this amount.)
Anyway, after an early start, I arrived at the Thai/Cambodian border at 7:30, only to find that the border doesn’t open until 8 a.m.. That gave me time to walk to the edge of a cliff facing Khao Phra Wiharn, from which good gives of the temple are to be had … provided it’s not misty. All I could see was a thick bank of fog.
Just before 8 a.m. I returned to the border crosspoint. On the far side I could see a group of people waiting to cross into Thailand – stallholders for the row of souvenir stalls lining the border car park for the most part.
It’s about 1 km from the border to the start of the approach to the temple. First one passes through a small market selling cold drinks, bowls of noodles, souvenir trinkets and duty free cigarettes and alcohol. Young children play under the stalls, care free, oblivious to the grinding poverty. Slightly older children pester visitors (of whom there was only a handful) to buy postcards.
To get to the sanctuary one walks along a stepped, naga-lined path
which rises 120m up the hill. (The complex is, in total, 850m long.)
One passes through four smaller buildings (gopura) in various states of disrepair along the way
before reaching the central sanctuary, which sits in a walled compound and is surrounded by galleries.
There are some nice carvings, but many are missing: stolen, lying in the piles of stone blocks which litter the site, or buried in the ground. And parts of the monument have been reduced by time to a chaotic jumble of fallen stones. But then, not a single Baht of either admission fee goes towards the restoration of the temple.
The tumbledown ruins might be romantic – a contrast to the immaculate, but slightly sterile, gardens surrounding yesterday’s temples – but the warnings of unexploded mines are less so. Whilst the complex is majestic, I’m left with a feeling of a tourist opportunity missed.