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The guardian statues

Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm contained great magic, to help protect Dap Chhoun from his enemies

After being unearthed in 1950, the Buddha statues of Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm were abducted by a superstitious general, seized by the Khmer Rouge, lost to the river, and finally returned to prominence once more.  They are now believed to protect Siem Reap and its people.

In the centre of Siem Reap, across from the Independence Gardens and the Royal Palace, stands a beautifully decorated shrine containing two golden Buddha statues – the tall one is known as Preah Ang Chek, the shorter one as Preah Ang Chorm, and both are believed to be almost one thousand years old.

While their names are widely known, their long and bloodstained history isn’t. The statues were once owned by one of the most controversial figures in pre-independence Cambodia: Dap Chhoun.

Variously described as a right-wing Cambodian nationalist, one of the heroes of Cambodia’s independence, an inspirational guerrilla leader, or a warlord, Dap Chhuon was one of the leading figures of his time, and his fate became intertwined with the statues.

It’s hard to unearth the full story of the gold Buddhas, but Sem Tap, the former director of the committee that oversees them on behalf of Siem Reap’s Department of Cults and Religion, sat down with 7Days and revealed what he knows.

Born in 1942 under the French protectorate, Sem Tap lived through most of the events in the statues’ turbulent history, which saw them pass through a number of hands after being unearthed deep in a forest area near Angkor Thom. When they were discovered in 1950 by officials from the Siem Reap department of Angkor Conservation, the statues were celebrated – experts believed that they originally stood inside Angkor Wat when it was at its prime, only to be lost when the temple was abandoned.

At the time, Dap Chhuon Mchol Pich, commonly known as Dap Chhuon, was a general who oversaw Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces. He was a former Issarak guerrilla fighter against the French who was given the position after independence by King Sihanouk in 1955. According to Sem Tap, after hearing of the discovery of the statues, Dap Chhoun and some of his soldiers seized them from the Angkor Conservation office and transported them to his headquarters at Chern Kro Horm, now the site of the luxury hotel Angkor Century.

"He put both of the statues in his car, which was provided to him by the US, and drove it to his camp. It took five troops to lift a single statue,” said Sem Tap.

The heist gave Dap Chhuon an extraordinary reputation. One popular belief was that possessing the statues granted him superhuman strength, making him able to singlehandedly hoist both of the 150 kilogram Buddhas onto his shoulders at the same time.

Whatever the truth of Dap Chhuon’s statue-lifting powers, the general made his troops pray in front of the statues for half an hour each day, until his sudden downfall two years later.

In 1957, King Sihanouk sent a convoy of troops to arrest him. He was suspected of involvement in the so-called “Bangkok Plot” – an alleged conspiracy to topple the king, instigated by right wing politicians angered by the throne’s close ties with communist China.

But according to Sem Tap, the power of the statues intervened. “Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm contained great magic, to help protect Dap Chhoun from his enemies,” he said. “Dap Chhoun could foresee that the king would like to kill him.” Tipped off about their impending arrival, Dap Chuuon made plans to flee to the Thai border and attempted to take the statues with him.

“He swooped into his camp and tried to take those sacred statues with him, however he could not carry Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm on his shoulders as he could before. The statues grew heavier by the second until they reached such a weight that Dap Chhoun was unable to move them.”

With his powers gone, and insufficient men to transport the Buddhas, Dap Chhoun was reduced to breaking off five fingers from the right hand of the Preah Ang Chek statue and fleeing to his farm at Tbeang Kert, enroute to the Thai border. It was here that Dap Chhuon, accompanied by his wife, was cornered by Sihanouk’s soldiers.

After a brief shoot-out, he surrendered himself into their custody. According to contemporary and historical western accounts of the failed coup, Dap Chhuon was taken to an unknown location and killed.

However Sem Tap claims to know exactly where Dap Chuuon was buried – a grove inside the Kok Broma forest where his handcuffed and bullet-ridden body was apparently found by villagers days after his arrest. “The body of Dap Chhoun was found at the Kok Broma forest which is now the location of Steung Tmey village in Svay Dangkum Commune. He died because of his sins; he did too many bad deeds,” said Sem Tap.

As Siem Reap expanded, Steung Tmey village grew to encompass the spot where he died, which today is the site of Siem Reap’s night market. In the aftermath of Dap Chhuon’s death, the statues were seized and taken to the Provincial Department of Cults and Religious Affairs, where they were installed at the front of the building in a grand ceremony in 1958.

But after fifteen years of relative peace for the statues, they became endangered again during the Cambodian Civil War, when Khmer Rouge soldiers started shelling government forces inside Siem Reap in 1973. The Buddhas were moved for their own protection to Wat Damnak pagoda, but captured one year later when Khmer Rouge forces overran the city.

According to Sem Tap, the commander of the Khmer Rouge garrison in Siem Reap was a fervent believer in the need to eradicate Buddhism, and ordered his troops to take Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm and drop them in Siem Reap river. His orders were obeyed, and the statues lay covered in silt and reeds until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge retreated from Siem Reap.

Popular legend has it that the Khmer Rouge soldiers responsible for mistreating the statues, along with their commander, died of illness shortly after.

As the Khmer Rouge retreated, the citizens of Siem Reap dredged the statues from the bottom of the river and restored them to their previous home at Wat Damnak. In 1982, the head of the Buddhist monkhood in Siem Reap, Pout Pon, joined forces with Siem Reap governor Nov Som to fund the construction of a shrine for the gold Buddhas, opposite Independence Gardens and Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. The shrine was enlarged in 2004 with money donated by the Minister of Commerce, Chorn Prosith.

Nowadays, Sem Tap says that the shrine is said to bring good fortune to the newly married, and provide spiritual protection for Siem Reap.

“Every day this shrine welcomes almost 300 people, but on special days like Pchum Ben, the Khmer New Year and the Water Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is crowded because more than 800 people will come and visit.”

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