October - December 2006 Dateline

Visiting Heaven at Preah Vihear

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

Visiting ancient ruins has always left me longing for a time machine to give me just a glimpse of what a place looked like not only when it was complete, but when it was bustling with people. The ancient temple of Preah Vihear in Cambodia was one place that left me with such a desire, a desire to see the place in its full splendor filled with religious pilgrims who had taken a long, hard journey to be purified at the holy place. It was there that I learned that sometimes, by listening to the wind and calming the mind, you really can get a glimpse of what a place was like long ago.

Nothing as spectacular as Preah Vihear could have been built in a hurry. In fact, it took two and a half centuries. Unlike most Angkor-era temples that were only used for a short time, Preah Vihear was used for at least the years of its construction and probably longer. It began some time during the reign of King Yashovarman I who ruled Angkor (ancient Cambodia) from 889 to 910 AD. Its last royal patron was King Suryavarmin II who died in 1145. It was used by kings, monks, and any pilgrim that could afford the trip.

I had a week-long vacation from my job in northern Thailand one December, so I decided to head for this ancient Hindu temple that lies on the border with Thailand. With all the modern conveniences it was still a long journey, one that left me feeling like a pilgrim. I flew to Korat in Thailand’s Issan region, also known as the northeast, and from there I took a bus to Surin where I arrived at night. Surin is a nice town of about 45,000 people. It’s a good place to soak up Issan culture and a great base for seeing a number of other attractions.

The day after I arrived I started out bright and early for the temple known in Thai as Wat Prasat Pra Wiharn, or Preah Vihear in Cambodian. It sits just over the border in Cambodia and is said to be one of the greatest ruins outside the ancient city of Angkor.

The journey there started with a bus ride to the city of Si Saket. The deeper you get into the Issan the darker people’s skin becomes, and the longer they spend staring at the unusual sight of a Westerner. Si Saket is pretty far into Issan, so I really became the object of curiosity. I don’t know how many times I heard children say "Mae! Falang!" or "Look mommy, a Westerner!" I didn’t know where to go so I looked confused for a little while (something I was always good at) until someone came up and showed me to a bus to the town of Kantaralak.

The bus was crowded (with people and chickens) and rickety, but couldn’t go fast enough to be dangerous. After spending two hours feeling like a sardine, we reached Kantaralak. The scenery was pretty dull. Most of Issan is the Khorat Plateau, endless miles of flat rice fields. But every now and then a stunning temple rises out of the rice fields. The temple prayer halls of the Issan are very tall and narrow. I had to spend another hour on a crowded Tuk-Tuk (the Southeast Asian version of a vehicle known elsewhere as an auto rickshaw or cabin cycle) to get to Phum Saron, 12 kilometers from the Cambodian border.

I got off at the police station where the officers supplement their salaries by taking tourists to the temple. I was amazed to find that Thailand has a "Wat Prasat Pra Wiharn" historical park, despite the fact that it’s in Cambodia! Thailand grabbed the temple after World War II. The Cambodians filed a suit at the world court. The Thai insisted that a 1904 agreement gave Thailand the cliffs above the Dangrek mountains. The court gave the temple to Cambodia pointing out that when the French sent a copy of a proposed map with Preah Vihear in Cambodia to Bangkok, the Thai government there acknowledged receiving the document but never lodged a complaint about it. The Thais are still upset with the decision and insist on using the Thai name for it. I had to buy a ticket to enter the Wat Prasat Pra Wiharn historical park, a park that contains everything one would expect from a historical park, except for the historical attraction itself.

The Cambodians don’t recognize the ticket, so I had to buy a ticket to Preah Vihar (same temple, different name) on the Cambodian side. Amazingly, the Thai ticket is perforated, as if someone was going to tear it off and give me the stub, which of course no one ever did.

Preah Vihear was almost inaccessible from the rest of Cambodia when I visited. It stands majestically on a cliff overlooking the Cambodian lowlands. The Cambodians and Thais worked out a treaty whereby visitors leave their passports in Thailand and can enter that part of Cambodia without a visa if they don’t go anywhere else. The sheer cliffs and land mines around the temple help ensure that no one does. At the foot of the temple is a 200-foot set of stairs, which have fallen apart over the centuries. Huge but faded nagas (sea dragons) stare out from either side at the top and bottom, marking the passage from the mundane world to the sacred. Cambodian nagas are different from Thai nagas; the Cambodians make them look like a cobra, whereas Thai nagas look like boa constrictors. Had I been a priest or a pilgrim I would have felt safe from danger as I passed the nagas, who look both fierce and reassuring. In the old days, passing the nagas would have represented the end of the earthly pilgrimage and the start of a metaphorical pilgrimage through the five levels of heaven in Cambodian-Hindu cosmology. Carvings on a Temple Wall

Carvings on a Temple Wall

Different Hindu and Hindu-influenced societies picture different levels of heaven. In most of India, there are seven levels, in Burma there are nine, when Cambodia was Hindu there were five. Thus there are five levels to Preah Vihear, each representing a level of heaven.

Building on Third Level

Building on Third Level

After climbing the first set of stairs I came to the first level where a chapel has a cruciform shape and sits on a raised platform. Only the pillars and entrance facades are left; the walls and roof were made of wood and have long since rotted. What impressed me about Preah Vihear is that it is not only huge, but also very delicate. Exquisite carvings in stone both soften and enliven the temples, giving a sense of both awe and grace.

