Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wat Bo: Scenes of daily life

Wall painting of ordinary life scene in the vihear of Wat Bo, Siem Reap

Vihear (temple), Wat Bo, Siem Reap, Cambodia

I'm fascinated by the occasional representation of ordinary life that can be found in old Khmer art. Unlike the usual depictions of deities, royalty and religious tales, images of daily life (e.g. bas-reliefs of a market scene on the Angkorian-era Bayon) provide revealing glimpses into common Cambodia, the life that most people of the time knew, but was only rarely recorded for posterity. Though much more recent than the 12th century carvings on Bayon, several scenes of turn-of-the-century French colonial Cambodia are tucked amongst the century-old wall paintings of Siem Reap's Wat Bo pagoda, including the amazing tableau pictured above. Sometimes called the 'market scene,' it portrays several shops and dozens of people, many of them foreigners, involved in activities ranging from hauling water and selling silks to meeting friends and getting stoned.

Panels depicting the Reamker
Wat Bo is one of Siem Reap town's earlier pagodas, likely founded in the 18th century. (Wat Preah Prom Rath, reputedly Siem Reap's oldest, was founded in the 16th century.) The vihear of Wat Bo (the main temple building) is at least a century old, constructed with an old-style segmented roof. Like many Cambodian vihears the interior walls are adorned with paintings, but Wat Bo's paintings are quite uncommon. Instead of the usual scenes from Buddhist lore, the wall paintings of Wat Bo depict the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the classic Hindu epic the Ramayana. It is one of the few Cambodian pagodas to do so, (another being the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.) (Harris, 2005, 'Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice', pg 90-91.) Even the presentation of the paintings is unique, displayed in quilt-like patchwork, possibly inspired by a shadow puppet presentation of the epic (Giteau, 1975, Iconographie du Cambodge post Angkorien, EFEO.) Unfortunately many of the lower panels have been damaged or even whitewashed over. Scenes of ordinary life including foreign soldiers and French officers at a traditional dance performance are primarily located along the bottom edge of the surviving paintings. The painting of the 'market scene' is placed prominently in the center of the front (east) wall, between the entrance doors, at about eye level.

Monks at Wat Bo estimate the painting to be about a hundred years old, which corresponds well with the costumes depicted. It's about a meter wide and a half-meter tall. Though sometimes referred to as the 'market scene,' it looks more like a street scene to me. The compartments in the upper half are not shaped like market stalls but like shophouses (combined shop and home) that are longer than wide. And though the presence of wares seems to indicate that they are shops, the proprietors also seem to be engaged in homey activities including grooming and smoking. The painting would appear to be a representation of a row of shophouses with proprietors (upper register,) and people passing in the street in front of the shophouses (lower register).

French soldiers from panel on east wall.
The scene appears to be set sometime between 1890 and 1920 and contains at least 34 people (more may have been painted over at the edges.) Each individual is unique and displays characteristics (dress, facial features, activity...) indicative of a particular ethnicity, profession, gender, status, etc. In an effort to understand these individual characters I met with the head monk of Wat Bo pagoda last week, Ven. Chou Lim Leang, who graciously granted me almost two hours of his time to discuss the painting. Though he didn't know the complete story, he was able to identify several characters as well as point out some of the cultural cues and indicators, (e.g. neck scarf and sampot chang kben on males indicating Khmer ethnicity,) allowing some informed speculation.

Like others, the head monk estimated the painting to be about 100 years old. He asserted that it was not a representation of some particular market or street of the time, but was rendered in the spirit, style and even time of the Reamker (or Angkor) with contemporary characters that the artist had seen in his daily life inserted into the scene. Further, that the characters were signifiers of peoples present in Cambodia at the time - Chinese, Indians, Khmer and ethnic minorities. I tend to disagree. The costumes and accoutrements (e.g. umbrellas, guns, clock) are contemporary with the artist. The architecture is not inconsistent with the artist's time. And the presence of Europeans would seem to contradict the notion that these are signifiers from a millennium ago. This is a contemporary scene.

