A close encounter

On the border of Thailand and Cambodia stands an old Khmer sanctuary.  Built at the time of Angkor and in the same style, Prasart Khao Phra Viharn must wonder what it has to do to pull in the tourists.  It's a magnificent structure commanding an imposing escarpment, but hardly anyone comes to visit.

The key to the conundrum is in the location, and it's not just that this is Isaan, Thailand's least visited region: the sanctuary's territory is disputed by its neighbours.  In 1962 they referred their dispute to the International Court in The Hague to decide once and for all.  The ruling favoured Cambodia which was disappointing, at least for the visitor, because you can't get there from Cambodia without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, mine detection equipment and rock-climbing gear (in that order).  It seemed more sensible to plan my attack from the north.

My Bangkok enquiries into the temple's accessibility proved frustrating.  Ten hours east down the railway line I rubbed the sleep from my eyes in Ubon Ratchathani.

The people of Ubon are charming but they know that what they have on offer is lower on every visitor's itinerary, unfairly I say, than Thailand's northern hill tribes and southern beaches.  The genial manager of the Moon River Guest House (population: his family and me) tempted me with cave paintings and forest walks.  I was genuinely sorry to disappoint him, and he felt the same for me: what I had come there to do was impossible.  Undaunted, I surprised the town's tourist office with a visit, only to have the bad news reluctantly confirmed.

I hadn't come all that way to fall at the first hurdle so I boarded a bus to Kantharalak, not one of Isaan's highlights but the end of the line for public transport.  A posse of lethargic bikers reluctantly bargained with me for a backie to the border.

We swept down deserted military roads.  When the tarmac expired, we slid along a construction site and woke up the soldier manning a lonely sentry.  I surrendered my passport: the Thais wanted to know I'd be coming back but the precaution was excessive.  The only way into Cambodia was down several hundred feet of sheer rock face into heavily mined border territory.

In the empty car park the optimistic stallholders didn't see any benefit in interrupting their siestas for a lone backpacker.  I ambled through a park and stopped when I couldn't go any further south.  Whichever way I looked at it, this was a frontier.  The cliff stretched out to east and west.  Far below the sleeping Cambodian jungle was punctured only by the odd plume of smoke.  Once this had been a fierce battlefield; now it was utterly calm.

High above to the west the sanctuary imposed itself on its already impressive surroundings.  The outline of a 600 metre balustraded stairway climbed its slope via a series of pavilions and gateways to the crowning temple, dedicated to Shiva.  After so elaborate an introduction the temple itself would have to be spectacular, and I could just about tell that it was.  The problem was that everyone had been right: it was closed.  The panorama had justified the trip, but coming to this distant outpost and missing the temple felt like visiting Agra and skipping the Taj Mahal.

Back at the guest house they still weren't expecting an imminent tourist invasion.  But I told them I'd be back, however long I had to wait.  In the face of Asia's long history you have no choice but to take the long view.  Phra Viharn had stood there for a millennium, above all the fighting for and around it.  Of what significance was it, then, if it took a decade or two to open it to the public?

But I can't say I wasn't disappointed.  I could see it; I could see the road that led to it.  I just couldn't reach it.  Only a few months after my visit, I heard that the sanctuary had been reopened.

So close but yet so far.

Copyright Nicholas White 1999