Jan 10 2012
Since the days of Jayavarman VII, the warrior king who reigned from 1181 to 1220, Buddhism has dominated Cambodian religious life. Jayavarman VII was the first king to make the transition and though one of his successors tried to reinstate Hinduism, the cult of Siva to whom so many of the Angkorian temples are dedicated, Buddhism finally prevailed.
By the time the Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan arrived here in 1296, Buddhism was the principal expression of faith at the Royal Court, although it did not yet enjoy a monopoly as the king of the time, Srindravarman, seemed to hedge his bets by integrating elements of the more tantric schools of Buddhism into his routine. The Royal Court though was attended by many monks, who dressed exactly the same then as they do today.
In Cambodia, you’re never far from either a monk or a pagoda and seeing them as they go about their daily duties in their elegant robes is one of the simple pleasures of being here. They bring a sense of peace and timelessness with them that is somehow soothing, even to sceptics, and even in the midst of the restlessness of Siem Reap.
If you’d like to find out more about Buddhism in general, and Theravada Buddhism in particular, The Peace Café hosts a “monk chat” every Wednesday at 18:00. Two monks from one of the local pagodas sit down with visitors to explain a little bit about their faith and answer any questions you may have.
On a more tactile than philosophical front, there is also a slightly odd Buddhist museum on Route 6. Located rather incongruously in the same building as the Angkor Gallery, a shop filled to the gills with Gucci, Chanel and $3,000 handbags, you’ll find the small Wishing Hall Museum. Now, you wouldn’t abandon all plans in order to especially come here, but if you’ve got a quiet afternoon or would like to fill an hour or two with something a little bit different then I can thoroughly recommend it.
There are numerous displays of Buddhist artefacts, including healing medicines, and healing ‘plates’ that somehow emit a sort of low electrical charge making a lovely little tingle on the palm of your hand, some stunning Chinese shrines (to be honest, I have no idea what they are and the staff were unable to explain), and many other pieces including statues and ceramic pendants.
The piece de resistance is a hair from the Buddha’s head which, it is said, is still growing. You have to go see to check it out.
If you’d like to find out a little bit more about what you’ve just seen, or more about Buddhism in general, then next door to the museum (down the left side, where the front wall of the compound is) you’ll find a small shop called the Bodhi Leaf. This was set up by Jake Chapman, an Englishman who has been an ordained Buddhist monk for 15 years.
In the shop, you’ll find all kinds of Buddhist memorabilia, including flags, incense, mandalas and statues; and the engaging Englishman is very happy to talk to visitors about Buddhism and to provide insights into some of the things they may have seen and heard during their time here or elsewhere. Understanding Buddhism is one of the most important parts of understanding Cambodia, and here is an excellent place to start.
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