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Photographer Showcases Legendary Khmer Temple Preah Vihear

Guarded by giant seven-headed serpent gods high on a mountain, on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, is an ancient sacred site that’s often been at the center of conflict.   Jon Ortner, photographer and author of the book “Angkor, Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire,” shares his first encounters and impressions of the thousand-year-old sanctuary Preah Vihear in...

Guarded by giant seven-headed serpent gods high on a mountain, on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, is an ancient sacred site that’s often been at the center of conflict.


Jon Ortner, photographer and author of the book “Angkor, Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire,” shares his first encounters and impressions of the thousand-year-old sanctuary Preah Vihear in this essay of words and photos composed especially for NatGeo News Watch.



Photo of Preah Vihear by Jon Ortner

By Jon Ortner

Special Contributor to NatGeo News Watch

“Sir, you cannot go!” My heart sank as the harsh voice of a Thailand border patrol officer rang out, “If you go…boom, boom, boom.”

I looked through the military binoculars the guard handed me. Across the valley, surrounded by thick piles of sand bags, was a bunker. In it was a group of young soldiers, members of the feared Khmer Rouge.

Casually smoking cigarettes, they were aiming a machine gun directly at us.

No other explanation necessary.

Our disappointment, hard to accept, was tempered by the stern and rugged faces of the men behind the machine gun. We needed no reminder that this place had a history of serious conflict.


My wife Martha and I were traveling along the rugged Dangrek Mountains where Thailand and Cambodia share a much-disputed border–and which is also home to some of the most magnificent temples in Asia.

It was March 1997, and we were approaching our objective, the reason we had traveled so far.

Our driver had stopped the car and motioned for us to start walking. Strangely alone, we walked down the empty road for 20 minutes.

After about a mile we approached what appeared to be a military border post. Partially dug into the ground, it was protected by walls of sand bags.

Across a forested valley we could see a mountain. A long flat plateau ran up its flank leading to the summit.

Scattered along the plateau, glinting in the harsh afternoon sun, were ancient ruins. Through the forest we could discern fragments of massive walls, terraces and piles of huge stones scattered about.

We were getting our first tantalizing glimpse of the legendary temple of Preah Vihear.


Photo of Preah Vihear by Jon Ortner

Translated as the “holy monastery,” Preah Vihear is one of the great architectural treasures of the world. Some experts consider it the most spectacularly situated of all the Khmer monuments.  

We had been drawn there by the faintest of rumors that had been floating around Bangkok: We had heard that it might be possible to visit Preah Vihear, a remote shrine famous for its fine carvings.

I had long dreamt of an opportunity to explore and photograph Preah Vihear. I had heard it described as a premier repository of Hindu art and architecture and a masterpiece of the Khmer civilization.  

But as I took a last glance at Preah Vihear in the distance, the Thai officer reminded me that visiting this unique and beautiful place was forbidden, and that no attempt should be made to cross the border a few hundred yards away.


A monk stands beside the collapsed tower (prang) of the innermost sanctuary. The courtyard is enclosed by galleries.

Photo by Jon Ortner

Tragically, Preah Vihear had been taken over by the last desperate vestiges of the Khmer Rouge. Their notorious leader, Pol Pot, accused of murdering perhaps as many as two million of his countrymen, was hiding nearby in the small village of Anlong Veng. It was not until his death in April of 1998 and the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge forces that the area became safe to visit once again.


Attributed to the reign of Yasovarman I, who ruled from AD 889-910, the temple was maintained and embellished over a 300-year period by as many as seven kings.

Lord of the Summit

Constructed as a monastic sanctuary, it was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva in his manifestation as the Shikhareshvara, Lord of the Summit.

Preah Vihear sits atop a 1,700-foot cliff named Pey Ta Di, The promontory on which it is built is part of a chain of heavily forested peaks that form the border of Thailand and Cambodia. And it is this geography that has put Preah Vihear at the center of conflict. 

