Wat Tang Tok is a small monastery within Angkor Thom, not far from Victory Gate, just north of Vihear Prampil Loveng. During an Angkorian era, Wat Tang Tok housed a laterite shrine with sandstone carvings, but nowadays only a pile of rocks remains of the original structure. Modern pagoda with live-in monks was built next to the ruin and even though it contains naga serpents and lion guardians, it looks way to modern to be of much interest.
Resident monks as well as all other people of Cambodia refer to the monastery as Wat Tang Tok however Apsara Authority which is paid to overlook Angkor Archaeological Park has allegedly decided to rename it into Preah Ang Sang Tuk. The reason for this move as well as whether it sticks are unknown.
I bicycled through the South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and rode my way across straight road lined on both sides with many trees and dozens of inquisitive monkeys. This was without doubt one of the busiest roads in Angkor Archaeological Park. Connecting two of the most iconic sites in the area – Angkor Wat and Bayon, the number of tuk tuks and buses with organized tours was overwhelming.
About a kilometre into Angkor Thom, I was approaching a T intersection that split the road I was on to wrap around Bayon temple, standing proudly right in the middle. At the south-west corner of the cross roads was a pagoda with statue of Buddha and many locals praying inside and preying (on tourists) outside. Bayon is the largest state temple at Angkor and I knew it will take a while to explore, so I decided to pull over and take a breather from frying sun in the shade of the pagoda. I asked the locals and was told that the pagoda is called Preah Ntep. Somebody spelled it out for me this way even though the pronunciation suggested that proper spelling would be Preah Entep.
The pagoda was vastly insignificant and was one of many found within the Angkor Thom complex. Stopping for a breather obviously meant exposing myself to the relentless harassment of kids clearly sent to prey on tourists by their parents and instructed to say certain things to maximize chances of a score. I sought peace of mind but did not find it. I did get slight escape from the sun but touts forced me to quickly move on. Below are few pictures of Preah Ntep, a pagoda that doesn’t even exist on any map of Angkor Thom.
Wat Kesararam is the most confusing pagoda in all of Siem Reap. The inconsistencies in name were driving me insane and the more I was trying to find out which name was correct, the more confusing it was getting. Basically, aside from Wat Kesararam, this pagoda is often referred to as Wat Keseram. Not even Cambodians themselves know which name is right and which is wrong as each you ask them about it, they will give you different answer. Hence it is best to refer to it by its English name – Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals.
Wat Kesararam is located at the north west side of Siem Reap, right on National Road #6, en route to Siem Reap airport. It is a very colorful pagoda the beginnings of which date somewhere to the 1970’s. The paintings on the outer walls are very bright and so are the lions and nagas – seven headed serpents the body of which serves as a balustrade around the temple. The balustrade is held up by statues of divinities that are repeated all around the structure.
I have not walked inside of actual temple, but it’s said to house extensive collection of Buddha relics. Since it was the second day of Pchum Ben festival, the pagoda of the cornflower petals was very much alive. Traditional Khmer music was being played back out of bad quality, old loudspeakers and dozens of people knelt inside the prayer hall chanting their prayers. More people were coming in and out, all bearing bowls with food which is what the festival of the dead is all about. This food is offered to their deceased ancestors to ease their way in the underworld.
I noticed many kids running around and hanging off the barred windows of main vihara – prayer hall. There was some commotion coming from the inside and the presence of countless shoes before the entrance to it suggested that something must be going on in there (Buddhists always take their shoes off before entering pagodas or basically any other dwelling or sacred place). This is what attracted me to the vihara as it was also what detracted me from going to the actual temple to see what they say is a vast collection of Buddha relics. On the other hand, I’m glad I went in the vihara because this was my unique opportunity to witness real amateur Apsara dancing.
