Walk to the river from Pub Street, and turn left. Walk along the riverside and very soon you see an imposing red wall with gold “lotus petals” at the base of it. This is Preah Prohm Rath – Siem Reap’s town centre Pagoda.
It’s not the biggest Pagoda in the town by any means, and there are dozens of them, but it is possibly the most prominent due to its location. And it has a secret inside too! So, OK, we’ve got there. Go in through the large imposing gateway. (It was being repaired when I visited – hence the wiki picture above). With its Bayonesque heads on top of it, and Nagas guiding you in, it’s reminiscent of Angkor. And why not? Now we’re here, what’s inside?
Well for a start wander around the gardens. It’s an active monastery and has its quota of monks. It also has a school and more than its fair share of stupas or cremation boxes. These are places where the rich and famous have their ashes interred. On high days and holidays, their descendants will go and revere them. There are a number of garishly painted statues and odd things in the grounds, including a large replica of a boat – but more of that later. Sit a while. Enjoy the peace and quiet – and it is quiet behind that imposing wall. Wander into the small open-sided temple and pay respects to the small Buddha. There’s a lot more to come.
And before we explore any further, I need to offer a small history lesson. The monastery was founded in the late 1400s. It was dedicated to a revered 13th century monk (Ang Chang-han Hoy) and a rich family in the area (Ta Pum and Yeay Rath). It was built to spread the Dharma or teaching of Buddha and also to venerate the ancestors of the family. Plus it offered somewhere for the monks of Siem Reap to stay, as previously there wasn’t anywhere.
The King (Ang Chan) came to the temple to pray for Victory against his rivals. When he achieved this, the temple was named Ta Pum Yeah Rath. It got its present name (Preah Prom Rath) in the 1940s.
Have I lost you yet? Well, hold on to your boats – here comes the good bit. Go back to the 13th century and the revered monk Ang Chang-han Hoy. It’s said that every day he went by boat across the Tonle Sap lake from Siem Reap to Longwek (near Phnom Penh) to collect alms and then returned each day to Siem Reap to have lunch. Let’s forget the practicalities of this 300 odd km journey twice a day and go on. Now one day (so the story goes) his boat was struck by a shark and cut in half. He was carried on in the front half to Siem Reap and the back end ended up at Wat Boribo in the Kampong Chang Province. Apparently the front half was going at such a speed that water could not flow into it. Thanks to Buddha’s guidance neither half sunk. A temple was built at each place, and in Siem Reap, a HUGE reclining Buddha was made from timber to honour the saving of the monk. (Now do you understand about the boat outside?)
OK. So I made sure I was respectfully dressed to enter a temple – shoes off, shoulders and knees covered, no smoking, gum or mobile phones – and went in to the inner Temple building itself. Inside these inner walls there are a number of pictures – murals of religious scenes. There’s the actual temple in the centre of the inner courtyard, flanked (rather curiously) by a pair of cannons. These looked to the European, but I’m hardly an expert. On the forecourt of the Temple (called confusingly Preah Vihear) were a group of nuns chanting in Pali, lead by a monk. It all added to the atmosphere. Quietly and respectfully, I went inside the Temple itself.
It’s a vast open hall with a huge seated Buddha at one end. A lone temple worker was tending to candles. He didn’t mind as I snapped a picture. But I wasn’t interested in the huge seated Buddha. Going round behind the statue, I found what I was looking for. The enormous reclining Buddha laying down in a pit at the back. It is said to be so heavy that it’s sinking into the ground. Now granted the feet are a lot lower than the head, but they should be the lighter end? What do I know! The whole thing was draped in a very decorous orange and gold cloth robe and made an impressive spectacle.
Although I’m not Buddhist, I felt the serenity of the place. The chanting coming through the open doorway. This almost secret statue behind the main altar. I paused for a good few minutes to take in the situation. In my head I heard a voice. It was calming me. Telling me to accept in faith the peaceful message. Telling me just to accept. Offering me peace and calm.
After mumbling a few words of thanks and prayer to the voice which might or might not have existed, I left. I bowed deeply and wai’ed reverently to the statue as I did. After all it had been there a lot longer than I and deserved respect. Sharks, 300km journeys at warp speed or not. I believed the power of the place had spoken to me, if not the figure itself.
I left slowly. I knew that outside this surreal sanctum there was the real world. I was not sure I was ready to return to it. But I had to. Now sitting at my computer typing this up, it feels like I imagined the whole thing. But I have the pictures of the Buddha and the vivid memory of the voice in my head. I also have a deep feeling of calm. I know that tonight in Pub Street life will return to its hectic self, but for now …
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