For most people, it’s Angkor Wat.
Personally, I loved the 100 Pillars Pagoda in Kratie the first time I laid eyes on its Buddhist murals and candy-cane columns.
But Banteay Prey Nokor in Kampong Cham might just be my new favourite pagoda. It’s kind of a combination of Angkor and 100 Pillars; a post-modern fusion that is ancient and modern both at once. On closer inspection, you can see why: a new pagoda has been build over and around the original temple, resulting in a strange blend of architectural features (research tells me this is called a ‘Chatre’ effect).
Stone relief carvings reminiscent of Bayon outside, elaborate murals and colonial-style floor tiles inside, Nokor has it all. The ambiance is slightly menacing and it’s not exactly well cared for – but to me, that only adds to the temple’s charm.
Wat Nokor, the main temple, is 13th Century-vintage, dating back to the final years of Jayavarman VII’s reign. Our tuk-tuk driver informed us that this particular ruler was a peacemaker and built Nokor – which blends Hindu and Buddhist flourishes – as a symbol of unification for a Cambodia divided along religious lines.
The main temple itself is built of black sandstone. Huge blocks of puckered laterite are stacked outside to form an exterior wall, which is skirted by smaller shrines, pavilions and prayer halls that have been added to the complex over the years.
Inside the new pagoda, incredibly intricate Buddhist murals stretch from floor to ceiling over every surface. The mid-morning light filtering through the columns is a sight to behold. Elements of the stone structure jut out here and there, creating beautiful contrasts of tone and texture. Light and shade is a good way to think about Wat Nokor. The pagoda is stunning, but it has a darker side – acting as something of a refuge for a group of older Khmers who appear to live inside.
Banteay Prey Nokor is high up on my list of favourite Southeast Asian pagodas. It should play a starring role in any good Kampong Cham itinerary.