Wat Keseram pagoda got me confused right from the start. Half of native Cambodians as well as half of guides refer to it as Wat Keseram while other half calls it Wat Kesararam. Which one is correct is hard to tell. There seems to be no conclusive settlement and nobody but me seemed bothered by inconsistencies in the name. It’s still one and the same pagoda it’s only known under two different, albeit similar names. The only common name for it is English translation of it: “Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals”. I leave it up to you to choose which name you want to call it – Wat Keseram or Wat Kesararam. Either way, below is the gallery of photos of this majestic pagoda.
I have never seen a monkey out in the wild before. My only previous encounters with monkeys were when I was taken to the ZOO by my parents. And I’m not a big fan of the ZOOs because I don’t believe in imprisonment of animals for people’s entertainment. Captive animals lose many of their natural traits and don’t behave the same way they do in the wild. Hence encountering my first monkey that was not caged was a big deal for me. It was so much more shocking in a way because even though my first monkey encounter in Cambodia featured an actual wild monkey, this particular specimen did not act wild at all. This appeared to be an aged monkey and acted like an aged human.
I was still at Wat Damnak temple grounds trying not to get fried by scorching Cambodian sun. The chants from Buddhist gathering at temple’s Vihara (prayer hall) could be heard from everywhere because of the loudspeaker broadcast. I was almost done taking inconspicuous pictures when I noticed this young monk standing outside with banana in his hand which he handed to the monkey sitting at his feet. Monkey took it off his hand with his hand and munched on it like they’re best buddies. The human like behavior of that monkey was bewildering.
Granted, I only had my wide angle lens on me because extreme heat makes it impossible to carry extra baggage and since I really wanted to take pictures of my first monkey encounter, I had no choice but to walk up to the couple sharing the banana. It was interesting to watch how monkey turned his head the same way any human would. As I got closer and got the camera at the ready, the monkey gave me that look of “what the hell are you taking pictures of me eating for?” My amazement escalated.
As I was closer, I noticed indescribable dexterity this monkey had in his hands. He had fingers similar to human ones and used them to peel the banana peel off to get to chewy mass inside. When he was done, he simply turned around and started quietly walking away. I swear if he could talk, I would hear him say: “Screw you, man. Staring at me as I’m trying to eat!”
I followed the monkey as I really wanted a picture but in order to get any done, I needed to get really close to him (disadvantage of not carrying around the telephoto lens). His every reaction was identical to a reaction of a human. It simply kept blowing me off my feet. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have monkeys in Canada where I come from so seeing an animal whose behavior resembles human so closely was astounding to me. I was being rude by shoving my camera in his face and he was moving away from me to let me know that he does not appreciate being photographed at such close range by a guy he’s never met before. If there was a human in his place, I’d be getting precisely the same type of response. Are monkeys really this close to humans? Unbelievable! All this time I felt like saying: “You got me man. I almost believed you were a real monkey. Now take off that costume and quit playing one, will you?” But the fact was – there was no masqueraded man inside a costume. This was an actual, real monkey. They are closer to humans in their behavior and perceptions of the surroundings that I had ever realized. Wow!
I woke up to a new day ready to explore more of Siem Reap’s pagodas. The sun was already baking the air outside which made me happy since it was rainy season in Cambodia, but this was the second day with no rain. Already well aware of how devastating Cambodian sun is, I fortified my skin with natural sun block (as close to organic as it gets), applied powerful mosquito repellent (don’t even bother with anything that contains less than 30% deet – Cambodian mosquitoes are vicious, plentiful and active during all parts of day and night), sat on my mountain bike and off I rode for Wat Damnak.
As always, I used the map provided in Angkor Siem Reap Visitors Guide to find locations of most relevant temples and pagodas in Siem Reap and used it as my main guide in choosing the best itinerary to get me there. Not that it’s in any way difficult, given rather small size of Siem Reap.
Wat Damnak is located near Phsar Chas aka Old Market, just on the opposite side of the Siem Reap river. If you were to take a walk around the Old Market, you would see the stone bridge right on its south-east corner. Take a walk across the bridge and by the time you made it half across, you will see the roof of beautiful Wat Damnak to your slight right.
