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The Magic Turtle of Wat Baseth

A long queue of worshippers snakes towards Wat BasethKrom 17km out of Phnom Penh on the road to Battambang to revere Preah Meadda Keo, the Seven Colored Turtle, on May 12, Vesakha Bochea.

August amphibian or pestilential imposter?

When he's not nibbling regally on a steady diet of jasmine flowers and lotus leaves,

Preah Meadda Keo, the Seven-Colored Turtle, spends his days performing miracles for

the masses.

Such philanthropy can be tiring work, and on May 12, as 101 sweat-drenched monks

slowly circled the lily pond outside Wat Baseth Krom in the traditional Vesakha Bochea

ceremony, Preah Meadda Keo was napping - exhausted by the responsibility that his

semi-divine status has brought.

"This whole turtle represents the Buddha," said Mom Soy, 58, the turtle's

intermediary. "He has a sacred mark on his left front claw, magic numbers in

the patterns of his skin, and his shell is symbolic of the leaves of the banyan tree."

The discovery of Preah Meadda Keo has attracted nationwide attention, and put Wat

Baseth Krom, 17 km outside Phnom Penh near Route 5, the road to Battambang, firmly

on the map. The story of his discovery has aired twice on local television and innumerable

times in Khmer newspapers. His sacred status and purported miracle-working powers

have spurred people to travel from across Cambodia to be blessed by the august amphibian.

Roughly 3,000 Cambodians journeyed to Wat Baseth to participate in Vesakha Bochea

festivities this year, and the 300 percent increase from last year's visitor numbers

is largely due to Preah Meadda Keo's recent arrival.

"I saw Preah Meadda Keo on television and I wanted to see him in the flesh,"

said Pov Thon, 51, of Kampong Speu. "My family and I hired a truck to drive

us the two hours it takes to get here."

It all began one rainy night seven months ago. Oeu Vibol, a Buddhist monk at Wat

Baseth, had a vision in his sleep - of snakes coiling and twisting out of the earth.

The next day Vibol said he had a strange feeling when he arrived at the pagoda, and

was soon surprised to discover a turtle in the main temple, lying underneath the

wat's copy of a sacred Buddhist text. Vibol caught the turtle, and released him into

the wat's lily pond.

Following another night of torrential rain, Vibol arrived at the pagoda to find the

turtle once again inside the temple and underneath the same sacred tome. It was then

that he noticed the elephants, young girls and snakes within the turtle's intricately

patterned shell - icons deeply symbolic within Buddhist theology.

Monk Oeu Vibol, the turtle's discoverer, crowns a boy with Preah Meadda Keo the seven-colored turtle.

But wildlife experts claim this revered reptile is actually an infamous imposter,

and worse, has a dark secret hidden inside his shell. According to environmental

NGO Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the Seven-Colored Turtle is a Red-Eared Slider

Turtle, or Trachemys scripta.

"This turtle has been introduced to Cambodia from the United States, and is

an invasive pest species. It occurs in some pagoda ponds and is occasionally released

into the wild during Buddhist ceremonies," reads a TSA brochure titled "Turtles

of Cambodia."

Experts consider the red-eared slider a major threat to bio-diversity and it is listed

as one of the world's 100 worst invasive species by the World Conservation Union

(WCU). In Australia the turtle is considered a "Class 1" pest animal, and

is classified as an extreme risk to native flora and fauna. In its native US, the

slider is a common pet when young, but as it matures to an average size of 30 cm,

it develops a tendency to bite its owners and is often released into lakes, rivers

and waterways.

A report by the WCU states that this type of turtle multiplies rapidly due to a lack

of predators, and its aggressive behavior wreaks havoc on the plants and animals

around it. The red-eared slider often out-competes native species for food and space.

Cambodia is home to many rare turtle species, including the Mangrove terrapin, Giant

Asian pond turtle, Malayan snail-eating turtle and the Yellow-headed temple turtle.

"Many Asian turtles are facing extinction - positive action is needed now if

future generations are to see them in the wild and not just museums," said Tim

McCormack, Asian turtle researcher at the University of East Anglia in England.

Preah Meadda Keo has been apotheosized through a series of three ceremonies. During

the ceremonies the turtle, his intermediary and 101 monks walked in procession three

times around sacred sites - Siem Reap's Kulen Mountain, the ancient capital Oudong,

and finally, Wat Baseth Krom itself.

"Buddha told us to take Preah Meadda Keo to the mountains," said Mom Soy.

"The ceremonies make the turtle more sacred and bring blessings to Cambodia."

