You don’t have to be religious to undertake spiritual travel and seek out transcendental experiences. Here are some ideas for travellers seeking enlightenment in Cambodia, the predominantly Buddhist country that is home to stupendous Angkor Wat.
Spiritual Travel — Transcendental Experiences in Cambodia
Sunrise at the largest religious structure in the world
There is something uplifting about savouring the sunrise at spectacular Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Buddhist temple-city near Siem Reap, and the largest religious building in the world.
While some complain about the crowds, I like the sound of the collective sighs of a few hundred people — and in high season, a few thousand — as they gasp in awe at the glorious beauty of that big orange ball of fire as it appears in the sky, silhouetting the splendid temple.
Soon after the sky turns a cobalt blue and begins its transformation of the elegant laterite and sandstone temple-city from cool grey dappled stones to warm peach, apricot and brown, most visitors return to their tour buses and tuk tuks to trundle into town for breakfast, leaving only a dozen or so excited travellers to discover the colossal temple on their own.
Most travellers start their exploration at the front entrance to the temple but I like to begin at the back of the sublime 12th century structure that began life as a Hindu temple, monastery or mausoleum, during the reign of the Khmer Empire king Suryavarman II. I suggest you do the same if you prefer to be alone to savour its beauty.
Angkor Wat is a classic, symmetrical temple-city that replicates the Hindu universe, its five towers symbolising the peaks of Mount Meru, home to the Hindu pantheon at the centre of the universe, while its sanctuary walls represent the mountains at the edge of the world, and its moat the cosmic ocean.
I love to stroll the corridors, admiring the bas-reliefs, before climbing the steep steps until I reach the highest point, a tower decorated with intricate carvings of voluptuous Apsara dancers, from where I can savour the sprawling remnants of an extraordinary empire and appreciate the evidence of a great undertaking.
Explore the holiest mountain in Cambodia
I also love to rise in the darkness for the drive east to remote Phnom Kulen, Mountain of the Lychees, the holiest mountain in Cambodia, where the Khmer Empire was founded in AD 802, when a Brahmin priest performed a ritual that made Jayavarman II ‘universal monarch’ of what would become one of Asia’s most powerful empires.
The city he built, now buried beneath the jungle, was once known as Mahendraparvata and Phnom Kulen was considered the Mountain of Indra, Hindu king of men and god of the sky, rain and prosperity.
However, it was the gods Shiva and Vishnu who held greater significance to the Khmer people, who adopted Hindu deities. Many temples were dedicated to Shiva, supreme protector of the empire, while Vishnu watched over universal order and harmony.
Mount Kulen, a 492 metre high, 32 kilometre long plateau, is blanketed in thick vegetation and dotted with tiny farms and miniscule villages. It was the location of the quarries from where the stone came that built Angkor Wat and other Angkorian temple cities.
It was also the home of the artisans who carved the intricately detailed decorations and statuary for the temples, and it’s also the site of a massive 16th-century reclining gold Buddha carved out of solid rock at Preah Ang Thom, a destination for Buddhist pilgrims where monks can be found praying and chanting, as they can right across the plateau.
Visit the Buddhist pagodas of Battambang
A few hours drive west from Siem Reap around the Tonle Sap or Great Lake to Battambang, it’s not necessary to clamber ancient temples or climb mountains to get a sense of the spiritual in Cambodia.
As in Siem Reap, monks stroll the riverbank, ride on motor bikes, and each morning make their alms processions through town to receive offerings and give blessings in return. However, unlike Siem Reap, which has only a handful of significant pagodas in town, there are over a dozen scattered about the city.
You can hire a tuk tuk driver to take you to the various Buddhist pagodas in Battambang, as well as out to the lush countryside, where you can visit even more, as well as ancient Hindu temples, and Muslim riverside settlements where the call-to-prayer sounds from slender mosque minarets.
One day, on a drive through the leafy villages during Pchum Ben (Ancestors Festival) we stopped at a pagoda to find villagers assembling trays of food for the ‘hungry ghosts’, their long-departed loved-ones, to whom they offered sustenance by way of the monks.
All we wanted to do was take some photos, yet we found ourselves being offered steaming bowls of aromatic soup by the villagers, closely observing the rituals of the occasion, and returning the smiles of friendly monks.
Scramble temples, visit mountain shrines
There are two Khmer Empire archaeological sites near Battambang that you should visit. Around 13km north of town, Prasat Ek Phnom is a dilapidated 11th century ruin on a grassy knoll, built before Angkor Wat.