Although Preah Vihear was originally placed clearly within Cambodia on the first border maps drawn up in the early 1900s, its precarious location on the top of a peak has traditionally made access easier from the Thai side.


The pediment on the gopura of the second level illustrates the Hindu myth of creation, “The Churning of the Sea of Milk.”

Photo by Jon Ortner

Thailand has had a long history of disagreement with the placement of the border with Cambodia, which has led to repeated armed clashes between the two nations. The matter was brought to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and in July 1962 Cambodia was awarded official ownership of the temple and its precincts.

Civil war broke out in Cambodia in 1970 and by May of 1977 Preah Vihear was fully controlled by the Khmer Rouge.

Invasion by Vietnam 

From 1979 through 1989 Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia, trying to rescue the country from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

The continuation of guerilla warfare throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and the planting of land mines in the area surrounding Preah Vihear, kept it completely off limits.

During those decades no one knew if warfare or theft had severely damaged or even destroyed the delicate and irreplaceable art and architecture of the shrine.

A stable government was seated in Phnom Penh by September 1998, and by 2000 Preah Vihear was again open for visits from the Thai side.


The gopura, or entrance pavilion, of the first level is ornamented with an unusual diamond-shaped decoration at the top of the gable.”

Photo by Jon Ortner

In November 2000, finding ourselves once more based in Bangkok, Martha agreed to try to visit Preah Vihear again. We flew from Bangkok to Ubon, then drove toward the border.

After staying overnight in the town of Kantharalak, we approached the first Thai check post early the next morning.


My knees were weak with anticipation as we passed through in the direction of Cambodia. Again we were let off by the driver and told to start walking.

Soon we were crossing a footbridge across a small stream. We opened a wire gate and walked through. Chain-link fences heavily festooned with barbed wire extended from us. Our attention was immediately drawn to the ominous warning signs of land mines. They directed us, convincingly, not to step off the path.

Photo of Martha and Jon Ortner courtesy Jon Ortner

We crossed the actual border, then, walking uphill, we soon came to a small market. We were practically alone, didn’t see any other westerners, and had to ask where we could find the Cambodian border guard to stamp our passports.

After paying visa fees and getting our papers stamped, we were on our way.

Just ahead we could see the beginning of an ancient stone stairway, almost 30 feet wide at its base. Its massive steps were made of single slabs, some hewn directly out of the mountain.

At the top we emerged onto a platform, flanked by a pair of giant seven-headed Nagas, or snakes. Protectors of the underworld, granters of the monsoon rains, controllers of the sacred rivers, they guarded and sanctified the grounds we were about to enter.


Naga, a seven-headed serpent god, at the entrance of Preah Vihear.

Photo by Jon Ortner

When we reached the lowest pavilion we were greeted by a group of young Cambodian soldiers. Very friendly and eager to practice their English, they welcomed us to Cambodia and to Preah Vihear.

Our first impressions of the temple were overpowering. The carving was some of the most beautiful and detailed that we had ever seen, reminding us of the intricate work we had observed at the miniature pink temple of Banteay Srei, near Angkor.

temple-design-sidebar-3.jpgAt Preah Vihear the colors of the stone glowed richly in shades of tan, yellow, and russet. Faint traces of the original red paint were visible.

Lichens and mosses fed by the persistent cool and foggy conditions had grown over everything. A living patina covered the crumbled ruins of towers, walls and colossal foundations. It had the appearance of great age, and as we wondered through it we imagined we heard echoes of prayers and the chants of veneration accorded it over the centuries.

Spiritual Power

Slightly overgrown with tall grasses swaying in the breeze, Preah Vihear gave us a vision of a place that still resonates with an indescribable spiritual power. We felt as if we had entered a forgotten paradise whose sanctity somehow still infuses every stone, every leaf, and each moment in time.

For two glorious days we explored, discovered and were mesmerized by the complexity, the elegance, and the overpowering beauty of the location and the shrine itself.

