Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wat etiquette

Unless you are suffering from amnesia, you'll know that I have a book coming out in the middle of this year. It's called To Cambodia With Love and will contain 125+ essays from over 60 people who have a passion for this wonderful country. As part of the process for selecting suitable essays for the book, I had to discard quite a few for various reasons, even though they contain valuable information and merit publication in one form or another. So that some of those which didn't make the final cut get some exposure, I intend to post them here, starting off with the appropriate etiquette when visiting a wat/pagoda in Cambodia by Caroline Nixon.

What to do in a wat - by Caroline Nixon
While the Angkorian temples in Siem Reap are Cambodia’s main attraction, there is also much to be gained from a visit to any Buddhist temple or wat. The Khmer Rouge did their best to stamp out Buddhism, but after the Vietnamese occupation Buddhism began to revive, and now the majority of the population practice Theravada Buddhism. As you travel through the country you will see many wats, and you will be very welcome to take a look inside. You will be all the more welcome if you behave in a way that respects Khmer custom.

Firstly, Cambodians are modest dressers and particularly so when visiting the wat. It will be appreciated if visitors wear clothes that cover their shoulders, knees and midriffs. Strappy tops, shorts and plunging necklines are not appropriate. As they enter the temple compound, Cambodians will remove their hat, and you should do likewise. It’s okay to wear your shoes as you explore the compound, but they need to removed before entering the buildings, usually just at the door, occasionally at the bottom of the steps – a little pile of shoes will usually give you a clue as to where to leave yours.

Ahead of you will be a shrine with several Buddha images. Cambodians will always keep their head lower than that of religious images or respected persons, and will lower their heads on entering the temple, then kneel in front of the images to pray. You don’t need to kneel and pray, but when you are near the shrine it will be appreciated if you sit or kneel, rather than looming above the images and worshippers. You will notice that Cambodians kneel with their feet tucked behind them. This is because pointing the foot at something or someone is considered disrespectful, so try not to point your feet at Buddha images or monks.

The majority of the monks you meet at wats will be novices, there for a short period, often to get an education. You may also meet some more senior monks. Usually they will be keen to practice their English and explain the stories depicted in the paintings on the temple walls. Women should remember that monks are not allowed any physical contact with them. Unlike in many other southeast asian countries, in Cambodia it is permissible for women to hand directly to a monk, though older and more senior monks may ask them to hand it to a male who will then hand it to them. If you’d like to make a donation to a wat, there is usually a donation box in front of the shrine.

You will be welcome to wander around and look at the wall paintings and images, and to take photos, though it is polite to ask. Younger monks will be happy to pose for photos, but more senior ones may prefer not to, or will wish you to wait while they arrange their robes correctly and strike a dignified pose before you snap. Cambodians are far too polite to call attention to inappropriate behaviour, but your visit will be more welcome if you are sensitive to these customs.

FactFile: There are wats to be found all over Cambodia. In fact at the last census there were over 3,700 wats with at least 50,000 resident monks. You will be hard pressed not to find a wat close at hand. Cambodian Buddhism exists side by side with animism, and spirits are believed to inhabit a variety of objects and you will see shrines to these spirits in the grounds of pagodas, houses, along roads and in forests. One of the most important people at a wat, beside the head monk of course, is the achar, a specialist in ritual, who functions as a kind of master of ceremonies at the wat. Below are some monks from Wat Sleng in Kompong Thom.

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