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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Oh, give me the simple life'

'Oh, give me the simple life'

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The remarkable 'stage' of the new ceremonial hall - almost all that glitters here is gold.

I

T'S going to be a mother of a ceremony on March 18 when the Moni Sovan Champuskaec

Pagoda in Kandal Province inaugurates its new ceremonial hall.

Head of national police Hok Lundy will probably be there. At least he's been invited,

thanks to his generous donation of $5,000 to the construction of the hall. Other

invited sponsors include Minister of Commerce Cham Prasith and particularly the father-in-law

of PM Hun Sen's oldest daughter, three-star general Moeung Samphan.

The Prime Minister himself has been asked to cut the inaugural red ribbon, but at

Post press time it was still uncertain if he would accept the invitation. If not,

there's a chance that his wife, Bun Rany, will put in a cameo appearance at the ceremony

instead.

Also on the guest list: dignitaries like National Bank Director Chea Chanto, Deputy

Commander of the Navy Tea Vinh (yes, he's Defense Minister Tea Banh's brother), former

Minister of Agriculture Tao Seng Hor, police generals Neth Savoeun and Mar Chhoen,

Sokimex Director Sok Kong and wooden furniture trader Lao Ming Kin.

The latter tops the list of donors with a total gift of $40,000, closely followed

by Samphan who has solely sponsored the ceremonial hall's stage ($29,300) and three

of the two dozen golden Buddha statues on it ($2,050 each).

Samphan has also volunteered to finance the food and drink for the three-days-and-three-nights-long

ceremony - an expense of $10,000. That should ensure a steady supply of lobster soup

and Evian drinking water for both monks and guests. At night, a theater troupe from

Kampong Cham will perform in the moonlight.

However, none of the individual donations for the $300,000 ceremonial hall can outdo

the charity that Prime Minister Hun Sen has shown the Moni Sovan Champuskaec pagoda

in recent years. Single-handedly, he has given $110,000 to the building of the pagoda

itself - which altogether cost around $600,000.

The temple's enormous sparkling Buddha statue alone cost more than $100,000, its

golden face bearing a striking resemblance to that of a contemporary politician,

more than that of an immortal divinity.

But while Bun Rany, Lundy and other ek udhams regularly come to worship at the Wat,

the Prime Minister prefers to have his ceremonies in private. Three or four times

a year, the pagoda's head monk, Venerable Am Lim Heng therefore goes to the prime

ministerial residence in nearby Takmau to perform religious services.

And it seems like the blessings of the 35-year-old Heng bring special luck and prosperity

to the country's top politicians, businessmen and military leaders. Since 1991, when

the Wat was only a modest temple, a long list of VIPs have donated more than $1 million

for improvement of the pagoda compound.

This has among other things paid for the shining white temple with its burgundy doorways

and columns and $10,000-a-piece lamp posts. There's also the smaller building housing

the pagoda's impressive collection of 10,000 Buddha statues, big and small, and executed

in bronze, iron, stone, wood, jade or colored glass.

According to Heng, it is the good magic of one of those statues - a wooden Buddha

figure from the 18th century that used to be equipped with eyes of diamonds - that

is the real reason for the exquisite fortune of the pagoda.

"People come to worship the Buddha, and when they find that their prayers come

true, they feel grateful and want to make a donation," says Heng.

Built on those generous donations, the 50 by 30 meter ceremonial hall is now ready

to be taken into use after 13 months of construction. Apart from the hall itself,

the building also contains Heng's private quarters, complete with upholstered mahogany

furniture, remote controlled air-condition, two TV-sets and a luxurious bathroom

with a triangular tub and gilded fittings.

Yet, Heng, who sports two mobile phones, one from Mobitel, one from Samart, claims

the 72 mostly young monks who inhabit the pagoda live by strict traditional rules.

"What you see here may be a little bit modern, but we all live by old rules.

For instance we read the dharma from palm leaves, not from books. That is why people

like this pagoda," says Heng.

Of course all those riches, be it statues or TV-sets, require a certain measure of

security. Earlier, the Wat had problems with people stealing some of the smaller

Buddha figures when they came to worship. Therefore, the pagoda has now been blessed

with 12 bodyguards - of the Hun Sen variety - and video surveillance cameras in the

ceremonial hall.

And the bodyguards are, as always, efficient. A few weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy

was caught stealing money from a worshipper. The guards didn't hesitate to teach

him a lesson and beat him up rather severely. Eventually, the unlucky thief handed

back almost half of the money he had stolen. He had gotten away with 200,000 - no,

not dollars, but riels.

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