As with many purportedly sacred animals, Preah Meadda Keo has been ascribed miraculous

healing powers. He has been credited with curing chronic illnesses, dispelling ill

luck, and protecting those who have contact with him from misfortune.

"Preah Meadda Keo cured me," said Em Youn, 54, who had suffered from numbness

of the arms for many years. "I moved to Wat Baseth and washed myself and my

arms in the turtle's water and one month later I had feeling in my arms again."

Any water that Preah Meadda Keo swims in is believed to retain some of the turtle's

restorative prowess. During Vesakha Bochea rites at Wat Baseth monks sprinkled joyful

crowds with turtle water and old women and children washed themselves in the ornate

fountain outside the temple in which the turtle swam.

A monk collecting alms threads his way through the vast crowd who have come to see the turtle at Wat Baseth Krom.

The religious festival had a carnivalesque feel: throngs of people wove their way

around the temple complex, dodging cows and small piles of sand riddled with incense

sticks lit in honor of dead relatives. Food-sellers and trinket stalls were doing

brisk business, and a balloon shooting range offering fluffy dogs as prizes had attracted

a modest queue by mid-morning.

"I have never seen so many people at the pagoda," said Dany, who sells

noodles at Wat Baseth on ceremony days. "Many people come to the temple for

festivals, but this year there are more than ever - because they have come to see

the turtle."

Minibuses and tuk tuks - many containing snoozing drivers - were parked chaotically

at the front of the wat.

"I drove more than twenty people, squeezed into my bus, from Russey Keo district

in Phnom Penh," said Ou Ra, 36. "The local community got together and hired

me to drive them - they wanted to see the turtle."

Ouk Lay, 55, from Battay district, Takeo province, spent two hot crowded hours in

a minibus to see the turtle.

"I have asked the turtle for happiness and good health - maybe it will bring

me success," she said. "I have never seen a turtle like this; other turtles

have similar shells but this one is entirely different."

Several hours in the unrelenting sun during the ceremony exhausted Preah Meadda Keo

and he was, said Mom Soy, locked away for a few hours after the procession to allow

him to rest. He's an important turtle, after all, and needs to look his best.

But as the turtle regained its strength in the afternoon, the miracles continued.

Spraying water from her mouth across an entranced crowd, Mom Soy's old, hunched frame

arched and shook with surprising vigor.

"I was possessed by the dragon spirit," said Mom Soy. "But I can't

talk about it to you; I must go to see Preah Meadda Keo."

Recently revered

2004 - Preah Koo (Holy Cow) - Kampong Chhnang

The cow's owner, Put Mich, discovered Preah Koo's healing powers when his wife Kong

Mith miraculously recovered from a chronic illness after being licked by the cow

for three months. Word spread and hundreds of people flocked to see Preah Koo, paying

an admission fee of 500 riel to walk past the cow in the hope of being blessed by

its lick.

2002 - Python - Kandal

A python containing the spirit of Neang Pov - a girl who in Khmer legend was turned

into a snake by her father in order to release her bad karma - was found by spirit

medium Ming Muen. Hundreds of villagers came to watch as the snake's spirit entered

Ming Muen's body and took possession of her. This allowed her to act as a channel

for Neang Pov's spirit.

Worshippers at Wat Baseth Krom outside Phnom Penh near the road to Battambang gather round a pond that is the sanctuary of Preah Meadda Keo, a turtle whose fame is spreading through Cambodia. Story.

1999 - Holy Cow and Holy Turtle - Phnom Penh

A cow that was electrocuted was believed to have resurrected itself and escaped a

slaughterhouse in Phnom Penh. The lucky bovine wandered into homes, tried to get

into the Royal Palace and, after meeting monk Ta Kaing, settled itself at Chuotpun

pagoda.

Crowds of people who had seen the cow as it wandered through the city followed it

to the pagoda and volunteered to work at the temple so they could be near the cow.

It was believed that any the water the cow touched was holy. It was also believed

that water that had passed through the cow was holy - people collected the urine

and manure of the sacred beast hoping for good luck.

At the same time that the cow was strolling through the city pursued by a throng

of believers, a turtle was discovered in the city streets. The inscriptions on its

shell listed different pagodas and dates, the earliest from 1936. The inscription

was taken as an indication that the turtle must have special powers to achieve such

longevity, and many flocked to see it.

1998 - Holy Tiger - Stung Treng

A tiger walking in the forest behind the town of Stung Treng was considered to be

a holy tiger because it was always seen each year after the villagers prayed to Buddha.

(Compiled by Heidi Hagenlocher from the Phnom Penh Post archives)

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