08 April 2013

Wat Bo

Wat is the Khmer word for pagoda and, in Cambodia, pagoda is a generic term for a place of worship, and, in Siem Reap, Wat Bo is one of the oldest places of worship for the local Buddhist people in the city. It is also the pagoda closest to where I live, and I have visited it often. Click on this link to see an aerial view of the wat on google maps. 

Its large grounds, which are filled with the tombs of deceased monks and the houses of the living, provide a haven of peace amidst the hustle and bustle of this crazy city.

Nowadays, the main temple is usually locked so I haven’t been able to venture inside for a couple of years … until today. I was wandering around, taking photos of the temple, then walked over to the meeting hall. I didn’t venture inside as two monks were sitting there, talking quietly, and I didn’t want to disturb them. But, as I strolled from there towards the stupas, an old man – I don’t think he was a monk – came shuffling over to the window of the meeting hall, yelling something and waving his arm at me. I thought I was in trouble for some reason, though I couldn’t think why, having done nothing offensive and being appropriately attired for a temple (shoulders covered and shorts below the knee). I kept walking but he spotted me between the stupas and yelled out again, this time gesturing from me to the temple with one hand and jangling an impressive set of keys with the other. I got it! He was offering to let me in. In my best Khmer, I said “Jahs som. Orgun tom tom.” (That’s “Yes, please. Thanks very much.”)

Leaving my sandals at the door, I entered the gloomy interior as the old man scurried around opening up a few windows to let in the light. This was a rare treat because, although Wat Bo is a Buddhist temple, its interior walls are covered in scenes from the Reamker, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu love story. According to Andy Brouwer, there are only two depictions of this narrative in Khmer art – the other is on the walls that enclose the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. Brouwer says the paintings date from the early 1920s, but others give their date as late 19th century. Whichever is correct, the paintings are in reasonably good condition considering their age.

My photographs are not sharp as I thought it best not to use the flash on my camera and, as I’m not familiar with the love story of Rama and Sita, I can’t explain what is happening in these scenes. It is interesting, though, to see Western-like characters appearing in some scenes – presumably an influence from the days of French colonialism. The temple also has an impressive collection of Buddha statues lined up both in front of and behind the main Buddha.

The exterior of the temple is also beautiful, with ornate sculptural reliefs above the windows and doors, fantastical creatures guarding the entrances and adorning the rooftop, and thin carved panels painted in multiple colours decorating the lower level of the building.

Having made a donation to help with the upkeep of this exquisite building, I wandered a little longer in the grounds, where there is an interesting collection of old and new buildings and, of course, the ubiquitous burial stupas. If you manage to visit and happen to get yelled at by a toothless old man, don’t despair. You, too, might get to take a peak inside the temple.

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