19 June 2013

A wat or six

I think I am rapidly gaining a reputation as the Mad Wat Woman of Siem Reap, at least in the opinion of my friendly neighbourhood tuktuk drivers and their associates. I doubt if any white person ever in the history of tourism in this city has visited as many of the wats as I have. It’s a very good thing I’m leaving Cambodia soon as this could turn into an addiction.

I can’t help myself. These places have the most incredible architecture, and are often extremely colourful. They are almost invariably empty of tourists. They’re inhabited by friendly monks who are only too happy to practise their English by answering my questions and who seem to appreciate my interest in their sacred places. And, although these are all living monasteries where poorer members of the public can seek shelter in times of crisis and so are never entirely deserted, they are invariably tranquil places to wander around. They offer a fascinating insight into many aspects of the local culture, not just religion. And I love the tuktuk rides I have to take to get to most of them.

So, here are some photos of my recent explorations. All six wats are within 15 kilometres of the city centre, and situated close to the main road than runs from Siem Reap city to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. I’ve drawn a rough map for anyone visiting the area who also wants to check these out.

Wat Svay
I walked to this wat, a hot sweaty walk there and back alongside the river with no shade. But it was worth every bead of perspiration. There are two temples here, an old one that is in a very sorry state of repair and, judging by the amount of bird poop all around it, is now more of an aviary than a place of worship.

In comparison, the new temple is a shining light of Buddhism, all golds and oranges, with the bright blue highlights of the garudas, the ornamental roof supporters. There are many other buildings, including an old meeting hall built on high stilts, perhaps an indication of how high the river waters can rise and threaten this place.

Wat Kong Mouch
Not much further down the river, this place is quite a contrast to Wat Svay. It looks much older and the grounds are quite unkempt, but the temple itself is no less elaborately decorated, with particularly beautiful windows and doors, and a ton of burial stupas lined up around it in neat, repetitive rows.

Wat Atwea
The next wat down the road is Wat Atwea but I’ll say little about that here so I’ve already blogged about my visit to this place. It has the added attraction of ancient Angkorian temples in its backyard so is worth a visit for those alone.

Wat Po Banteaychey
This wat was a wonderful surprise. The main temple is a colourful many-splendoured construction but there is so much more: an equally splendid meeting hall and lovely office buildings, many vibrantly coloured statues, a large pond with its own small temple sitting in it, and behind the main complex, an extra revelation – a square structure with peaked towers at each of the four corners and a huge tower in the centre.

Wat Aragn Sakor
The architecture of this temple is remarkably different from any other I’ve seen in Cambodia. Although its wooden window shutters are painted in bright reds, blues and golds, the rest of the temple is quite plain and painted a simple dirty white. And its columns are most unusual, with spiral fluting more reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple than something found in southeast Asia.

The rear of the wat backs on to farm land, and that was also like stepping back in time, as I watched a farmer ploughing his rice paddies with an old wooden plough and two large white cows.

Wat in Phnom Krom village
Last but by no means least in this little jaunt along Tonle Sap Road is the wat in the village at the bottom of Phnom Krom (phnom means hill in Khmer), where I had my very own little group of local girls as tour guides. This temple is a very tall structure, with wonderful multi-coloured bands around its base, garuda statues and mint-green-painted nagas guarding its entrance stairways, and an abundance of burial stupas filling its grounds. From the cremation chamber at the rear of the enclosure, you can look out across the fields or back towards the hilltop, where yet another pagoda sits, beckoning the explorer. But that, as they say, is another story.

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