Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wooden ceiling

The brightly-painted wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret on Koh Sotin
On my recent visit to Kompong Cham I came across a few of the older-style pagodas, with two of them having a quite rare internal wooden construction and another, Wat Potiret, also still boasting its wooden ceiling. Wat Moha Leap was perhaps the best example of this wooden construction and I'll post some photos from my visit there very soon. In the meantime, this painting in good condition of a chariot flying through the skies, can be found on the wooden ceiling at Wat Potiret, located on the island of Koh Sotin, stuck in the middle of the Mekong River, south of Kompong Cham city. This old vihara is now only used by birds and bats and was locked, so meant I had to get the key from one of the friendly monks. I doubt whether it will still be standing in a year or two and that's the problem with a lot of the older pagodas, they are being dismantled and newer concrete versions being built with donations from wealthy Cambodians, both home and abroad. This is effectively a loss of Cambodia's heritage and is a sad example of a 'new broom sweeping clean' regardless of the impact for the current and future generations. Maybe I should begin/join a campaign to preserve all of Cambodia's wooden viharas that are still standing in Kompong Cham, Battambang and Kratie provinces?
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There's a lot going on, news-wise, in recent days so I'll leave the media bloggers to relay all of that detail, from the visit of the Queen of Spain, to the inauguration by Hun Sen and the ADB of the millions of dollars being spent on renovating the Cambodian railway system, a new law on sex trafficking to replace the ineffective one previously in place, the arrival of baseball in the country (in a newsprint version of the film, Field of Dreams), Cambodia (and me) laughing at the United States claims for $340 million worth of debts from the 70s, to the on-going saga of Thailand trying to get a piece of the Preah Vihear cake. Oh, and it's another public holiday today, yet another Buddhist holiday, this time it's Meak Bochea Day.
The local press report today that the road to the summit of Bokor Mountain could be open again this week - two years ahead of schedule! I wouldn't put my house on that news but if access to the top of Bokor is again possible then the authorities and the Sokha Group who are renovating the road and the mountain-top facilities need to be very clear about who, when and how the public can gain access. This is a gem amongst the attractions along the south coast of Cambodia so they need to be clear over accessibility - to-date they have been as clear as mud!


Andy said...

More on wooden Kampuchea Krom.

Forgotten Treasures of Khmer Culture in the Mekong Delta
Words & photographs by Moeun Nhean

Mighty and vast, the Khmer empire, stretched across modern Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. It left cultural and architectural legacies throughout South-east Asia and, though Thailand has used this inheritance to lure tourists, historical sites in Southern Vietnam remain practically unknown.

Ancient Khmer architecture has mostly survived unscathed in southern Vietnam. The local Khmer Krom people practice Khmer Buddhism in temples very different to those of ethnic Vietnamese. These places are becoming hot tourism destinations.

Sites in the Mekong Delta, such Long An, Tien Giang, Ving Long, Tra Vinh, Bac Lieu, and Soc Trang, are the most popular. Picturesque villages, traditional farming methods, and verdant fields charm all who visit. The focal points of this emerald land are the sparkling golden roofs of elaborate Khmer Krom pagodas.

Soc Trang province, known in Khmer as Khleang province (‘warehouse’ or ‘storage place’), could be seen as a vessel of traditional Khmer culture, preserved unchanged since the province was ceded to Vietnam by the French in 1949. There are a total of around 500 Khmer pagodas in South Vietnam, of which Soc Trang has around 100 ancient Khmer pagodas. Most are preserved in their original condition, without the modernisation common in Cambodia.

"In this area, there are many beautiful Khmer pagodas," said Miss. Thach Long, Guide Officer of Soc Trang province. "The most popular sites among visitors are Wat Khleang, Wat Serey Dejo Mohatub, Wat Sa Lon and the provincial museum."
The number of tourists is increasing. "During the last few years, at least 300 to 500 visitors per month came to visit this area," said Long. "Most are European, American, Japanese, and Asian."

Khleang pagoda, Soc Trang province was built in 1533. It has kept its original architectural style and decoration. "This is one of the most interesting pagodas because it was built from wood," said Long. "Fantastic Khmer traditional carvings and beautiful painted murals still remain. There have never been big scale renovations, only minor repairs."

The 50-something Mr. Eang was a monk here for almost 8 years. He said the Khleang pagoda had a reputation as a cultural centre for centuries as Khmer monks from all over the Mekong delta came to study the tenets of Buddhism.
"This school was run strictly according to Buddhist rules," said Eang.