The following descriptions of the various characters from the painting are not definitive but amount more to notes from the meeting with the head monk, talks with other monks and guides over the years, and my own speculation. I have not been able to find any significant writings on this painting but I figure there must be something on it somewhere, most likely in French. If you know of any existing papers or articles, please let me know.

Upper Register

The upper register appears to consist of a row of seven shophouses, each displaying products for sale (mostly silks/textiles), and each shop with its proprietor lounging, presumably waiting for customers and often engaged in some personal activity. Each shophouse is much longer than it is wide (like classic Southeast Asian shophouses) with tile roofs and stairs at the front leading up from the street level to the shop area. Below this register is the street scene in front of the shop houses. Above this register is a completely separate painting, part of the Ramayana story.

A: Female with fan. Selling silks/textiles. Basket or bowl on table. She is most likely Khmer or Chinese..

B: Khmer female with mirror and comb, in the act of combing her hair and gazing into mirror. Selling silks. Both finished silks and silk thread (on hook) on display. Two traditional Cambodian bowls on table. (Bowls of this design are common and can still be found in Cambodian homes.) Regarding her ethnicity, the neck scarf suggests she is Khmer.

C: Chinese male sitting and smoking opium pipe. Selling silks/textiles. The head monk suggested that there are  non-Cambodian patterns on the display silks. Oil lamp (mong son) on table. Octagonal wall clock on wall (note the face of the clock is incorrect) possibly indicating that this is a wealthy man.

D: Indian male sitting and smoking pipe. In 'Siem Reap Pagodas' (2000), Zepp suggested that this individual may be Turkish, based in part on the style of pipe. But the head monk posited that he is Indian, citing eastern dress, facial characteristics (facial hair, "sharp nose") and the presence of Indian traders in Cambodia at the time. Note the similarity between this guy and #4 in the lower register, seemingly of the same ethnicity/nationality. Selling silks/textiles. Two jars on table possibly containing other sales items and/or what ever it is he is smoking.

E: Female sitting. Hair knotted back. Ethnicity uncertain, due in part to the damage to the painting. Selling silks and possibly perfumes/fragrances. Finished silks on display. The monk noted of the patterns on the silks, suggesting Angkor-style flower-in-diamond (p'ka-chan) pattern. Two sets of two bottles each on the table, fluted and ornate design, possibly containing perfume/fragrance.

F: Male sitting and smoking pipe. Ethnicity uncertain. Eastern/Chinese shirt, smoking a southern Chinese, hilltribe or perhaps Burmese pipe (opium, tobacco, ganja?). Facial feature suggesting a possible non-Asian ethnicity. Chinese? Birman? Shan (Khmer-kola)? European? A barang 'gone native'? Selling silks/textiles. Finished silks/textiles on display.

G: Khmer female gazing into hand mirror. Selling silks. Both finished silks and silk thread (on hook) on display. Oil lamp (mong son) and bottle on table. Regarding her ethnicity, the scarf suggests Khmer ethnicity.

Lower Register

The lower register appears to be a street scene consisting of at least 27 people engaged in various activities. Several foreigners are amongst the characters including at least 3 Europeans. Many of the characters are depicted in pairs, walking, working, talking together. In some cases the characters seem placed in contrast to each other, e.g. a pair of fancy city folk next to a pair of hilltribesmen. At least one character at the edge (#1) has been painted over.

1: Khmer (?) male (?). Note what appears to be a sampot chang kben, suggesting Khmer ethnicity. Image almost totally obliterated.
2: Khmer male. Wearing a neck scarf and a sampot, suggesting Khmer ethnicity. Image is badly damaged.

3: Malay male. (Re ethnicity: note the style of hat and a male wearing a sarong.) Carrying a shoulder bag, a large umbrella with an bamboo handle and a ring of objects in the other hand, perhaps bells of keys.

4: Indian male with umbrella. Note similarities to 'D' in the upper register - dress, facial hair/features, pipe. Also see note on ethnicity in 'D' above.

