Sunday, January 8

Cambodia highlights – Wat Hanchey

Wat Hanchey is about 20km up the Mekong River from the provincial town of Kompong Cham.
As soon as the MV Mekong Pandaw dropped anchor at the muddy landing area large numbers of small children appeared and joined our group as we walked to the temple along a path, part dirt and part concrete with inset steps.
The temple complex sits on top of a hill with good views of the river - when the weather is fine. Unfortunately our visit coincided with low clouds followed by heavy rain so visibility was limited!
The oldest part of Wat Hanchey dates from the 7th or 8th century, before the glory days of the Khmer empire when Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were built in the 12th century. It’s a weather-worn red brick edifice but crowded all around are more recent temples, pagodas, stupas, houses and statues. The statues are weird; they depict mythical heroes and creatures, wild and domestic animals, a huge variety of fruit … and three sausages on a stick (local fast-food vendors sell these from motorised carts – the real thing not large plaster facsimiles).
I was expecting Wat Hanchey to be an isolated ruin but in fact it’s a thriving religious site, home to many young monks. When the Khmer Rouge ruled the country, between 1975 and 1979, most of Cambodia’s Buddhist monks were murdered and nearly all of the country’s wats (more than 3000) were damaged or destroyed. Many have since been restored with funds raised by villagers, and young novice monks in bright saffron robes are a common sight. All Buddhist males are expected to spend some time as a monk sometime in their lives although nowadays it may only be for a short time, one or two weeks even. It’s a way to acquire merit and reduce the number of reincarnations needed before they achieve nirvana.
The rain turned into a monsoon-like downpour. We left the tour guides and wandered around the area on our own until a Pandaw crewman told us there was another way down the hill. This was longer but wound through fields with the white cows that you see everywhere in the Cambodian countryside. Actually the cows were also all over the road – another thing you see all over Cambodia - but there wasn’t much traffic so it wasn’t a problem as long as you kept an eye open for the droppings!