Last Update: April 2020
To boldly go….in Cambodia
We don’t always realize, but it’s only since the 90’s of the previous Century that travelers are really starting to explore Cambodia. Before that, the country was off limits, because of an oppressive regime and several (civil) wars. Nowadays, Cambodia is definitely on the tourist radar with tourist magnets Angkor Wat and Sihanoukville in the front lines.
However, there are still tons of unbeaten trails and destinations that are yet undiscovered by the masses. Ancient Khmer temple ruins that easily rival the splendor of Angkor, as well as laidback riverside towns along the Mekong that even feature fresh water dolphins. Many national nature parks with elephants and other rare wildlife, a countryside offering a wonderful peek into rural village life and tropical Islands including the white sand beaches with turquoise waters.
Preah Vihear is situated in the Northwest of Cambodia near the Thai border. The magnificent Prasat (temple) is listed as an Unesco world heritage site and predates Angkor Wat by a century. Construction started in the 9th century as a homage to Hindu God Shiva. Later on this was converted to Buddhism with Hinduism on the decline in the region.
The temple’s architecture and historical significance certainly justify a visit. As does the location on top of the 600 meter high ‘Poy Tadi cliff’ in the Dangrek mountains. The views over the Northwestern Cambodian plains are nothing less than spectacular. This temple site is indeed what we would call a ‘must-see’, but please be careful.
As recent as 2011 there was an exchange of heavy gunfire between Thai and Cambodian troops, because of a long running dispute concerning lands around the temple. Up to today, heavily armed paramilitary forces continue to face each other in a deadlock stand off.
However, since 2011 the area is relatively quiet and in 2013 the International Court of Justice assigned Cambodia with the rightful ownership of the area. Thousands of visitors have safely visited the temple without any incident since then. So thousands, not millions like at Angkor Wat and that’s exactly why I enjoyed visiting this temple so much.
Admission to the temple site is $10 and in line with security measures you will have to show your passport at the ticketing center.
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Reasons (not) to visit Preah Vihaer
Reasons to visit
Off the beaten path;
The temple’s historical significance equals Angkor Wat, but without the crowds;
Spectacular views over Cambodia as a bonus;
Doable as a day trip from Siem Reap;
Reasons not to visit
Although there isn’t a real security risk, the military display can be intimidating;
Other attractions are limited;
Tourist infrastructure is not really developed;
Getting there is a bit of a hassle.
How to get to Preah Vihear
To get to the temple site can be rather complicated. Coming from Siem Reap or from direction Phnom Penh the best way is to get to Tbeng Meanchey (Preah Vihear city) first. Buses for Tbeng Meanchey from Siem Reap will take about 3h-4h, while buses from Phnom Penh take a good 7h-8h.
Tbeng Meanchey is still a good +100 km from the temple. From there you can go by taxi to the village of Sra’Aem and stay overnight to have an early morning start the next day. Alternatively, you can stay the night in Tbeng Meanchey and continue straight to the temple the next day.
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From Sra’Aem, arrange a taxi or tuk-tuk to take you to the temple entrance. From there, special pick-up trucks will bring you to the top of the temple site for $25 per/6pax. If you’re party is less than 6pax, there are always opportunities to share with other travelers. Motor taxi’s do the same stretch for $5 p/pax. Or you can climb the (free) stairs to the top if you are ready to take on the 2,442 step staircase.
A day trip visit from Siem Reap is doable if you rent a car, either self-drive or with a driver. Leave very early, drive 4.5 hours and arrive before the midday heat. The last bit to the top is on a (spectacularly) steep, narrow and winding road. Outsiders are prohibited to drive there, so you will have to make use of either the motor taxi’s, pick-up trucks or the staircase to get to the top.
Things to do see/do in Preah Vihear
Eco Global museum
The temple complex is interesting enough to keep you busy for at least a half day, more if you have a special interest in history, archeology or architecture. In any case, you should definitely combine the temple with a visit to the The Eco Global museum.
10 years after the start of construction the first ethnographic museum opened its doors in March 2018. No less than 11 buildings on a 177-hectare plot of land present artifacts from the nearby temple and other heritage sites.