The archways above the temple entrances are the most elegant features, though only a few have survived centuries of wind and rain. The archways have two lines forming an upside-down "V." Where the two lines of the "V" meet a diamond is formed with a flower motif in the center. At both ends of the upside-down "V" the lines curve upward again, start moving back toward the "V," then curve inward to form a spiral. Leaves are carved over this making it look from a distance like the head of a cockatoo with its crest raised. The result is both enormity and elegance, a perfect metaphor for the Angkor empire, an empire that did everything on a megalithic scale, yet never failed to pay attention to even the minutest detail.

A causeway lined with 67 pillars made to resemble lotus buds leads to the next stairway. The second level has one wall and several pillars and arches, the other walls would have been wooden. Pilgrims came to Preah Vihear for many reasons. Those who came for forgiveness of sins most likely stopped at the third level where a large stone basin had a lion-head spout. The pilgrim, no doubt physically dirty from the long journey as well as spiritually "dirty" from his sin, would be bathed in holy water as priests chanted the sacred mantras, cleansing body and soul. Several scenes from Hindu epics are depicted over the spout. For reasons totally unknown to historians or archeologists, all of the Hindu scenes depicted at Preah Vihear are shown taking place under large trees, even those that took place in the ocean or the heavens.
A Hallway at Preah Vihear

A Hallway at Preah Vihear

Beneath many of the carvings is a creature called a "Kala." A Kala is little more than a head with a fierce expression, no lower jaw, and foliage coming out both sides of the mouth. It is very common in Angkor-era temples as well as pre-Angkor temples, but its exact meaning is a mystery. One suggestion is that it represents Shiva protecting the temple. Other theories state that it was part of the pre-Hindu Cambodian religion. All over the first three levels, carvings depict Vishnu killing a mad elephant, Krishna lifting a mountain, Shiva and his consort ride their sacred bull, battles betweens Gods and demons, and other Hindu scenes.

Yet another flight of crumbling stairs leads to the fourth level. It’s another cruciform building with several small buildings around it. These may have been used as libraries for religious texts. Battle scenes are fewer at this level, as the pilgrim has now entered the higher levels of Heaven. More common are serene images of the gods and Cambodian style angels, who were among the items created during the Cambodianized version of the Hindu story of the churning of the ocean of milk. Once the pilgrim had preformed whatever ceremony took place at the fourth level, it would be time to ascend to the highest level to the heavens, the fifth level of Preah Vihear located at the edge of the cliff. The pilgrim would have seen heaven in the form of a tower resembling a lotus bud. This was inside a courtyard surrounded by a long, square hall, and preceded by an antechamber. The central tower has long since collapsed and only a pile of brick remains.

Building on Fourth Level

Building on Fourth Level

Cambodian Lowlands Viewed from the Edge of the Cliff on the Fifth Level

Cambodian Lowlands Viewed from the Edge of the Cliff on the Fifth Level

For me, heaven was found in the spectacular view at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Cambodian lowlands, which seemed to go on forever. Standing there, feeling the warm wind blow up from the lowlands and watching the small, puffy clouds form shadows on the lush green plain below, I remembered the Hindu service I saw and heard in my town in Thailand a few weeks before. In the deep quiet broken only by the wind, I could almost hear the soft chanting of the priests and the congregation. In the old days, this would have come from the central tower. They would chant as they poured water over a statue of Shiva and his bull and conducted the ritual purification for the pilgrims. Closing my eyes it wasn’t hard to imagine the courtyard in the pitch black of an ancient night, the carvings on the walls springing to life in the torchlight.

My eyes closed with the wind being the only sound. I thought of the pilgrims lining up in the courtyard, watching the statues of Shiva and his bull illuminated by the pleasing light of butter lamps through the doorway as the sound of chanting soothed their minds. As the priest approached the pilgrim with his butter lamps and waved them in front of them, he or she, having traveled long and hard for this moment, must have felt as if the light came from Heaven itself. I thought of Christmas, as I so often did at times like this. I remembered the midnight church service my family would go to on Christmas Eve and the candles that were lit at midnight to the sound of the familiar, magical sound of "Silent Night." For someone who had never experienced it before, such a service would seem nice but lack the feeling it gave those in attendance, a feeling that no words could describe. I wondered how the pilgrim must have felt as he chanted the old familiar chants and songs, standing at a place as close to Heaven as he had ever been, both physically and spiritually. I wonder how he or she must have felt when purified by the light of his god, whose image flickered in the candlelight through the sacred doorway. Even if I could take a time machine back 1000 years and talk to someone who had experienced it, how could he possibly explain that?

Robert Wilson is an English teacher in northern Thailand. Pictures of his travels can be seen at photos.yahoo.com/robert_92122.

Other stories in this series:

Loy Kratong: Fireworks in the House? No Problem
Saksit and Other Thai Conundrums
Mandalay and the Road to It
Bago, on the Road to Mandalay
Kyaiktiyo:   The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair
Shwedagon:   Myanmar's Holy Land
Into the Burmese Supernatural
A Thai Funeral
Brunei: The Abode of Peace
A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo
Finding Religions—Plenty of Them—in Kuala Lumpur
Luang Phabang: The Lao Fairy-tale City
From Monkey to Monk
Along Cambodia's Backroads
Listening to the Rice Grow:   A Journey Up the Nam Ou River in Laos
(Part 1 and Part 2)

Don't miss future articles from Robert in our continuing series, Window on Southeast Asia series.

© 2005 - 2006 by Robert Wilson

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