Preah Vihear is situated at the border between Cambodia and Thailand and has been for more than one century now the object of intermittent disputes between Thailand and Cambodia, or, better said, between Thais and Cambodians.
Even the name of this place carries political implications. “Prasat/Phnom Preah Vihear” is the official Cambodian designation. People in Thailand used to refer to it as Prasat Khao Phra Viharn. Since 2008 however, they dropped “Khao” (meaning “hill”) to make a clear difference between the area and the temple. So pay attention how you call it depending on where you are. The best thing is to stick to the international designation “Preah Vihear”. Local people are accustomed to tourists calling it that way.
Timeline of the Preah Vihear Conflict
Here are the most important moments in the history of the dispute from 1904 until today. Between these years, there have been periods of calm and peace and moments of intense fights at the border.
- 1904 – France and Thailand draw the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In the first phase, most of the area encompassing the temple was on the Thai side. However, the official map sets the temple in Cambodia.
- 1925 and 1937 – Discussions and treaties between the Siamese Government and the French concerning the border.
- 1954 – Thailand takes control over the temple after the French authorities withdraw from the area in 1953.
- 1954 – 1962 – Disputes over ownership.
- 1962 – Cambodia brings the case in front of ICJ (International Court of Justice in Hague) which gives the temple back to Cambodia based on the initial map. However, at this stage, various Thai authorities claim that the map is not the original one.
- 2008 – The request made by Cambodia to include Preah Vihear in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites raises a series of disputes and retightens the issue in Cambodia and Thailand.
- 2008 – 2011 – Clashes at the border.
Good to Know
As a typical site where a region or landmark is claimed by two different sides, Preah Vihear is not a safe place for regular tourists. Visiting is possible (even without Cambodian visa for one day, provided that you enter the country from Thailand and leave on the same day), but not recommended, taking into account the realities which have taken place here during the last four years.
It should be remarked that this conflict is contextual and is based on the distinction between historical and social identity. The initial map and decision and, consequently, the decisions at national and international levels that followed are naturally political and social and do not take into account the historical identity of the place. And it’s precisely this historical identity which lights up the claims on both sides.
However, it is sad that this temple, dating back from the 9th century and carrying so much beauty and distinction be the object of political and ethnical disputes. Only a short glimpse of the site and temple will show you how easily history and time can cover transient contextual political interests.