Travel Report: Samathi Pagoda, Kep.
Samathi Pagoda, Kep, Cambodia.
August 2020. After a somewhat disappointing afternoon hiking around Kep National Park, I found myself letting out a sigh of relief when our tuk tuk rumbled to a halt outside Samathi Pagoda. “Yes, we made it!”
From the moment Sladja and I spotted its orange-gold roof sticking out of the hills, we felt determined to find the place. This, I figured, was going to make up for the stuff we’d missed out on in the park. A pleasing end, hopefully, to a frustrating day. Making our way under the red arch, we emerged into Samathi Pagoda’s large, seemingly deserted entrance courtyard.
The entire space was spotlessly clean and largely silent, aside from the sound of faint birdsong. Tentatively moving towards the main cluster of buildings, I kept my eyes open for some historical info, but there was nothing.
Moreover, a quick search online delivered very little. Which is par for the course when it comes to Kep’s understated sights. In fact, dear readers, this seems to be Samathi Pagoda’s first dedicated blog post.
Constructed over a two year period between 2005-2007, the temple stands in tribute to the stories and associated imagery of Buddhism in Khmer culture. The buildings in the courtyards are prayer halls and residential quarters for monks and students. As we approached, an exceptionally friendly nun (“donchee” in Khmer) came out to greet us.
Samathi Pagoda, Kep.
Dressed in white robes and with a shaved head and eyebrows, Cambodia’s resident pagoda nuns usually work in service of male monks. Typically, they’ll spend their days cooking and cleaning the grounds.
The lady at Samathi Pagoda spoke not a lick of English. However, that didn’t stop her from insisting we join her at one of the outdoor tables. And there she sat smiling at us warmly and muttering to herself in Khmer for several minutes. She was lovely, but it got so awkward we soon found ourselves making polite excuses.
The nun pointed us towards the giant stone staircase that leads up to the pagoda’s main temple. According to what little online info I could find, there are two hundred and fifty six steps flanked by protective Naga serpents. And yeah, it was certainly a workout dragging ourselves up to the top!
More than a touch out of breath, I waited for Sladja on the grassy platform with its banana and mango trees. And then realised there was another staircase to negotiate in order to reach the temple.
In the corner of the platform, under some trees, I suddenly caught sight of a young monk sat at a pretty stone table. Dressed in signature orange, he lifted his head momentarily to give me a smile, before turning his attention back to his mobile phone. “Hello!” I called, but he didn’t look back up.
What To See & Do, Kep.
At the top of the staircase two we entered the main prayer hall, an unremarkably standard affair for anyone familiar with the Asian temple circuit. What’s more, it seemed virtually identical to another Kep temple, Samot Raingsey, which we’d stumbled upon during our day exploring the town’s abandoned colonial villas.
Happily though, the balcony more than made up for it, with a simply stunning panoramic across Kep’s jungle, beach and sea.
And no wonder, as the pagoda apparently sits around eight hundred metres above sea level. Definitely worth a selfie.
Another thing I’ll always remember the pagoda for is its amazing collection of sculptures. There on the balcony, for example, stands a striking four-faced Buddha, known as Phra Phrom. A deity of good fortune and protection, worshippers usually shower him with gifts of incense, jasmine flowers and coconut milk.
Most of the pagoda’s sculptures sit at the base of the elevated prayer hall in an incredibly atmospheric garden accessed by another short staircase. Here, there’s a series of golden animals, including cows, chickens, roosters and parrots. All symbols of protection and good fortune of course.
Samathi Pagoda, Kep.
Elsewhere, I came across a giant elephant gazing out at sea through the trees.
And a pair of tiny twin Buddhas cosied up against one of the crumbly stone walls.
Finally, before heading back down to street level, where our tuk tuk driver patiently waited, there was a fearsome battle scene. Snarling tigers, dagger-clutching monkey warriors and grand ships heading towards some manner of mystery foe. A curious end to another fascinating day in the Cambodian town of Kep.
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