Respecting Angkor Temples as Sacred Places

To an average visitor, the temples of Angkor may appear as piles of rock – ancient structures in a great state of ruin, often overrun with jungle but we must not forget that they were built to be sacred places that are still used as places of worship by the local populace. Most of the temples that are still standing contain at least one sanctuary housing a statue of Buddha (or other divinity) and are deeply venerated by a steady flow of worshippers, including monks. It was with great disappointment that I saw so many westerners disrespect these sacred spaces by walking around wearing baseball hats sideways (wigger style), speaking loudly with their friends, and even walking in front of a person kneeling before the statue, interrupting their connection with the deity portrayed.

Photo: Cambodian Woman Praying Before the Statue of Buddha at Bayon Temple
Photo: Cambodian Woman Praying Before the Statue of Buddha at Bayon Temple

Cambodians must have grown used to the westerners and their apparent lack of respect (or understanding) for their religion, because I’ve never seen or heard any of them speak up and request the westerners to adjust their behavior as a sign of respect for the holy space they are within, but this was something one should not have to ask of another. Just because Cambodians are tolerant of inappropriate behavior of westerners in their sacred places, it should not be seen as open invitation to completely disrespect and desecrate them.

Yes, exploring the temples of Angkor involves a lot of sweating and an exposure to an intense sun, so head covering is often a necessity, however removing your hat when you enter a space with a decorated statue that has incense sticks burning at its base and people praying in front of it is the least of trouble. Yet I’ve always been the only westerner doing it.

Why do so many westerners think that they are too good to have to remove their hats upon entering the Buddhist sanctuary? Does that really make you feel macho that you were able to disrespect the sacred statue of Buddha and got away without? Does it really make you feel macho to announce your presence by shouting when you enter a sanctuary where people are praying to their deities in silence. And does it really make you feel macho to wander in front of a person who’s praying to that statue so you can pose yourself up for a cool photo?

One thought on “Respecting Angkor Temples as Sacred Places”

  1. I don’t know about that one. When I was at Angkor, I hid in one of the sanctuaries to pay respect to Buddha and to hide from the sun for a while. Inside there was an old woman who wanted to sell me burning sticks and a man sitting by the side of the statue. I sat in the corner with my head bowed down silently succumbed to my prayers for about 30 minutes. During that time, the man lit up several cigarettes and smoked them right there, inside the sanctuary, by the statue of Buddha. Wouldn’t even move close to the doorway, nevermind going outside. Later on, a local couple walked in to pray to Buddha and when they noticed me sitting inside the sanctuary, they laughed and talked about me with the other two as though by being a foreigner, I only had the right to pass through, but not stop there. They kept looking back at me and constantly talking among themselves about me like I did not belong there. You need to show respect before you can expect it.

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