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Cambodia: Pathya Vat / Go Vat

2 posts in this topic

Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

Southeast Asian Poetry

Cambodia is found in Southeast Asia bordered by Viet Nam, Thailand and Loas. Until the 19th century most documents were written on the Tra leaf. "Tra leaf books record information on legends of the Khmer people, the Ramayana, the origin of Buddhism and other prayer book series. They are greatly taken care of and wrapped in cloth as to protect from moisture and the jungle climate." Wikipedia. Some of the prayers may be written in verse but I can find nothing to confirm this. It is only since the 19th century that I can find any recognition of poetry and even then it was not written to be read but to be performed, often recited or sung.

It seems early Cambodian poetry was usually religious in nature. Contemporary Cambodian poetry found in English often describes experiences and expresses the emotions of a people who have survived genocide. In the 1970's the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn back the clock to the 11th century and wipe out all intellectualism in the country. Destroying temples, libraries, denying Western medicine and killing over a million Cambodians. Pol Pot and his armies targeted ethnic minority groups, teachers, doctors and lawyers.

Khnhomm saum bangkum           
champuoh Preah Puth
trung kung khpuoh phott
leu trai loka
Neam Preah Kodamm
baramm sasda
chambang leu moha
neak prach taing lay,


I salute
the Lord Buddha
who resides the highest
of the tri-world.
The name is Preah Kodamm             
the Supreme
who is greater than
all sages.

from Corpse Watching by Sarith PeouTinfish Press 2007

"The river is swollen
The current is strong
Corpses float by all day long."



  • The Go Vat is a stanzaic form which according the Poet's Garrett apparently was popular in Cambodia in the late 1800s. The line length and refrain are suspected to be influenced by the French who colonized Cambodia during that period. The defining features of the Go Vat are:
    1. stanzaic, written in any number of tercets.
    2. syllabic, each line is most commonly 8 syllables.
    3. rhymed, turned on only 2 rhymes, aaB aaB aaB etc.
    4. written with a refrain. L3 of each tercet is a repetition of either the whole or part of L3 of the 1st tercet.
  • Pathya Vat is a Cambodian stanzaic form that I first found at Vol Central. The Pathya Vat is meant to be performed and apparently taught to Buddhist monks in training. The style of religious recitation is as important as the content. According to Bob Neuman the presenters can use any one of these styles, kmeng vatt - temple boy, piporanea - description, tumnuonh - grief, smaut- reciting, kamhoeung - anger, chbapp - traditional code, ka-ek lot - crow hops and ka-ek baul - crow calls. If I run across an audio of one or more of these styles I will provide a link. But for now we can only use our imaginations. The form dominates about 70% of Cambodian Buddhist song texts.  The defining features of the Pathya Vat are:
    1. syllabic, each line is 4 syllables
    2. stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains.
    3. rhymed. Rhyme scheme xaab xbbc xccd etc x being unrhymed. Note: A unique chain effect occurs in this rhyme linking the middle lines of subsequent stanzas to the last line of the previous stanza.

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