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 the monks 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 Cafe hosts a “monk chat” every Saturday and Sunday at 16:00. 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 it’s an interesting diversion.
On display are numerous Buddhist artefacts, including healing medicines, 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 (the staff were unable to explain exactly what they were), 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.