02 June 2013

Wat Damnak

I first started exploring Wat Damnak, just across the river from downtown Siem Reap, back in February, when I was taking part in the Giant Puppet Parade workshops and I have visited at least once a week ever since.

Not only is it on a slightly circuitous route to town from where I live, but its Buddhist pagoda, shrines and stupas, its gnarled frangipani trees and beautiful waterlilies, its delightful frogs and darting lizards all make good subjects for my photo-a-day project. 

I also find it a tranquil place to wander and sit – this despite the primary school incorporated inside its extensive grounds, the occasional young man asking for a donation to support some good cause or other, and the constant comings and goings of monks and laypeople.

The central pagoda is currently undergoing internal renovation

This is a living Buddhist monastery with an interesting past. It was a royal palace in the days of King Sisowatch, ruler of Cambodia from 1904 to 1927, hence its name: dam nak is Khmer for palace, and it also served as a Khmer Rouge military depot in the dark days of Cambodia’s recent civil conflict.

Now its biggest claim to fame is its Centre of Khmer Studies, an international NGO whose primary aim is to facilitate global understanding of Cambodia, its history and its culture. The adjacent CKS library is the second biggest public library in the country and its 11,000 publications draw scholars from around the world seeking to research Cambodia’s intriguing past.

The Centre of Khmer Studies

Though I am a book lover through and through, for me the library holds a very different fascination. Running along the front of the building is a long narrow water feature, filled with the most gorgeous varieties of waterlilies and the biggest population of green paddy frogs I have ever seen. The markings on the waterlily blooms, which come in subtle shades of white and cream, pink, blue and lilac, seem infinitely varied, and I return often to photograph them. I am also drawn to the cute little frogs – they actually make be laugh out loud at their frantic panicked leaps, and the comical way they sit and stare goggle-eyed at me. So funny!

The monastery grounds are also home to the Kossamak Nearyroath Institute of Buddhist Studies, a facility to educate monks and the general public in the ways of Buddha, and to a second NGO, the Life and Hope Association Sewing School, which has the wonderfully practical aim of providing young Khmer women with a vocation and a future.

Wat Damnak sits in large park-like grounds, which are well filled with buildings and meeting halls, temples and stupas, as well as a large deep pond, in which sits a bright yellow shrine. The air is sweetly scented with frangipani, the large trees provide welcome shade, and the Khmer architecture mesmerises with its intricate detail. I think you can see why I return again and again to this charming location.

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