A memorial to unrequited love: Tonle Boeung Chhmar pagoda.
The concept of love lost is common to many cultures so it is not surprising to find
similar tales in Cambodia. One such legend has attached itself to a pagoda at Tonle
Boeung Chhmar, a wetland preservation area near the Tonle Sap lake. It may not appear
in books, but it seems everyone in the area knows the tale.
A king of centuries past, who had his palace in nearby Stong, one day came across
a young woman called Neang Saw L'ngeit. He was entranced by her beauty - her name
means 'Miss white in the evening' - and fell in love with her.
She was less keen, and so, wary of his attentions and fearful of revenge, she decided
to leave her village for good. She crossed the Tonle Sap lake and ended up in Long
Vek in present-day Kampong Chhnang province.
The king was so smitten that he banded together with some loyal followers to search
for her. Although they looked high and low, the only trace they uncovered was the
imprint of her foot on a hill near a stream. The king climbed the hill, calling out
all the while "Pov Pey! Pov Pey!" ("My darling! My darling!")
In the tradition of the finest tragedy the king never found Neang Saw L'ngeit.
His unrequited love made him sicker and sicker, until eventually he died on the small
hill. His men took his body back to Stong Palace and left orders that a Buddhist
temple be built where he died so believers could pay respect to the late king and
increase his karma.
The pagoda in the original tale is long gone, victim perhaps to the elements, but
new pagoda buildings are now in its place. The only element of the story still in
evidence is the girl's footprint in the rock. Regarded as sacred, it is consequently
imbued with powerful properties. Believers with ill relatives pour water on the imprint,
then collect it and take it back to their loved ones to drink.
However, it is not just the footprint that is popular: a Buddhist statue called Preach
Ang Kmao (the black statue) attracts even more devotees who pray to it for assistance
in work or before undertaking a long journey.
At 81 years, Sok Chea is the oldest person in the village. He is convinced of the
power of both the footprint and the statue and would pray to both before going fishing
on the Tonle Sap. One day, he recalls, he was out on the lake when a huge storm approached.
He raised up both his hands and prayed to both the statue and the footprint for help.
The spirits heard him and, he says, drove the storm away.
"Now when I see a storm heading our way or that might affect my son's journey,
I pray to the spirit in this pagoda to help," he says. "It is very effective."
For the future, local officials hope to cash in on the pagoda's tourist potential,
sited as it is near a recently proclaimed wetland area called Tonle Boeung Chhmar.
Some 150 foreign tourists visited both the wetland and the pagoda last year, says
Lim Phearum, head of the district's environment protection office, and he hopes the
environment, history and natural beauty of the area will captivate tourists just
as a legendary king was once smitten by Neang Saw L'ngeit.