Once I was across the river, I just followed the road that seemed to go in the general direction of Wat Damnak and it got me there. The entrance gate was the same way I got used to seeing from other temples I have visited before – magnificent, but spoiled by presence of disorganized bunch of cables which are used to electrify Cambodia. These cables spoil the view of basically every important or nice to look at structure in Cambodia, except from Angkor Wat temples since this part of the country has not yet been electrified. This was driving me up the wall as no matter where you go, you see beautiful temples, but you have no means of finding an angle under which to take a picture so it is not ruined by crap loads of cables cross knitted along each other.
This would have been the second day of Pchum Ben Festival. The 15 days long Festival of the Dead is an important part of Buddhist Khmer culture so during these two weeks I was encountering it on my every step. Pchum Ben was the most prominent within temple grounds. It always involved presence of dozens of monks, very loud traditional Khmer music played from really old loud speakers (awfully painful for the ears) and lots and lots of food and then some more.
Just as with any Cambodian temple during Pchum Ben festival, there were many people around and lots of traffic in and out. It was a scorching hot day but locals were all nicely dressed and carried bowls with food they’d use as offerings to their dead ancestors and to local monks. I parked my bike by Vihara – the prayer hall. It was close to Wat Damnak’s entrance gate and there seemed to be most commotion happening there. Aside from noticeable crowds, there was also obvious audible effect as Buddhists inside were repeating chants with powerful unison after the leading monk.
As I was receiving my introduction to Buddhism, I was told about the reason why Wat Preah Prom Rath pagoda was so full of people, why traditional Khmer music was being played from a loudspeaker why there was so much food all over the place. It was the first day of Pchum Ben Festival, which was loosely translated to me as The Festival of the Dead or sometimes as The Festival of the Souls (or spirits).
Pchum Ben is a Buddhist Festival but even though Cambodia is surrounded by other Theravada Buddhist nations, Pchum Ben is only celebrated in Cambodia and nowhere else. Pchum Ben Festival celebrations last for 15 days with final, culminating day falling on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar. Granted, Khmer calendar is different from the Gregorian one which is the one used by western countries so even though it was the beginning of September, the Pchum Ben Festival has already started.
The most prominent observation a foreigner notices during Cambodian Pchum Ben Festival is the fact that it involves a lot of food. You see Khmer families coming to temples and pagodas carrying dishes with food which they arrange along the walkways while they spend hours chanting prayers inside temples, kneeling before statues of Buddha. As it was explained to me, the food is meant for the dead. The premise of Pchum Ben Festival is to feed the spirits of the dead. Cambodians firmly believe that the act of feeding the souls of their deceased predecessors will make their stay on Earth more enjoyable.
During Pchum Ben the spirits of the dead descend from the spirit world and walk the Earth. Those who are still alive prey for their souls and offer them food. As it goes with Buddhist Monks in Cambodia, people also bring food for them. The festival is very spiritual and considerably one of the most important festivals in Khmer calendar. As the history of Pchum Ben has it, the festival was originally celebrated for three months but has been shortened to 15 days as modern lifestyle makes 3 months of celebration complicated.
After me and my girl guide were done talking about the life of Buddha, we went to the prayer hall where several people were already gathered and chanted their prayers as one while their chants were played back from a loudspeaker. As confused westerner, I asked if I could join them for a prayer and take a few pictures while I was at it. There was no issue with that as Cambodians are vastly tolerant of foreigners when it comes to cultural and religious differences.
This was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival but as it became apparent during the following 15 days, Pchum Ben was a big deal for Khmer people who take the festival very seriously and dedicate most of their focus to it while the festivities last. Even Cambodians who are otherwise non religious would prepare their food and bring the offerings to one of the temples. during Pchum Ben Little did I know at the time that the most significant events of my personal stay in Cambodia will be directly connected to Pchum Ben. Let the festivities begin!
