The capital’s most prestigious temple
Published/Last edited or updated: 14th January, 2019
Apart from Wat Phnom, which is situated atop an artificial hill, Wat Ounalom is the Cambodian capital’s most conspicuous temple and arguably the most attractive.
The front of the wat overlooks the Tonle Sap riverside promenade and is a short walk north of the Royal Palace and the National Museum. The north side looks across Street 154 to Kandal Market while the temple’s rear entrance on Street 13 street aligns with Street 172, Phnom Penh’s budding Pub Street. Such a central location is hard to miss.
Wat Phnom may be more iconic for tourists but Ounalom is the most prestigious temple for Khmers and considered the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. As well as an important teaching and administrative centre, it’s also an attractive spot for a stroll in a scenic location.
Ounalam is a large complex with quarters for monks and nuns, classrooms, meditation centres, as well as halls, shrines and stupas. Originally constructed in the mid-15th century, it housed some 500 monks and more than 30,000 volumes of text related to Buddhism in pre-Khmer Rouge times. The temple suffered during the Khmer Rouge period and many of the monks were killed and the texts destroyed. Thankfully, a series of restoration projects has returned Wat Ounalom to something approaching its former glory.
While the surviving books are scattered in buildings throughout the city, there is a small bookshop that sells black and white copies of Buddhist related literature in Khmer script along with some translated to French. If you work your way to the rear of the main worship hall, you’ll see remains of an old sandstone Hindu temple dating back to the late 10th or early 11th century, which was incorporated into the contemporary shrine.
The largest structure is a three-storey building said to contain an actual ounalom, a hair from Buddha’s eyebrow. The structure also houses a few impressive bronze sculptures of Buddhas worth checking out.
The somewhat sprawling complex is an interesting spot to explore—the temple makes for a convenient shortcut between Street 172 and the riverside or Kandal Market and the Palace, so combine it with something else when you are out and about. Please do bear in mind that the grounds are a religious site so dress accordingly.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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