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Within the Royal Palace compound is the extravagant Silver Pagoda, also known as Wat Preah Keo or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It is so named for its floor, which is covered with five tons of gleaming silver. You can sneak a peek at some of the 5000 tiles near the entrance, but most are covered to protect them.
The staircase leading to the Silver Pagoda is made of Italian marble. Rivalling the silver floor is the Emerald Buddha, an extraordinary Baccarat-crystal sculpture sitting atop an impressive gilded pedestal. Adding to the lavish mix is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats. Created in the palace workshops during 1906 and 1907, the gold Buddha weighs 90kg. Directly in front of it, in a Formica case, is a miniature silver-and-gold stupa containing a relic of Buddha brought from Sri Lanka. To the left is an 80kg bronze Buddha, and to the right a silver Buddha. On the far right, figurines of solid gold tell the story of the Buddha.
The pagoda was originally constructed of wood in 1892 during the rule of King Norodom, who was apparently inspired by Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, and was rebuilt in 1962. It was preserved by the Khmer Rouge to demonstrate to the outside world its concern for the conservation of Cambodia’s cultural riches. Although more than half of the pagoda’s contents were lost, stolen or destroyed in the turmoil that followed the Vietnamese invasion, what remains is spectacular. This is one of the few places in Cambodia where bejewelled objects embodying some of the brilliance and richness of Khmer civilisation can still be seen.
Along the walls of the pagoda are examples of extraordinary Khmer artisanship, including intricate masks used in classical dance and dozens of gold Buddhas. The many precious gifts given to Cambodia’s monarchs by foreign heads of state appear rather spiritless when displayed next to such diverse and exuberant Khmer art. (Note that photography is not permitted inside the Silver Pagoda.)