You will want to visit Battambang if you're looking to have an immersion in the Khmer culture on your way to Angkor temples.
Battambang was a perfect stopover on my way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Another reason to stop here was the boat ride to Siem Reap.
On my first day, I wanted to walk to Aek Phnom, an ancient Khmer temple at 12 kilometres from the town.
That was actually a perfect excuse to find one or two celebrations on the way and spend time with the local people.
As a regular solo traveler to Asia, I know that I’m always invited everywhere and Battambang wasn’t an exception.
Instead of reaching Aek Phnom, I was invited for a cremation.
Paying a visit to the famous pagodas of Battambang.
I began to walk on the flat road to Aek Phnom, thinking I would quickly leave Battambang after a few visits to the most important pagodas.
But when one is as curious of the culture and traditions as me, each pagoda or event is also a good reason to spend long hours talking with the local people…
So I began to visit a first pagoda which the stair’s ramp represented the milk sea churning. This common scene of my favourite book, The Ramayana, is often depicted on the walls of the temples and I often saw it later in Angkor temples.
The second interest of this pagoda is its quiet cemetery where one finds a lot of circular Chinese tombs beautifully decorated. It’s possible to see bamboos, animals, dragons and phoenix, some scenes of the daily life, good luck fishes…
Chatting with the Monks.
The next pagoda I’ve visited is essential for Khmer people, especially the monks.
They learn everything there in pali, the sacred language of south Buddhism (Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand and of course Cambodia).
Its young leader is particularly respected for his high knowledge.
All the monks walk with a mini-radio to listen to the sacred texts.
The place is so reputed that the monks come from the whole country to study and have to share the cells at four or five, because of the lack of place.
Funny detail: a French group arrived, and was very surprised to see I was quietly sitting with the monks. It reminded me of my prejudice a few years ago, when I thought that a woman couldn’t talk to the Buddhist monks, or become friend with them.
Lunch in the temple
It would have been time to hurry if I wanted to arrive at Aek Phnom before night!
A few metres later, a lot of people were leaving the place; there should have been a prayer with the monks…
I was immediately invited to sit on the ground and to share the lunch with a group of old women: rice, vegetables, fish, and even coloured and sticky rice cakes, fresh mangos. One of the women was even able to speak French a little. She explained they were praying and offering for three monks who died a few years ago.
Before leaving, I wished to take a picture of them. Without waiting, they arranged their hair and dress while laughing. Finally, it’s even a part of the group cleaning the pagoda that will be on my pic, proudly sitting in front of the altar!
In the courtyard, the statues represent the scenes of Râmâyana’s fights, the Hindu myth as important for Asian people as Mahâbhârata. This narrative is common to a lot of countries: Indonesia, where one of the most famous shows for the tourists takes place at Prambanan temple close to Borobudur (a show for local people can last the whole night); India where there’s a lot of Kathakali performances ; Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Laos…
Invited for a cremation in Battambang.
I continued to walk on the road to Aek Phnom. But a bit farther, I changed my way again, following the music I heard.
I discovered a place for a cremation. The music led me in front of a house where some funerals were taking place. Immediately, a young woman proposed me to sit and enjoy the ceremony.
One by one, the guests dressing in white, were coming to our table to give money. Someone registered their name and the amount of the donation on a notebook, and the banknote was put into a silver cup. A red bracelet was tied around a wrist (I think it’s in order to avoid the escape of the nineteen souls. Such a ceremony shall be especially favourable to a mix of the family, guests and dead people’s souls). Three incense sticks, tied up together with the help of a banknote, and decorated with sweets and flowers, were given to everyone. The incense will be given to the family once arrived at the cremation place.
In the meantime, the relatives were praying around the coffin, which was decorated with flowers, candles and lighting garlands. There were the photo of the dead man, food and drink offerings, incense and candles on a small table.
A green light was lighting the photo, that will produce a strange feeling to someone watching my picture later (for him, green represents the colour of ghosts).
The monks were there. The family was praying with them and gave them offerings.
Step by step, the decorations of the coffin were put off. Photos of the relatives were taken in front of it, as I had already seen in Sulawesi.
Their clothes were covered by a kind of white paper costume. The men were wearing a white headband with a golden rectangle, while the women were wearing a cap of the same colour.
A young guy was wearing different clothes and had a special function, but I don’t know what…
The procession of the cremation.
The coffin was put on a vehicle full of green plants.
The monks took place with the ceremony master, the family and the young guy with a strange appearance. The ceremony master made for him a verdure crown and put it on his head.
The procession began and we walked around the village before joining the place of the cremation where the coffin was put on. The monks and the family turned three times around.
The relatives went on the platform to pray in front of the corpse. The monks (except one) and the young guy left.
The family will pray with the ceremony master and the monk during the whole afternoon. The monk will especially explain that the dead drowned himself.
Aek Phnom and the cremation night
In the meantime, one of the guests took me to Aek Phnom on his motorbike.
When we were back, we were invited for the lunch by the family.
At the cremation, the family continued praying, the monk was sitting in a meditation posture, without moving. The platform was illuminated and the people who wanted was singing some sacred songs.
Despite the kindness of my driver to Aek Phnom, I found safer to return to Battambang on the scooter of one of the young women who invited me as it was night.
I unfortunately couldn’t watch the pyre. Ona’s parents were worried to know her outside during the night and she had to return early.
Video of the cremation day.
And you, have you already visited Cambodia?
Have you been to Battambang? Do you have some tips or experience to share?
Will you visit Battambang during your next trip to Cambodia?
Use the comment section below.
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Stephanie Langlet is called Indie, the female Indiana Jones by her French readers.
She helps the travellers to feel comfortable outside of their comfort zone and to travel closer to the people and culture.
She is a Trip Planner, blogger and a Hospitality and Management Consultant.
Fond of the Tribes and Minorities, she’s specialised since 2012 in the tribes and festivals of Central India and have collaborated with Chhattisgarh Tourism Board to promote it. She’s often interviewed by the Indian medias.
In 2015, she was recognised as one of the Top 6 foreign bloggers about India by Holidify, and as an influencer for Chhattisgarh by Chhattisgarh Tourism Board.
She also runs her own guesthouse in the south-west of France, from May to October.
Her mission is to help to the preservation of the traditions of the World, through the promotion of the traditional festivals and customs.