Constructed in 1962 by former King Sihanouk to replace the wooden pagoda built by his grandfather in 1902, the Silver Pagoda is so named because of its 5329 silver floor tiles, each around 20cm square and weighing more than a kilogram. It’s also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokot, the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha, after the green Baccarat crystal Buddha within. The pagoda itself is clearly influenced by Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo, also home to a precious crystal Buddha to which the one in Phnom Penh bears an uncanny resemblance. Although more than half its contents were stolen during the Khmer Rouge years, the pagoda itself survived pretty much unscathed, and was used to demonstrate to the few international visitors that the regime was caring for Cambodia’s cultural history. A rich collection of artefacts and Buddha images remains, making the pagoda more a museum than place of worship.
The vihara is approached by a stairway of specially imported Italian grey marble. On the veranda you’ll need to leave your shoes in the racks and check in your camera with the security guards. Upon entering the pagoda, the silver tiles are almost entirely covered with a protective red carpet now, but a few can be spotted around the edges, some delicately engraved with leaf motifs. Atop a five-tiered dais in the centre of the pagoda is the Emerald Buddha, seated in meditation. Some sources say this is a modern reproduction, though others date it from the seventeenth century; whatever the case, at just 50cm in height it’s put in the shade by the magnificence of the images surrounding it. One of the most dazzling is the life-sized solid gold Buddha at ground level, in the centre of the dais; produced in Phnom Penh in 1907 for King Sisowath, it weighs ninety kilograms and is encrusted with 2086 diamonds and precious stones taken from royal jewellery. To its left, a silver seated Buddha is perched on top of a display case, while to the right is a case containing some delightful gold statuettes depicting key events from the life of Buddha. The tiny, highly detailed representations show him taking his first steps as a child on seven lotus pads, meditating under a bodhi tree and reclining on reaching nirvana.
Tucked away behind the dais is a serene life-sized standing Buddha from Burma, the elegance of its aged, cream marble not diminished by the brash red of the wooden pedestal. A haphazard, though nonetheless interesting, collection of Buddhas and other artefacts lines the back wall. The weighty gilded-wood ceremonial litter, over two metres long, and complete with throne, was used to transport the king on coronation day and required twelve men to carry it.
Display cases containing a diverse collection of objects line the pagoda walls, which include daggers, cigarette cases, headdresses and masks used for performances of the Reamker by the Royal Ballet. Recently, many of the most impressive and precious exhibits have been replaced by a motley selection of frankly not very exciting items. It’s not known if they are away for restoration or have been removed permanently. Before leaving, check out the unusual stained-glass windows: one shows Hanuman astride a winged tiger.