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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The creation and protection of a religious tradition

The creation and protection of a religious tradition

Atop a hill an hour and a half's drive north of Phnom Penh sits a small Chinese temple,

the only one of its kind in Cambodia. It shares the hill top with a nearly finished

Khmer Buddhist temple and a hundreds-years-old stupa. Topping the adjacent hill,

a typical Khmer temple is being re-built. This hill includes a thousand year old

temple enclosing a cave and a 24 foot reclining Buddha.

Sok Heng, 71 years old, said building the two new temples was her idea. She has lived

on Phnom Baset for three years while creating this new place of worship on a near-empty

hill.

The achar, Ree Jan, is 57 years old and has lived on the other hill since 1984 trying

to preserve a thousand-year-old place of worship.

Sok Heng focuses on the future; she wants people to be able to drive in comfort to

the very top of the hill. She plans a concrete parking lot there, next to the temple.

Helping her are a group of older women and hired labor.

Ree Jan is proud of his hill, turning to the past to note its long history as a worship

site. But access is difficult, as the road is quite steep. His work focuses on the

temple and caring for the huge statue of Buddha. Helping him are a bevy of young

monks.

The aging Khmer men and women who supervise the work on these two hills have withdrawn

from society and committed themselves to creating new sites of worship or re-building

what the Khmer Rouge destroyed. Sok Heng is a Buddhist nun, a doen gee. Ree Jan is

an achar, a male Buddhist layperson.

Sok Heng used her own money to begin the building. In addition she has been aided

by patrons in Cambodia and accepts small contributions from visitors to the hill-top

temples. But most of the money has come from her two children who fled to the Khao-I-Dang

border refugee camp, and from there to the United States in 1987.

On the other hill, Ree Jan, is using $2000 he received from "Bong-P'oun Khmai"

(literally, brothers and sisters, a phrase used during the Khmer Rouge's attempt

to eliminate the language of class from speech) in Long Beach, California. His sole

ambition is to restore the temple, and to care for a 24 meter reclining Buddha carved

into the hillside there.

The Buddha's head was cut off by the Khmer Rouge. Pieces still lie at the base. Ree

Jan assures visitors that the statue was cut from the hill's rock and only the head

is now made of concrete. It has been fully re-stored. It is housed in a 26-meter-long

building. The kind and cut of the building's stone resembles that of an older temple

at Tonle Bati.

How old is it? Ree Jan says as a boy he had asked his grandfather, who had asked

his grandfather, how long the statue had been there. The only answer the two of them

got was: "a long time - before I was born.''

The temple being re-built is at the crest of the "mountain", near a large

pool guarded by sculptured frogs, crocodiles and turtles. The Buddha is at a lower

level on the side of the hill away from the other hill and its Chinese temple.

There is also a smaller Khmer temple on the Ree's hill built in 1962, with living

quarters for the monks. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the hill is the

thousand year old temple which encloses a cave.

This remarkable building encloses a large group of stones which bulk up out of the

hill. Within the temple and at the base of the stones is a cave which (one is told)

either connects to the other mountain, or all the way to Oudong. Ree Sok says that

it was closed by the French.

The Chinese Temple

Visitors who have been to Malacca or to Singapore will find the structure of Sok

Heng's temple familiar. Unlike Khmer temples it is wider than it is deep. The central

feature of the temple is of course a statue of Buddha, but there are also a wooden

horse, fierce-looking guards, and a Warrior King seated on his throne. The temple

includes a statue of Tang Jeng, the Chinese teacher who brought Buddhism from India

to China.

The statue of Buddha is smaller than ordinary, covered in gold, and raised to a position

near the ceiling. It is surrounded by six statues of the Goddess of Mercy (Gung See

Eem), from the Chinese Buddhist pantheon. Many of these statues are larger than the

Buddha, but are positioned below it.

Standing in front of the Chinese temple is a very large stucco statue of the Goddess

of Mercy. Like the others it shares a passing resemblance to traditional statues

of Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian belief. Fresh lotus flowers are placed

in her out-stretched hands daily.

Sok Heng says she first saw the "empty hill" in 1981. She had been traveling

after the Pol Pot time looking for a place to enter a wat. Her husband had died in

1952, when she was 30. She then raised her children herself by caring for the children

of friends. She says of herself that she is only "common people.''

Sok says that she had seen so much suffering and death under Pol Pot that the only

thing she wanted afterward was to live in a wat. She said "But when I saw this

hill, I knew that I wanted to build a temple here.'' That she has accomplished.

Weekends are the busiest time for the temples, when most visitors seem to arrive.

A sweeping set of stairs, 364 in all, rises from the small parking lot at the base

of the hill to the Chinese temple. You can catch your breath three-fourths of the

way up at a small landing.

There you will find a laughing Buddha - it is not clear whether it is laughing at

you, with you, or at some spot over your left shoulder. A small alter is placed under

the rock over-hang. Sok Heng plans to build a road to allow cars to drive to the

top. It will be complete in a year. She wants to surface it with concrete.

On the highest point of the hill is an old stupa, long fallen into disrepair. Most

of the trees were cut on the hill itself, but there is still a clump of trees which

is at once tearing the stupa apart with its roots and holding it together. Poor people

in the area have taken bricks from it for their own purposes.

There are other temples near the two hills. Entrances to five temples lie beside

the road between the hill and the river road. These are in addition to the three

mosques (one currently under construction) in the Cham villages along the river road

north of Phnom Penh.

The group of hills are located about twenty miles from Phnom Penh as the crow flies.

To get there drive north along the Tonle Sap river. About ten miles past the broken

bridge you reach a rather large dirt road going west . It will be the first major

road you will see, and is located just past the second bridge you cross after passing

the broken bridge.

Huts and small buildings crowd the intersection, and a small, usually bustling market

is nearby - not unlike a thousand other intersections in Cambodia. But if you turn

west, the two hill-tops can soon be seen in the distance, and another mountain range

on the horizon. The Chinese temple is on the hill to the left as you approach, and

the reclining Buddha on the hill to the right. The road splits the hills.

Between the two is a quarry area, where huge machines and families working with hammers

crush rock for Cambodia's roads. Also on this lower ground is a quiet little village

with its own lovely, but quite typical wat.

The road west is quite scenic. It skirts the northern shore of a large lake and marsh

area. Small craft bring loads of water lily leaves to the shore, on their way to

becoming bio-degradable, all-purpose wrapping at Phnom Penh's markets. This time

of year the land is lovely with the tender new green of the first rice beds. In the

evening you can watch the Khmer fishermen pull in their nets left out all day, swaying

gently in their boats carved from a single log. But be careful of the hundreds of

cattle which young children herd and graze along the road.

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