My first exposure to Stupas was at Wat Preah Prom Rath in Cambodian Siem Reap. At that time I had no idea what these monumental structures within Buddhist pagodas were and why they ranged so much in size, color and shape. It was apparent that Stupas are an important part of Buddhism, I just didn’t know what purpose they served. When I got to Wat Bo in Siem Reap, the Stupas were more mesmerizing than the temple itself. That’s also one of the main reasons why I focused on Stupas and managed to miss historically and culturally important Reamker paintings. So what exactly are those Buddhist Stupas and why you always see them at Temple grounds?
I saught answers with one of my students from the English language class at Wat Preah Prom Rath. I came to the pagoda about an hour prior to the lecture and one of the girls from the class was sitting there on the bench. Since I was entirely new to Buddhism, I asked around and she was most happy to explain. The only trick was that the class in which I was teaching was free for all, so students of all levels of English participated. The girl who was my Buddhism guide that day was a very beginner so language barrier was making it a bit difficult to understand each other.
From what I could make out, Stupas are used as graves. These monumental structures located near pagodas are basically tomb stones that house ashes of deceased Buddhists. The reason why some Stupas are bigger than other is wealth of a person or family whose ashes are housed inside. The wealthier a person, the fancier, bigger and more decorated a Stupa they can afford.
Stupas oftentimes have small entrance doorways through which ashes of other members of the same family are put inside. Through this door those who are still alive also put offerings for the dead, which include food for their journey through the afterworld, flowers, money and whatever other relics may be needed. Buddhists believe in reincarnation – death is not the end, only a transition.
In Buddhism, aside from practical use as funerary monuments, Stupas are best described as sacred monuments that symbolize enlightenment. Stupas have square bases which symbolize four immesurables as taught by Buddhism. The immeasurables are:
There is deep meaning to each part of Stupas. They are full of relics and holy objects, decorated with reliefs of important Buddhist events. There is powerful spirituality to each Stupa which is instantly recognized by merely looking upon one. I was drawn to those upon each encounter in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Very powerful, mesmerising monuments that establish peace and harmony and keep negative forces at bay.
I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the same very reason every other tourist makes it there – Angkor Wat temples. However I was in no rush to get to Angkor but most of all, I did not limit my stay to merely exploring Angkor Archaeological area and moving on. I really wanted to savour the atmosphere of Siem Reap and wanted to explore its hidden gems that may not attract many tourists, but are spectacular in their own way. Wat Bo temple was just like that.
I used reference map in Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide to find locations of numerous temples located within Siem Reap town itself. Exploring Angkor Wat temples was to be a big adventure for which I wanted to get ready thoroughly (high cost for the entrance ticket was one of the main reasons) so to get accustomed to local climate, customs and everything else, I used the initial days in Siem Reap to explore its own gems. According to the maps, Wat Bo was the closest temple to Two Dragons Guesthouse where I was staying so I made it my first destination on my “exploring the temples of Siem Reap” day.
Wat Bo is located on the east side of the Siem Reap River. Entire area around Wat Bo temple and along Wat Bo Road in Siem Reap is now known as “backpacker’s area” due to vast numbers of budget guesthouses and restaurants.
Other than Angkor temples, Wat Bo is one of the oldest pagodas in Siem Reap province. It was founded in the 18th century and to day it enjoys high regard among native Khmer population. The most significant part of Wat Bo are 19th century paintings depicting scenes from a Cambodian epic poem Reamker. As a traveller who never uses guides, whether it’s books or professional guide services, I have managed to miss out on Wat Bo’s Reamker entirely. I don’t even know where exactly these depictions are, I just know they are there. Darn, sometimes doing the research prior to going there pays off.
To my credit, other than Wat Preah Prom Rath pagoda, which is a modern, centrally located pagoda, Wat Bo was my first pagoda on my “exploring Siem Reap pagodas” tour. Wat Preah Prom Rath doesn’t count as I stumbled across it by chance, whether as visit to Wat Bo was planned and deliberate. Being my first, I was too overwhelmed with the vastness of the temple grounds and most of all – mesmerized by the number and variety of Stupas. At the time of my visit to Wat Bo, I had no idea what Stupas were, but as my day went on and I have visited other temples in Siem Reap, I learned all about it. More on Stupas in next post!
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