In Cambodia, life for more than 90 percent of the population revolves around pagodas. The pagodas for worshippers are also cultural and religious hubs, educational centre and shelter for students and the underprivileged. Some with beautiful structures, serenity and a long interesting history have become remarkable tourist spots. With Pchum Ben or Ancestors’ Day, the biggest religious holiday in Cambodia fast approaching, one of the most alluring Buddhist monasteries in Cambodia is a trip that will give you many stories to tell, Taing Rinith writes.
IT begins with an ancient legend, recorded in The Collection of Khmer Folktales. Happening more than a thousand years ago, it is full of miracles and associated with the country’s history.
Once upon a time, Prince Promakel defeated King Dombong Kranhong, previously an ordinary man who rebelled against Promakel’s father, and became the new king of the Khmer Kingdom. Shortly after his coronation, King Promakel’s fortune-teller foretells that the next king is born of a concubine of a former king who fled the palace during the war – and who is now seven years old, distinguished from others with a chakra (disc) sign on his palm. To protect his reign, King Promakel orders his soldiers to search for the boy countrywide.
This “next king” with a chakra sign on his palm did live among the people. He was called Baksey Chamkrong, translating to “the One who is sheltered by the bird’s wing”. He received the name one day, while he was still a baby, when Ta Kohei, an old farmer who adopted him and her mother, left him alone on a dike so that he could work in his rice field. An eagle swoops down and spreads its wings to shield the infant from the sun.
Because of his love for Baksey Chamkrong, Ta Kohei carried him on his back and left the capital to escape from the soldiers. Thanks to the boy’s heavenly powers, Mother Nature helped them to escape the chase, including turning a huge tree into a bridge for them to cross a river and prevent mosquitoes from biting Baksey Chamkrong. Both of them went to live in a cave in an area known today as Battambang.
Twenty years later, King Promakel passed away without an heir to the throne. When his officials knew that Baksey Chamkrong was still alive, they went to seek him out to become the next king, thus fulfilling the prophecy. To commemorate his escape, King Baksey Camkrong built beautiful structures on his escape route. In one spot, where Ta Kohei asked him what happened after a loud noise made by the birds woke him up as they were resting during the escape, the King built a pagoda and called it Vihear Sour (translate as: Asking Temple), and placed a great Buddha there.
While it is known that King Baksey Chamkrong could be a real Khmer king who was crowned in 1028 or 1029, Vihear Sour is known today to be a sacred tourist site among the local folk, located in Kandal Province.
Fast-forward to the present: Travelling to the sacred temple could be a leisurely ride that takes around an hour. Directions: Supposing you depart from the Independence Monument, head north and then cross Chroy Chongvar Bridge into Chroy Chongva peninsular. Continue on National Highway 6 until you reach Prek Tamak Bridge, then get on the bridge and head east on National Highway 8. Crossing the huge bridge spanning a canal, you will have a breathtaking view of the surrounding locale.
About 30 minutes later, you will reach a sign directing you to Vihear Sour pagoda. Near the entrance, there are many vendors selling their lotus flowers, incense and candles to be offered to the Buddha. There are also vendors inside the pagoda, but prices climb.
Even if you are a non-Buddhist, you will still admire the archaic but stunning temples, stupas, bridges and statues. To the north of the temple is a shrine with the life-size statues of Ta Kohei and Baksey Chamkrong, worshipped by people in the area although no one know clearly when they were built. Also on the pagoda’s compound is a ruin from an ancient stupa reported to be the final resting place of General Moen Ek, a statesman who served under King Baksey Chamkrong.
“The heavenly spirit of the pagoda is very powerful,” says Long In, a 65-year-old layman at Vihear Sour Pagoda. “People all over the country come here to pray, and the heavenly spirit grants their wish. That was why there are always many people here every week.”
If you are the one who enjoys peace and quiet or simply want a place to stretch your legs, find a spot under one of the huge tropical trees by the side of a big natural lake near the temple. The fresh air and the silence of nature will make you forget the car fumes or noisy neighbours in the city at least for a while. When famished for lunch, buy some country dishes like grilled chicken with hot pepper sauce ($5) and grilled fish with green tamarind sauce ($1.25). Oh! And don’t forget a $0.25 cup of refreshing sugarcane juice, a real quencher for an energy booster — not to mention that it goes well with everything.
Nevertheless, the best time to visit Vihear Sour is Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben, with the latter approaching fast. On such an important holiday, the pagoda holds Bun Wat (Pagoda Festival) to celebrate. Of course, it will be very crowded, but the trip will let you see and engage in unique, traditional events such as a buffalo race and traditional wrestling matches.
“Buffalo racing is a rare and exciting event,” Long In the layman says. “Meanwhile, Vihear Sour is one of the few places in Cambodia where the pure form of traditional wrestling, which combines grappling with music, known as Chom Bab, is taught.”
The pagoda is a place to remember a beautiful sunset in the evening. As the sun sets on the temple, you may doubt whether the legend of King Baksey Chamkrong is true, somewhat like the Legend of King Arthur in Britain. However, Vihear Sour Temple is concrete proof and as a popular tourist site might help future generations to re-tell the story.