Along the prettiest of waterways, 24 kilometres outside Kampong Cham, Wat Maha Leap is the last working wooden pagoda of its kind. Inside, each pillar required a whole tree. Sadly, a large beam fell down in early 2012, partly destroying the central altar and access has been restricted, although a smile and donation should find the key.
Inside, the cool tiles are spattered with bat guano, indicating that the pagoda is not regularly used. But the beautifully painted pillars are glorious with the light spilling in from the shuttered windows to the side, and once you stand in the middle and look up, the rich blue ceiling gleams down, by far one of the loveliest we’ve seen for a while.
We found Wat Maha Leap, while not as large, to be reminiscent of the magnificent Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in northern Thailand. Beside the temple, monks pray and converse in their red, stilted dormitories and you may see an old woman arranging betel nut to dry in the sun. At the rear of the wat is a stupa-strewn cemetery and an unexceptional reclining Buddha, plus a yellow cremation tower.
In wet season, the area beyond the Buddha is often totally under water, and covered in lily pads. Horses, cows and goats meander throughout the grounds. Follow the dirt path to its end and find palm trees rigged with ladders and friendly villagers drinking sweet syrup. The men who tap the trees enjoy offering their nectar. Highly recommended.
The trip is best in the early morning, before the sun is high and when there is a better selection of boats docked in two places, near the underpass of the Kizuma Bridge and almost directly across from Mekong Crossing hotel. Alternatively, secure the services of a motodop (or ride yourself if you are experienced with unsealed roads) to take the same route as horse-drawn tobacco carts (you will need your GPS or a decent spattering of Khmer to find it, as there are some unexpected turns).
If you’re going to Wat Maha Leap, you might as well go the extra mile, or actually four kilometres, to Prey Chung Kran weaving village, the source of some of the best kramas in Cambodia. The village itself is not so exciting, but almost every stilted house in it has a loom in the shade beneath, where the women weave colourful scarves and fabrics. We tried to buy the last time we visited, but didn’t succeed.
How to get there
Wat Maha Leap is south of Kompong Cham on a tributary of the Mekong referred to as Tonle Thoit (small river) and is best reached by boat from Kompong Cham. The trip takes about 30 to 45 minutes each way and en route you’ll enjoy splendid riverside scenery. A trip here is best combined with a trip to the weaving village at Prey Chung Kran, a further 20 minutes downriver. Boatmen will charge around US$40 to $45 for a trip including waiting time to both Wat Maha Leap and the weaving village; trips to the temple alone cost about $35. A boat could comfortably hold five plus guide and pilot.
By moto, the temple is a 40-minute rural ride and can be the beginning of a circular tour, making the 3,000 riel ferry crossing to Koh Sotine and Koh Paen before returning to the mainland. A good English-speaking guide and motodop, such as Mr Why (T: 011 293 951), will cost around $15 for the day.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 13th November, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.