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Fire destroys monks' residence


Monks help firefighters put out the fire in the building at Phnom Penh's Wat Botum, the sleeping quarters for 47 monks and 15 nuns.

F ire destroyed the ramshackle upper stories of a residential building in the grounds of Wat Botum early on Monday, March 6, after an explosion believed to have been caused by an electrical fault.

The blaze consumed 25 rooms, the sleeping quarters for 47 monks and 15 nuns. The displaced monks and nuns, all students, are staying elsewhere in the wat. No one was hurt in the explosion or the fire.

Senior Monk Lai Youvanth said monks were alerted by the noise of the explosion. They called the fire brigade and police, who arrived within 20 minutes. Youvanth said no monks were inside building at the time of the explosion but the blast was loud enough to be heard from the other side of the wat grounds.

The monks tried in vain to stop the blaze spreading by throwing water on it.

"We didn't have the capacity to stop the fire; everything was destroyed - books, documents, tape players, computers," Youvanth said.

Policeman Sek Thoeun said it took 20 truckloads of water to put the fire out. He said an electrical fault was considered the cause of the explosion.

Although the bottom story of the building was brick, the upper stories were informal structures of wood and corrugated iron added in recent years. Fear of the fire spreading rapidly through the surrounding area lent a sense of urgency to the police operation. Thoeun said the officers divided into three teams and surrounded the building with two fire trucks in front and three on either side.

As the blaze was brought under control monks rolled up their robes and waded in to help salvage what they could from the burnt-out shell of the building. Books, charred wooden statues of the Buddha, and cooking pots were all plucked from the ashes and moved elsewhere for cleaning.

The Venerable Bou Kry, Patriarch of the Thommayuth order of monks, who lives at Wat Botum, dismissed speculation that the fire was connected to recent political events, primarily Prince Norodom Ranariddh's resignation.

"I don't think that the fire is related to government affairs," he said. "Fires happen everywhere. It was just an accident."

The remaining brick building has sustained structural damage as a result of the fire, Bou Kry said, and will be pulled down and rebuilt. He estimated that the cost of the rebuilding would be around US$100,000, which would be covered by donations.

"When people come to the wat to be blessed I will ask them, out of kindness, to donate construction materials - bricks, concrete, wood - to help build a new pagoda," he said.



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