At first glance, Wat Mondul Seyma (also known as Wat Kuk) seems like your typical peaceful Buddhist temple in Cambodia. The temple itself rests in the shade of tall trees, colourful prayer flags ripple in the wind, and pious monks and laymen place burning sticks of incense onto altars and pray amid murals that depict the story of Buddha’s life and teachings. However, follow the non-descript path behind the temple down to the riverbank, and a much more grisly scene unfolds.
As you make your way to the rocky outcroppings next to the banks of the Stung Metuk River, you come across a bizarre set of statues. Crawling frantically up a spiny tree are three naked and bleeding figures who appear to be trying to escape a devilish figure sneering up at them from the base of the tree while his dog barks menacingly beside him. Next to the tree, there is massive boulder with an unfortunate soul being sawed in half by two smirking demons.
You would be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of twisted theme park, where only the truly sadistic would spend an afternoon. However, a sign next to the figures explains that this is in fact Buddhist hell, and this is what happens in the afterlife to those who commit sins in this life. More a lesson in morality than a macabre playground, the scenes here are a warning against specific wrongdoings.
For example, the tree climbers represent what happens to those who commit adultery, while the man being sawed in half is warning against corruption. Two emaciated figures holding up a massive boulder on their bloody shoulders pay the price for robbing the less fortunate of land and power, while a menagerie of half-human, half-animal figures take turns being gutted by evil demons— a terrifying sign of what is to come for those who take the lives of other living beings.
Although not for the faint-hearted, the collection of statues at Wat Kuk offers a fascinating glimpse into Cambodian culture and religion. Many of the themes here center around taking advantage of and harming others, which is no surprise when you look at the country’s bloody history and past and current government. In addition, unlike so many other Buddhist practitioners, the majority of Cambodians believe that bad karma will get you a whole lot more than a dodgy reincarnation.
To get to Wat Kuk, drive a few minutes outside of Koh Kong City and head towards the Thai border. Most tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers will know exactly how to get there, and tourists are welcome to visit the temple, stroll the grounds, and of course, explore the gruesome images of Buddhist Hell.