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What’s a wat – and what’s not

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Cambodia’s wats are Buddhist monasteries, often generically referred to as pagodas, although they bear no resemblance to their Chinese namesakes. Wats are easily identified by the bright orange tiled roof of the principal building, the vihara, and can be vibrant, even wacky, affairs; the wealthier the foundation that runs the pagoda, the more extravagant the decoration, both inside and outside, with buildings painted in the most garish of primary colours, and courtyards featuring abundant and cartoonish statues of mythical beasts.

The term temple, on the other hand, is usually reserved for ancient Khmer monuments, dating from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries. Temples were generally built by kings to honour their ancestors or to serve as their state-temple – an image of the devaraja god associated with the king could be housed in a sanctuary tower. State-temples were seldom reused by successive kings, though occasionally they gained a new lease of life as monasteries.

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