Furthermore, the museum which is supported by Unesco, features exhibitions on local culture, as well as local flora and fauna. It’s located approximately 6 km from Sra’Aem on route 62 towards the Preah Vihear temple.
Veal Krous Vulture feeding station
If you come in from Siem Reap make sure to stop by the Sam Vaesna Center (SVC) before you leave for Preah Vihear. The SVC can arrange tours to the Veal Krous Vulture Restaurant, a feeding station for endangered vultures. The NGO ‘Wildlife Conservation Society’ employs locals from the small village to regularly put out a cow’s carcass in the fields as a way to feed the vultures.
Tours include staying overnight on a campsite (breakfast and dinner included) and use of bird hides at dawn to watch the rare white-rumped, slender-billed and red-headed vultures. A very different, but interesting excursion.
Kulen Prum Tep wildlife sanctuary
Birdwatchers can also head over to the tiny village of Tmatboey in the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary. This community based tourist project has the villagers involved with conservation of the area and protection of wildlife. Former poachers and illegal loggers have now become environmental protectors.
Among the bird species spotted here are the Giant and white-shouldered Ibis, Indian spotted Eagle, white rumped pygmy Falcon, collared Falconet, rufous winged Buzzard, Indochinese Bushlark, brown Prinia, neglected Nuthatch and white browed Fantail.
Wow, such cool bird names. I have to admit, I don’t know any of these birds, but I’m sure that serious bird watchers are rejoicing with excitement right now. Bookings can be made through the Sam Vaesna Center in Siem Reap.
No, no, no, don’t you dare skip this chapter, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation.
Remember, you are million miles away from any professional healthcare, just saying. Any serious injuries or ailments will almost certainly mean costly medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore to be paid upfront without proper insurance.
Where to stay in Preah Vihear
Most of the (foreign) visitors choose to visit the temple on a (long) day trip from Siem Reap. On the other hand an overnight stay in Sra’Aem or Preah Vihear city to get an early start can be convenient. In Sra’Aem there are quite a few guesthouses for such a small village. Mind you, there’s even a Boutique Hotel although it’s way overpriced. Overall accommodation standards are not very high, but there are one or two decent options at least. In Preah Vihaer city the accommodation standards are slightly better, but only slightly.
Heng Sokchamroeun Guesthouse
Budget = from $10 to $30
One of the better options in Sra’Aem. Khmer guesthouse with clean rooms. The staff doesn’t speak English, but puts great effort into understanding and helping you. They can also help to arrange your trip to the temple. We totally enjoyed our stay here.
Tbeng Meanchey (Preah Vihaer City)
Budget = from $10 to $30
Simple and basic guesthouse. Owner is friendly and helpful. Good for a stopover night on your way to/from the Preah Vihear temple. Tourdesk, bicycles for rent, sun terrace and a free shuttle service to the city center.
Green Palace Hotel
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Relative comfort in one of the biggest hotels of Preah Vihear City (80 rooms). Close to the city center, although there is never much going on. Breakfast included.
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Where to eat in Preah Vihear
Don’t come to Sra’Aem or Preah Vihear city for the food is all I’m saying. Try to make the best of it with my restaurant recommendations below.
Oeng Kong Huy Restaurant has a good reputation since all recommendations from the Sra’Aem locals pointed in this direction. They were supposed to offer good Khmer food and a few Western dishes to please the tourist. We were not completely convinced after eating there. Anyway, it sure was better than two other places we tried, although they were not hard to beat.
Khmer meals go for $2-$5 and Western dishes start at $5. The restaurant is located in town on road 2625 about 300 meters West of the Depottela gasstation.
Preah Vihear City
Greenhouse Restaurant In Preah Vihear City most restaurants are concentrated in and around the main street between the Vishnu roundabout to the Kompong Pranek market. Simple Khmer food for a decent price $2-$3. English menu, English speaking owners and if you like a $1.50 Asian breakfast, this is the place to go.
Moon Restaurant. At the Northwest edge of town. Good quality Khmer and Asian dishes. The ambiance is a tad more cozy than the usual Khmer restaurant. Maybe that explains the wee overpricing. Still, one of the best eating options around. Located at Mlou Prey street, across from the post office.