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Sonntag, 24. April 2011

Part 8 - Preah Vihear No Man's Land

Stone Staircase and 1st Gopura

The ascend from the Thai side begins right after passing the Khmer sign “Preah Vihear Temple”, not before paying the entrance fee of 200 Baht. Thai visitors very often ask one common question: ”And what’s the price for Thais?” To their surprise the simple answer is: “same same.” Latest by then many Thais recognize grudgingly for the first time that they are on foreign turf from now on.

   The schematic drawing of Preah Vihear above helps the visitor to understand where his/her current location is. The following pictures are in order from right to left, or in geographical terms, from North to South. That can be quite a challenge for the shutterbugs, because the sun will be up front all the way uphill. There is no automatic camera which can cope with that kind of back light. Therefore it is recommended to arrive in the morning as early as possible. A meaningful stopover at this place usually lasts at least three to four hours. For the passionate fan of ancient Khmer ruins it can easily be one full day. 

The Preah Vihear Temple tour starts with a nice work out up the stone staircase. At peaceful times a lively place for tourists and hawkers. Kids sell postcards, others unidentified Khmer essences and lucky charms. They know the numbers in English and Thai perfectly. But there’s where the conversational skills with foreigners end.

Some kids have a break, count their income, sort their postcards and listen to music on a Chinese walkman.  

We are now on our way climbing up stone staircases, strolling along Avenues and passing through Gopuras, these monumental richly ornamented Gates leading into ancient buildings of various purposes and finally reaching the holy place, the gallery with a temple inside, where once Shiva was worshipped.

So far the visitor has no idea what to expect. The Gopuras and buildings are hidden below the horizon, hidden from the eyes of people on the stone staircase.   

How did this area look like almost 1200 years ago? There’s lots of room for speculation and fantasy. Assuming that the Shiva temple at the most Southern end by then was in the works, there was definitely no staircase yet. Maybe a forest aisle has been already cut through the djungle, maybe the Khmers by then climbed up the exhausting path from what is called Cambodia today. A new nation was just forming. In 802 AD King Jayavarnam II declared independence from the ancient Kingdom of Java. Water and land Chenlas were united under his rule, protected by the very same Hindu Gods, they learnt to know from the Java rulers.

It is fair to assume that the Dangrek escarpment at that time was the most northern domain under the influence of the charismatic Khmer leader King Jayavarnam. To make this known to the people living in these realms he started to build a place of worship for the mighty Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe at the end of a cosmic day, lasting 4,320,000,000 solar years, and the merciful facilitator for a new universe the following dawn. That’s all what there was in the 9th century AD. Jayavarnam’s successors continued building by extending Preah Vihear with palaces, libraries, halls for festivities and living quarters for the royals and their guests.           

Buddhism didn’t play any important role in the people’s mind by then, although Mon traders, coming from what is Thailand and Burma today, might have spread the word in the Khmer world already. Alcoves were decorated with Shiva statues and lintels (pediments) covered with stone carvings telling the many legends of Shiva's heavenly life.

The symbols of power, however, were the same in the whole geografie. The lion…

…and the Naga, nak in Thai. This formidable serpent, often depicted with seven heads, and the sovereign of the waters. Whoever has this creature on his side or is guarded or protected by it, is invincible. The Khmer Kings gathered gifted stonemasons around them and ordered them to chisel the symbols of their power. There is no Khmer temple without Lions and Nagas.             

Naga at the Nagaraj Courtyard shortly before Gopura 1

After passing these fearsome guards and almost reaching the top of the stone staircase a look back is allowed…

And finally the tip of the first Gopura rises over the horizon, proudly presenting the Cambodian flag. Blue – red – blue with three Ankor Wat Prangs in white.   

The first Gopura is in a miserable state. It suffered most during the many conflicts this place experienced. Grenades have smashed its walls and the stones were used for something else, bunkers and the like, its treasures stolen. 

Just one lintel above the entrance survived. Surprisingly, because they are considered very valuable among collectors all over the world. But there used to be four of them. One on each point of the compass.  

Not much to awe about at the first Gopura, except some feelings of sadness might sneak into someone’s mind, when glancing back at this mostly man made ruination.

Ahead lies the first avenue, an invitation for a pleasant walk after all these steps on the stone staircase…

Cautionary Remark: Whoever intends to visit Preah Vihear / Khao Pra Wihan should ask for advice beforehand. As of now, April 2011, the place is closed for visitors. Thai and Cambodian troops face each other in close proximity. Renewed battles could emerge at any time.   

stay tuned... 

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