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The pagoda built on gemstones

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Construction work at Phnom Yat, in Pailin province, is geared to preserving the pagoda for future generations. Photo by: Hector Bermejo

PHNOM Yat dominates the road that leads to the city of Pailin. At its summit a pagoda, built in 1922, is dedicated to Grandmother Yat, a Burmese nun who was the first to meditate on this now-holy mount.

One of her disciples, Meach Pan, 61, has been coming to the pagoda for 14 years.

“This place is very special because grandmothers Yat and Pep, and Grandfather Lock Sen, established this place to meditate,” she says.

As we speak, Meach Pan places incense sticks in holders beside a small shrine.

She says the site gets crowded on public holidays and during religious ceremonies, although during our visit Meach Pan was alone apart from construction workers.

“The people who come here are not just from Pailin, but from everywhere,” she says.

“They come and register their name in the book and donate some money.”

When Meach Pan first came to the pagoda, it was in a bad state. A short distance down the hill, work is going on to restore the old stupa.

“They are making it safe and stronger,” Meach Pan says.

“In the past, the roots of trees used to grow around the temples, but now they have been cut away.

“After the work is finished, people will not be allowed to climb on the structure.”

Ith Kong, 35, has  been working at Phnom Yat for only 20 days. Today, he is plastering cement into the cracks.

“I work on all types of struct-ures – stupas, villas, buildings,” he says. “It’s my skill.

“I never learned from other people. I just went to see people and copied them.”

Ith Kong believes the work will last about five months, although he cannot be certain about this.

He earns only 25,000 riel a day, but enjoys his job.

“When I come here, I feel better than when I was working in Battambang,” he says.

“It’s a nice view from the mountain, and working on a home is more tiring.”

Meach Pan says there is a practical reason, beyond the spiritual,  for preserving the Phnom Yat pagoda.

“This hill is very important for the people of Pailin, because it’s the mountain of gemstones,”  she says.

“We built the pagoda here to prevent the mountain being destroyed.”

Despite a prohibition on digging for gemstones, Grandmother Yat’s mountain is still under threat.

“People still come here from other regions to find valuable stones,” Meach says.

“We have security officials on duty here every day to guard the pagoda.”

INTERPRETER: RANN REUY

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