5-6: Pair of Khmer males. Note neck scarf and sampot chang kben, both suggestive of Khmer ethnicity. The monk posited that the umbrellas were a indicator that they are Khmer-Kola (Shan), an ethnic minority group formerly present in western Cambodia.

7: A caucasian foreigner of some sort, likely European. Blond with facial hair. Wearing what appears to be a military uniform, but quite different from the French uniforms which are well represented in Wat Bo wall paintings (see photo of French soldiers above.) The monk suggested the red coat indicated that he is British.

8: Chinese male with shoulder stick and baskets. Note style of shirt and hat.

9: Pair of males. Ethnicity uncertain. The monk noted that the sarongs indicated that they were perhaps Malay or Cham. This pair seems unique. Though most of pairs are touching each another in some way, this is by far the closest, the most intimate embrace of them all. They are turned toward each other and may even be gazing at each other. Could this be a gay couple? Or perhaps the market "catamites" noted in Zhou Daguan's 13th century account of Angkor, 'The Customs of Cambodia'?

11-12: Pair of foreigners greeting one another. Note blond hair and mustache on #11. The monk suggests that #11 is in fact a Khmer official and that the hair color is a deterioration of the paint. I disagree. He looks clearly European to me.

13-14-15: This is either a group of three or a pair (the center and right) and a stand alone individual (the left.) The hats and style of clothing would seem to link them. It has been variously suggested that they are Europeans (based on the bowler hats), French provincial governors, and a group of Chinese men. The first time I saw this painting about 15 years ago, a young monk there specifically said that the left-hand character "is not Charlie Chaplin." I'm not sure why he said that, but once mentioned I couldn't stop noticing the resemblance - the hat, the umbrella, the pants, shoes and dark coat, the seeming little mustache. Chaplin (known as 'Cha-Lo' in Cambodia) was very popular in Cambodia and it is easy to see how someone might come to suggest this is Chaplin, or perhaps even how Chaplin's image could come to be painted on a pagoda wall amongst early 20th century characters.

16-17: Pair of French (?) soldiers, unarmed, carrying walking sticks. Though this painting is in rough shape, there are several good examples of French soldiers on the northern wall, wearing similar but not identical uniforms. (See photo of French soliers above.)

18: Uncertain. Male (?) with shoulder bag, machete (?), and walking stick.

19: Khmer (?) female with water jug (?).

20-21: Pair of hilltribesmen (ethnic minority people) with shoulder stick, carrying wild boar.

22-23: Pair of Khmer males. Note neck scarf and sampot chang kben, indicating Khmer ethicity. The monk suggests that from their dress they appear to be rich and/or city folk, in contrast to the hilltribesmen on either side of them.

24-25: Pair of hilltribesmen (ethnic minority people.) Which tribe might be identifiable by headgear and dress. One carrying a fluted bottle.

26: Uncertain. Male (or female?) carrying umbrella (and fish?). Similar hat and facial structure to 'F' in upper register?

27: Male with shoulder stick, hauling water.


  1. Thanks for your thorough discussion of this and great photos! I've been to Wat Bo to see their extensive archaeological collections (salvaged by monks during extensive looting at Phum Snay in Banteay Meanchey)but had no idea about this painting. Thanks!

    1. When I went to meet the monk in his quarters I was escorted through a room which may have been that collection of artifacts - rows of glass cases filled with old pottery and other artifacts. They said that many of the pieces were brought to the pagoda over the years by common folk who found it at various sites in the mountains and countryside.

  2. Interesting to see the French soldiers.
    All fascinating.
    Cheers, ic

  3. Really interesting exploration of an artworld I knew nothing about. Thanks for introducing me :)

  4. hi my name deighton I am from new zealand and I have a few questions about your country?

    1. What’s your national animal?
    2. What is your national religion?
    3. What is the national plant?
    4. What is your national food?
    5. Do you like your national food?
    6. Do you have big houses in Cambodia?
    7. Is the life style different in Cambodia?
    8. Do you have a national sport?
    9. What is the money called?
    10. Is all of your family Cambodian?
    thanks for your time please reply

    from deighton

    melville intermeadiate,hamilton,new zealand