The temples of Phnom Penh are lonely places.
They lack the glittering tiles and gilded facades of neighboring Thailand. They are painted in flat creams and beiges and are lost among the hasty construction of a developing city.'
Although ninety-five percent of Cambodians practice Buddhism, the majority of temples I have wandered into across the city are almost entirely devoid of worshipers.
When I lived in Thailand one could not walk a block in the city without stumbling upon a temple and, while the temples were packed only on major religious holidays, the temple doors were always open, and the insides always elaborately covered in red carpeting, murals and displays of towering gilded and wood carved Buddhas. On any day there could always be found a few families or old woman bearing offerings.
But here in Phnom Penh the doors to many temples remain shut. Gates have been erected around them, some locked. The courtyards go un-swept and often double as extra storage space for dusty bags of cement and bamboo scaffolding for construction projects.
I have stayed for a time on the edge of one such courtyard, sitting on the worn wooden steps leading up to a young man’s shack. The young man, who turned out to be a mechanic and repairman of sorts, had invited me to rest and we spoke briefly in my broken Khmer, while looking out through palm fronds on the cracked tiles, piles of debris and gilded lion statues.
This past December the New York Times ran an article analyzing the declining relevance of Buddhism in Thailand. “The temples were once the heart of village life, serving as meeting places, guesthouses and community centers. But many have become little more than ornaments of the past, marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society.”
In Cambodia, the decline is far starker.
During their four years of genocide, the Khmer Rouge targeted – among other groups – monks, effectively exterminating almost the entire religious order. They did away with wats as well, destroying most of them and converting the remaining few into arsenals, prisons and execution yards. At the temples of Angkor, bullet holes have added a layer of violent carving atop the12th Century dancing Apsara reliefs.
Like many aspects of Cambodian society, temples are still in the midst of a slow recovery. Thailand’s robust religious tradition never suffered direct attack and yet still religious relevance is waning with the influences of modernity. It is hard to predict the fate of the temples of Phnom Penh. It is hard to guess whether the bags of cement and poles of scaffolding filling the courtyards of pagodas will be used to repair the past or continue upwards, constructing more skyscrapers, storefronts and apartment buildings.