You’ll be disappointed if you expect a similar sense of grandeur to the temples of Angkor. Instead, simply delight in the lotus ponds, tranquil setting, intricate carving depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk, and the chance to see monks scrambling the ruins.
You should also have your fortune read by the gentleman with the serene smile in the booth at the base of the site. After, you can stop to pay your respects at Wat Somrong Knong and the Well of Shadows that memorialises those who died at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
The drive to hilltop Wat Banan, 22km south of Battambang, is best begun at sunrise, due to the lively early morning activity along Banan Road. Banan’s five crumbling pre-Angkorian towers boast intricate carvings, while the first contains Buddha statues in tangerine robes, with colourful flowers and flags flapping in the wind.
On the way back you can take a detour to Phnom Sampeau for panoramic views of the surrounding pancake-flat plains, mischievous macaque monkeys, and the macabre Killing Caves memorial, filled with bones of more victims of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a somber albeit special experience watching the sun set from the top of the mountain.
Late one afternoon we visited Phnom Sampeau for sunset to see the spectacle of millions of bats flying from an enormous cave to sleep in nearby trees. The Khmer people believe the bats are carrying the souls of the dead to heaven. I took comfort in that thought as we trundled back to town as the sun sank beneath the horizon and I heard myself sigh.
Travelling in Cambodia is full of such transcendental moments. Sometimes they happen serendipitously. But spiritual travel can also be arranged.
Here are some more special experiences to consider:
Observe an Alms Giving
You don’t have to travel all the way to Laos to observe the daily ritual of giving alms to monks and novices, although Luang Prabang certainly has the most impressive tak bat procession due to the picturesque streetscapes and the abundance of pagodas in and around the historic centre.
The mandarin-robed monks and novices get out and about every morning to receive alms across Cambodia. They don’t venture out en masse as they do in Luang Prabang. Thanks to some donations made to pagodas there isn’t a need. When they do venture out in Siem Reap they tend to stick to the areas where there are businesses and Cambodians can afford to make donations and they don’t always leave at sunrise. Sometimes the monks wander down our street in Siem Reap as late as 7-8am and in Battambang we’ve seen them line up outside the market and pass through the historic centre at 7.30am and later.
If you’re interested in observing the alms-giving procession, ask your hotel a local for details. Some hotels can arrange for their guests to make offerings with their staff. If you’re only interested in capturing the spectacle in photos, then do see our tips on participating in and photographing the alms giving to monks.
Meet a Monk
You can stroll the grounds of any pagoda in Cambodia and chat to the monks and novice monks who are happy to practice their English. If you’re shy, in Siem Reap, Peace Café offers a more formal ‘monk chat’, along with meditation and yoga classes and vegetarian food, in their tropical garden.
As part of Sabai Adventures’ Origin Tour you get to spend an hour with a monk, who will show you around his pagoda while giving you an insight into Buddhism, the life of Buddha, and the daily life of a monk. You also get to visit a stonemasonary workshop and Bokator academy on the same tour.
Be Blessed By A Monk
You can be doused with a light sprinkling of water or participate in a more elaborate ritual where (while wearing a sarong) you will be saturated in the water blessed by the monks and receive a special red wrist tie from the monks to signify the blessing was performed. It’s said the water blessing brings peace and happiness.
Be a Monk or Nun
In a tranquil Siem Reap village, Angkor Bodhi Tree Retreat offers the chance to be a Monk or Nun for a while. Led by an English-speaking monk or nun, the 12-day experience focuses on spiritual development, allowing you to live amongst monks or nuns to learn about their lives.
The first stage prepares you for your time at Wat Swei Romeat, where days start with 4am prayers. In addition to meditations, prayers and chanting, there are tasks around the pagoda and a full ordination ceremony, including (for men only) having your head and eyebrows shaved and wearing robes. You’ll sleep on the floor in a single room and eat simple food.
If that’s too great a commitment, the Retreat also offers spiritual day-trips, including pagoda visits, time with monks, blessings, evening chanting, and sunset meditation at an Angkor temple.
Meditate Your Way to Mindfulness
Near the old capital of Oudong, a short drive from Phnom Penh, the Vipassana Meditation Center of Cambodia offers meditation courses covering the four bases of mindfulness and 73 methods of Insight Meditation.
There is a focus on ‘Samatha’, meaning the path to ‘calmness’ or ‘peace’, which was followed by the Buddha himself and is a central tradition of Buddhist Meditation, training the mind to develop inner strength and freedom from turmoil, leading to clarity and understanding.