Aside from a few Thai tourists, we were almost completely by ourselves. Only now do we realize what an extraordinary experience it truly was.

As we walked through immense hallways, giant stone colonnades arranged in rows spoke of the power and grandeur of these structures.

When we reached the main sanctuary situated on the summit of the mountain, what struck us so notably was that, unlike most of the other Khmer temples we had studied and photographed, this one was not enclosed by vegetation.

Surprisingly it was neither overgrown by dense jungle nor shaded by tall tropical trees. Instead, it was open to the sky, with expansive views in all directions.

Yet the temple faced south, and its purpose was not for the enjoyment of scenic views, but for introspection, meditation, and worship of the Hindu gods. The cliff upon which it sat was sheer and extended far out over the plain below. The main shrine was built at the very tip of this triangular promontory.

The courtyard enclosed by galleries contained a cruciform-shape mandapa or pavilion, and the ruins of a large prang or tower. It was likely that only the king and certain high priests would have been allowed in this inner sanctum.

Here we found a solitary monk, standing quietly, as delicate and shy as a forest deer.

Illuminated by the late afternoon light, his robe glowed deep orange, the color sacred to both Hindu and Buddhist ascetics. He kindly gave us blessings for having arrived at the end of our journey, the very heart of Preah Vihear.

Its inaccessible location on top of the peak gave the whole complex a feeling of mystical isolation. It was an earthly representation of the mythological abode of Shiva on celestial Mount Meru high in the Himalaya.

On the fourth level, square pillars once supported a tiled, wooden roof of a grand hall leading to the inner enclosure.

Photo by Jon Ortner

Unlike the gargantuan temple-cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, monuments that projected the unlimited power of the gods and  the kings, Preah Vihear was constructed as a monastic retreat, a hermitage and the distant outpost of the empire.

The levels of the temple symbolize the progressive stages of spiritual evolution through the higher states of consciousness, and ultimately to nirvana.

As we ascended the levels of the shrine, we were aware of the deeply held belief that the levels of the temple symbolize the progressive stages of spiritual evolution through the higher states of consciousness, and ultimately to nirvana or enlightenment.

Almost everywhere we looked, carved into the lintels and pediments above each doorway were scenes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the trinity of great Hindu gods.

Looking down upon us they were forever frozen in time, enacting their elaborate roles in the cosmic drama, the stories of creation, destruction, war and love, from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.


World Heritage Site

In 2008 Preah Vihear was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which should have brought additional protection to the site.

But by July 2008 there were renewed tensions as the boundary issue flared again. Sporadic fighting has continued, and in April 2009 Thai rockets fired across the border destroyed a Cambodian market. At least 11 soldiers have died in the last year during this series of skirmishes.   

Currently the temple is again off limits.

Perhaps some kind of international park with the shrine open from both Thailand and Cambodia may be the only way to resolve the stand-off.

We can only hope that soon the thousand-year-old Preah Vihear and its sacred mountain will once again be open to elevate the aspirations of mankind and to inspire with its beauty all who are privileged to see it.


Jon Ortner is the photographer and author of a number of photography books, including “Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire” (Abbeville Press, 2002).

The book contains more than 200 photographs (shot with 6x7cm medium-format cameras and Fuji Velvia 50 film), historic illustrations, maps, crhonology of sites, and floor plans. The photographs were created over a six-year period, starting in 1995 and ending in 2001, on numerous extended journeys to Cambodia and eastern Thailand.

Preah Vihear, Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean, and Beng Mealea–areas closed for decades because of the activities of the Khmer Rouge–are among the many seldom-visited locations of Khmer sacred sites included in the book.

Related NatGeo News Watch entry:

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Related National Geographic News story:

PHOTOS: Ancient Temple Torn by Border Fight in Asia

The Khmer Empire (National Geographic Magazine Interactive):

Watch 3-D animations of daily life in Angkor, track the rise and fall of the empire, and learn more about the temples of Angkor.

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