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Discovering what's wat in Siem Reap

Known best for the sprawling ancient city of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is home to many more sites of spiritual beauty, right in the centre of the action and just waiting to be explored

Buddhist philosophy of mind over matter is all well and good – but a bloody big gun is a help

Ancient Angkorian temples are Siem Reap’s main tourist draw card, but increasing numbers of travellers with a spiritual bent are discovering what’s what with local wats. Siem Reap is blessed with four major wats, or pagodas, in the downtown district, another five significant examples north of the town, and four in the south towards Tonle Sap.

But Siem Reap’s most famous, Angkor Wat, is not a wat at all. In April 2000, researcher and author Ray Zepp noted, “Names of pagodas begin with the word wat, such as Wat Bo, Wat Sway or Wat Damnak. So why not say ‘Wat Angkor’ instead of ‘Angkor Wat’? The answer is that it is not a wat; it is a city (Angkor) in the form of a wat. So, in this case, ‘wat’ is an adjective modifying Angkor, just as Angkor Thom means ‘great Angkor’, with the adjective ‘thom’ as the modifier.”

Siem Reap’s four downtown wats are the most visited, with Wat Bo (Eastern Pagoda) the district’s largest and perhaps the most historic, having been founded in the 18th century.

Wat Kesseraram (Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals), next to Sokha Hotel, has one of the largest collections of Buddha paintings in the region. It’s an important meditation centre and also home to bones from the Khmer Rouge era. Pol Pot’s henchmen, figuring the wat was a symbol of excess, razed the school and built a torture chamber.

Wat Damnak is the principal pagoda in town, the centre of learning, and is believed to have been built about 1919. Khmer Rouge soldiers were housed here, but for some reason the buildings were left intact.

The sprawling Wat Preah Phrom Rath (Jewelled Lord Brahma Wat), a large colourful pagoda with a chocolate-box exterior, abuts the Pub Street district and is the most popular wat for tourists, principally because of its proximity.

The pagoda is a trippy experience. It features an awesome range of fantastic traditional Buddha paintings; a collection of kitsch, garishly painted concrete statuary; and Disney-esque cardboard-cutout-like paintings popping from the gardens.

Signage scattered through the pagoda spells out the legend the wat is founded on, surrounding the life of Preah Ang Chong Han Hoy, a revered monk who, the signs say, lived from 1358 to1456 AD.

He travelled regularly from the Siem Reap region, across Tonle Sap by wooden boat to Long Vek, the ancient capital of Cambodia near Phnom Penh. Apparently, each time he returned, the rice in his pot was always fresh. Hence he was named Preah Ang Chong Han Hoy, or “monk with freshly cooked rice in his pot”.

One day sharks attacked his boat and broke it in two – one piece floated to Wat Boribo in Kampong Chhnang. The other piece, the prow, brought the monk back to this region, and a reclining statue was made of the wood from the prow under orders of the monarch of the time, King Ang Chan (1516-1566).

This reclining Buddha, or a similar one to it, can be found in the wat’s vihear, or main temple, tucked away behind the main Buddha sitting on a lotus base and named Preah Ang Chee Buddha.

Another rare feature of this wat’s vihear is the presence of two cannons, which have very recent historical significance, perhaps giving the seeker of solace much material for meditation.

They were brought to the wat in the late 1950s after the killing of infamous local warlord Dap Chhoun. During the 1940s Dap Chhoun was essentially a terrorist: a fierce opponent of the French who became the absolute feared ruler of the Siem Reap region.

But in 1949 he joined the fold, becoming part of the Sihanouk regime and helping return the region to French control. He was made governor of the province and once again ruled tyrannically. But in the late 1950s he was implicated in a plot against Sihanouk, and the King’s trusted general, Lon Nol, was sent to shoot him.

Interestingly, Dap Chhoun also built the original Hotel de la Paix in the heart of Siem Reap. Ruins of the hotel stood until early 2000, when the remains were demolished in preparation for the construction of today’s super-trendy revamp.

It’s been mooted that the cannons would be more at home outside the hotel than in the pagoda. But perhaps their presence at Wat Preah Phrom Rath serves as a reminder that Buddhist philosophy of mind over matter is all well and good – but a bloody big gun is a handy help.

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