© Emily Lush 2015

Phnom Penh’s Pastel Temple: Wat Moha Montrei

Wat Moha Montrei is one of my favourite places in Phnom Penh. More than just a temple, it’s also a monastery, a primary school and a home for the community of people (and animals) who live, work, learn and worship inside the colourful complex.

Located in BKK1, the walled temple sits snugly against Sihanouk Boulevard (directly below the Olympic Stadium) and takes up an entire city block between Streets 163 and 173. I first cycled through one of the gates on a whim when I noticed motorbikes winding up and down the narrow laneways inside. The northern gate is perfectly aligned with the entrance to the Olympic Stadium, so some traffic diverts through the temple (despite this, it’s still very quiet). When you’re inside the stadium facing south, it’s Moha Montrei’s golden prangs and brightly painted outbuildings that you can see below.

There is barely any information about Moha Montrei available online, and unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone at the temple to ask. The wat was apparently built in 1970, named in tribute to King Monivong’s War Minister and used to store food during the Khmer Rouge period. The wat itself isn’t exactly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – its walls look like rendered concrete from a distance but are actually carved stone, a kind of three-dimensional floral wallpaper. It’s quite drab compared to the vibrant buildings and shrines that surround it.

The temple complex is a maze of spiritual, residential and commercial structures, linked by narrow ‘streets’ lined with travellers palms and frangipani trees. Some of the larger buildings have the unmistakable features of monastery accommodation: billowing orange robes draped over every balcony. Almost everything is painted in pastels – powder blue, lemon, peach and pink. Combined with the dove-grey stone and creamy coloured concrete of the smaller shrines, it’s a unique and rather beautiful palette for a Khmer temple. Even the most ramshackle buildings are adorned with little Apsara bas-reliefs and carved teak doors.

On Sundays, robed monks dot the sleepy grounds and the only sounds are of prayers played over a loud speaker and the muffled purrs of invisible cats. Monday mornings have a slightly different feel; Moha Montrei is overrun by children who attend class in the colourful school rooms that run along the complex’s southern side. A different kind of chanting (‘A, B, C…’) pours out of the shuttered windows and food vendors and tuk-tuk drivers rush to occupy every vacant space on the temple grounds.

As with many Buddhist sites, animals outnumber humans at Moha Montrei. Elderly dogs nap on doorsteps, cats lounge on every stone shelf and I found a litter of kittens tucked into the nook of a shrine. I was heartened to learn that PPAWS (the Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society) makes regular visits here to perform free check ups.

There is something about Moha Montrei that enthralls me – so much so that I visited three days in a row over the King’s Birthday long weekend. It’s a peaceful and reverent place but also a living, breathing community. More than just a design feature (or more realistically, a happy accident), the temple’s pastel colours give it a modern, optimistic feel. I was never able to go inside the wat itself – either because a ceremony was in progress (around 5pm) or because the main doors were locked (at 3pm and 9am) – but the temple is technically open to visitors every day between 6am and 6pm.

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