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Cambodia & Culture: Wat Moha Leap, a marvel of Buddhist architecture

Cambodia has several thousand pagodas throughout the country, but historic temples dating from before the 19th century are rare.

The entire sanctuary
The entire sanctuary

For centuries, these buildings were constructed from wood. Cambodia's tropical climate made this material highly perishable, and time took its toll on them, not to mention the lack of maintenance. What's more, the terrible period of the Khmer Rouge finally wiped them out, with a very large number of pagodas destroyed during this period. The French protectorate brought in reinforced concrete at the end of the 19th century, and from then on the pagodas were built using this material.

Dragons and bells on the roof to prevent spirits from wandering
Dragons and bells on the roof to prevent spirits from wandering

The pagoda of vat Moha Leap, in the Kampong Cham region, resisted the Khmer Rouge and was used as a hospital, but this occupation probably saved it. According to Danielle and Dominique-Pierre Gueret, authors of a monumental study of religious architectural monuments in Cambodia, Wat Moha Leap is almost certainly the only temple built entirely of wood to survive in the country today.

The finely sculpted base
The finely sculpted base

They date it from before 1880. The temple has recently undergone renovation. We had the honour of being among the very first visitors to see it in all its splendour, in the summer of 2017.

The main façade of the temple
The main façade of the temple

From Kompong Cham, after more than two hours in a tuktuk on laterite tracks through immense rubber forests, we reach the village on the banks of the Tonle Touch.

The pagoda seems deserted on this late August morning. By chance, we meet three young boys who find the keys and open the vihara for us. Inside, we marvel at a forest of teak poles, painted black and decorated with gold stencilled motifs.

We were the only visitors here inside the temple
We were the only visitors here inside the temple

These posts support the enormous roof structure and divide the building into five naves. Each post is said to be made from a single teak trunk. The paintings on the purlins and rafters and on the ceiling are original.

The sumptuous original ceiling decoration
The sumptuous original ceiling decoration
The poles are said to be made from a single teak trunk
The poles are said to be made from a single teak trunk

The little river is navigable only from July to December; at other times, it is safer to travel by land. If you don't have a guide, it's a good idea to have some knowledge of Khmer to ask for directions, as there are many small bends along the way. Otherwise, most tuktuk drivers are familiar with the area.

Text and photos by Francis Goussard

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