Just a short distance from Khleang pagoda is another pagoda named ‘Serey Dejo Mohatub’, though many know it simply as ‘bat pagoda’. Built in 1569, this architectural masterpiece features decoration incorporating dragons, garaudas, tortoises, and phoenixes. The pagoda is also a haven for thousands of flying fox bats (Pteropus). The sheltered grounds, shaded by towering fruit trees, provide the perfect bat habitat (though the apparently bats shun the fruit from the temple trees). In 1999, the pagoda was recognized by the Ministry of Culture and Information of Vietnam as a cultural and historical relic.

Egbert Weiss, a German tourist, spent hours wandering around Mohatub pagoda. He was impressed. "I never saw what a real fruit bat looked like, except on television," he said. "It was interesting to see and hear the bats close up." Weiss and his tour group spent 3 days in the Mekong delta visiting plantations and fisheries as well as pagodas. "It is unbelievable that so many ancient wooden pagodas are here," Weiss exclaimed. "The constructions are still strong even though they are 500 years old."

Weiss was also astounded by the quality of the painted scenes inside the pagoda. "The paintings on the pagoda walls are amazingly artistic," he said. "They are still colourful even though they are very old."

‘Sa Lon’ pagoda lies 12 km outside of Soc Trang town. The temple is distinct, with walls and pillars studded with thousands of plates, bowls and cups. Originally given by local people for monks’ use, as more and more donations were made, monks used them to decorate the pagoda, giving it a unique appearance.

The pagodas are more than empty relics however. Still used by the devoutly Buddhist Khmer Krom people, the temples are living monuments. ‘Kampong Mean Chey Tuek Pray’ pagoda, located in Long Phu district, about 20 km from Soc Trang,, gives an insight into the daily life of Khmer Krom Buddhists.

Every religious holiday elderly women don white shirts and multi-coloured Hol or Phamoung skirts and amble towards the temple, betel nut boxes containing incense, candles, and flowers clutched in their wrinkled hands. Their male escorts inch along, careful not to spill their bowls stacked high with rice, soup, sweet desserts and fruits.

When the food has been delivered to the Sala Thoama Saphea (hall where Dharma – the Buddha’s teachings – are taught and discussed), worshippers make their way to the Preah Vihara (east facing hall containing a temple’s largest Buddha statue). Here everyone sits according to their grade of Dharma knowledge [see ‘10 Rules’]. The most senior sit at the front, where long curling columns of incense smoke swirl around the golden Buddha statue. Monks lead the loud Pali chants that echo from the hall into the sultry dawn.

"The separation of seats into different areas is to respect those people who have practiced Buddhism for a long time," explained a wizened grand father, one of the many worshippers. He added that Khmer Krom people are devout in their beliefs, unlike many ethnic Vietnamese.

"We follow our religion precisely as our ancestors did," he said. "We like to honour our ancestors and keep our identity as Khmer Krom."

Preah Dejakun Thach Nong, Head Monk of Peam Boun pagoda agreed. "Almost all Khmer Krom people follow Theravada Buddhism," he said. "They love their religion. They preserve the traditions in their lifestyle and society. Even people who don’t have money to offer the pagoda always give what they can – things like food and accessories needed by the monks and the pagoda.

Despite the relative poverty of the 40 Khmer Krom families who sponsor the pagoda, refurbishments that took 10 years have just been completed.

"The most of the funds and materials came from local people, even though they are only subsistence farmers and fishermen," said Nong. "People from So Trang town donated construction materials such as cement and iron. Some donations came from outside the local area."

Pagodas in the Mekong Delta are accessible, their doors always open to the local community. On festive days like Chol Chnam Thmey (Khmer New Year celebration), Ok Am-bok (Moon Prayer), Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival), or Pchum Benn (Ancestor Festival) the temples are crammed with celebrants.

Mr. Chhoam Chhat, Director of the Administrative Department of the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs of the Royal Government of Cambodia, said there are 3,980 officially registered Buddhist pagodas, with 59,470 monks living and studying in them in the kingdom of Cambodia.

"In the past, especially in the post-Angkor era, and throughout French and Japanese colonial rule, the pagoda played an important role in the field of education," he said. "Religious ceremonies and other national festivals are held there. Even today, in almost every village, the tradition of building schools in or near pagodas continues."

Finally, the ancient and noble culture of Khmer Krom is beginning to get the attention it deserves, though its future depends on the ideas of the young.

Anonymous said...

khmer krom people, please continue to preserve khmer identity in kampuchea krom land. please teach khmer language and arts there as well. thanks

RGNPWNER said...

good luck! I've always wanted to visit Cambodia