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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - They call him 'Ignorant Grandfather'

They call him 'Ignorant Grandfather'

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Followers visit Min Von's temple in Chrey R'yaong village, Kandal Stung district. The gods, Von says, asked him in 1982 to give up his life as a fisherman and become a faith healer - a profession, it turns out, that pays much better than catching fish.

I

t was a late afternoon in 1982 when Min Von was called on to become a holy man.

The 52-year-old was trawling the waters of Stang Lake in Kandal province and just

about to start threading earthworms onto the hooks when he heard what he would later

describe as the thundering voices of Hindu priests.

"We are the Brahma," the voices boomed. "Grandfather! Pull up your

fishing lines."

"At that time, I could not open my mouth to reply to the Brahma," Von said,

recalling the events in a recent interview. "I asked the other fishermen around

me if they had heard the Brahma's voice too, but they all said they had not heard

a thing."

Von sat stunned in his boat, staring out across the lake and weighing the magnitude

of what had just happened.

Then another voice came. Von believes this one was the voice of Indra, a deity from

Hindu scriptures associated with weather and war. Indra roared the same request:

"Grandfather! Pull up your fishing lines."

This time Von found his voice and replied: "If you want me to pull up my lines,

I ask you: What will I eat? I have only these fishing lines to make a living."

"No problem, grandfather," Indra replied. "I will send 200 angels

to cook for you."

The voices went quiet until later that day when Von said he heard the gods and angels

mulling over a new name for him.

"The Brahma, the Indra and the 200 angels discussed with each other that if

I was called Von, there would be many people named like me," Von said. "So

they said, 'Grandfather is ignorant of both words and prayer', so they decided to

name me Ta L'ngong Ayu Veng [long-living ignorant grandfather], a name that no one

in Cambodia would share."

Von, still overwhelmed by it all, could hardly refuse his new name, or question his

new destiny. So he followed the request of the gods: he rolled up his fishing lines

and returned home.

The crowds started arriving at his home the next day. They came from other villages,

other provinces. Some asked Von to cure their ills; others volunteered to cook.

And they kept coming. Two decades on, the "long-living ignorant grandfather"

is the center of a thriving industry built on people's faith in his magical abilities.

On a recent thnay sel, or fortnightly Buddhist holy day, about 200 people visited

him. They came from provinces near and far to visit Von at the colorful temple he

built 10 years ago in Chrey R'yaong village of Kandal Stung district.

They each sat with their palms together in a sampeah. Some asked Von for holy water,

wax or balm, others requested happiness for their families.

Buddhist holy days are particularly busy for the Ignorant Grandfather. He offers

prayers and bowls of porridge to the hundreds of people that stream through his temple.

Dressed in loose-fitting black trousers and a white shirt, Von draped a krama over

his shoulder in the style of temple wise men. He sat on a mat in front of an eager

crowd.

He was a gracious host and an immodest self-aggrandizer.

"Now, you can call me either Ta L'ngong Ayu Veng or Teep Nimit Mean Rithchesda

[the one whom the gods invite to be born as a human being that has powerful achievement]

when you wish at home," he told the crowd.

The believers gave him water, balm and wax to bless, and afterwards he gave them

a tour of the temple and some rice porridge to eat.

Von is famous for curing ailments, including diabetes, heart diseases and leprosy,

as well as reputedly ensuring the fortunes of everything from families to watermelon

harvests.

"I can cure all kinds of human illnesses," said Von, adding that he is

able to cure leprosy in just a few weeks.

"Just give them [people who have leprosy] leaves to chew and then stick on the

wounds," Von said.

There is no cash expected up front, but when a sick person prays to Von for a cure,

he said they should also specify the amount of money they will part with if they

recover.

"The more the better," he said.

Von said he can also perform long-distance miracles.

"An 18-year-old Cambodian-American man living in California, in the United States,

was told by a friend who knows about me that he should wish to recover from his swollen

leg, which American doctors had tried to cure for many years," Von said. "After

he wished for a night, his swollen leg recovered, and then he traveled to Cambodia

and offered me $100."

Those who live in Cambodia usually just hold a bowl of water and ask the former fisherman

for his help. Often, they will drink the water until they are full and pour the rest

onto their foreheads and splash it on their bodies.

Seng Sameourn was making her second visit to Von's temple.

"The first time I came here was to find a cure for my stomachache, headache,

knee-ache and intestinal-ache," said the 52-year-old Takeo resident. "I

had pain throughout my body and could not walk. I only slept on the mat at home.

But after praying for three or four months, I can walk and my illnesses are getting

better."

"Today I came here with my 30 neighbors to wish for happiness in our families,"

she said.

Chan Shi Bo, 59, traveled with 40 neighbors more than 180 kms from their home village

in Kampot.

"The holy wax, balm and water of Ta L'ngong Ayu Veng are very effective,"

said Shi Bo, adding that she recovered from her body aches two weeks after her first

visit.

While there is no medical evidence to back up Von's claims, his popularity among

the faithful has turned into a nice little earner.

Von said that since 1983 he has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. With some

of that money, he has built his own brightly painted temple and bought a luxury car

and a truck for the temple.

He has also put money toward building about 50 houses for his children and his most

faithful disciples.

"The Indra said before I build one house for my children, I have to build 10

houses for [believers]," Von said, adding that the houses in Phnom Penh, Kandal,

Takeo and Sihanoukville cost him between $4,000 to $32,000.

Hem Sakhorn, 51, said Von spent about $8,000 on a house for her in Phnom Penh as

a reward for her belief and for the eight years she spent serving him food.

"I did not spend any money to build my house, not even one cent. ... Ta L'ngong

Ayu Veng paid all the expenses," Sakhorn said.

Ek Sameoun, 64, received a $10,000 house in Kandal province for service since 1986.

In addition, Von said he gives between $12.50 and $50 to the Cambodian Red Cross

each month.

Von said that the money he spends on helping people comes from those who sought his

help.

There are, however, a few skeptics.

Von's neighbor, Cheang Chan Neourn, 28, said she did not believe Ta L'ngong Ayu Veng

had supernatural powers.

"Only people living far away from the temple believe him," Neourn said.

"But for me I feel he is normal."

She used to bring her children to the temple on religious holidays but has now stopped.

"I do not criticize him. He does whatever he wants because he has the right,"

Neourn said.

Von is no stranger to controversy. Since he began healing nearly 24 years ago, he

has racked up 71 accusations against him, including claims of storing drugs in his

temple and using Buddhist iconography for profit.

Once, a parliamentarian called to warn Von that Tep Vong, Supreme Patriarch of the

Mohanikay order of Cambodian Buddhism, saw an interview with the Ignorant Grandfather

on Apsara television and threatened to shut down his temple.

Nothing ever came of the incident, and now, 79-year-old Von is confident he is immune

from nay-sayers.

"My place has never had any intervention from the local authorities, because

my place welcomes not only normal people, but also commune chiefs, district chiefs

and provincial governors who come to have me raise their luck," he said.

So, with the local authorities and the gods on his side, the ignorant grandfather

of Takhmao looks set to continue his long and lucrative life for a few more years

to come.

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