TAKE ME TO YOUR TURTLE
Hundreds are flocking daily to Prek KíDam to wash in water blessed by a ìdivineî turtle.
PREK K'DAM, Kandal - They walk miles for a chance to grab her used bath-water and address her with language normally reserved for a queen.
Their behavior borders on fanatical, but the hundreds of people who come by boatloads, truckloads or by foot, who wait hours to see Cambodia's newest celebrity, are nothing less than true believers.
It's a lot of pressure for Preah Arng (Her Divine Majesty) - after all she is only a turtle - but she seems to enjoy the attention. She emerges from the depths of the Tonle Sap river twice a day; believers say she blesses the water she touches with curative powers that will rid them of injury and disease.
"After I drank that water and bathed in it, my body felt lighter, not heavy like before," said Proeung May, 74. He suffers from palsy and had been unable to walk for over ten years until coming upon the very special turtle, but now he is able to walk with assistance."I began drinking it when Preah Arng first emerged, and I have been drinking every day since."
Although Proeung May still shakes and spends most of his time lying down, word of his miraculous recovery and that of others has spread.
Over 300 believers gather on the riverbank six days a week to pray for the turtle's appearance and take home gallons of her divine water. (For reasons known only to Her Majesty, she takes Tuesdays off.)
At about 9am and again at 2pm, three men - known as Her Majesty's snam (concubines) - stand waist-deep in the water and sprinkle perfume in the waves as ceremonial music is broadcast at the water's edge.Eventually she appears, as she has for a month. This turtle is reliable. A ripple of excitement goes through the crowd as one "concubine" places her on his head and carries her, shaded by a ceremonial umbrella, to a makeshift altar at the top of the riverbank.
Pandemonium breaks loose. Old women clutching 30-liter plastic canisters scramble up the muddy riverbank, elbowing each other in the crush to get to the altar. One "concubine" slowly dunks Her Majesty in each of three urns of water, while others frantically scoop the sanctified water into various bags and jugs thrust forward by the surging crowd. In between plunges into the urn, Her Majesty is held aloft, next to prayer banners, a portrait of Buddha and framed photos of herself. Surprisingly, the pleading voices, waving bot-tles, clouds of incense, and pagoda loudspeakers do not push her back into her shell. Instead, she waves her flippers gently and peers at the spectacle.
Soggy children dart through the impromptu altar railings to grab leaking sacks of water, which they sell to less spry believers for 500 riel. Giggling women dump buckets over their own heads. Families gather on the periphery to divvy up their precious liquid; one elderly woman wets a krama and tenderly wipes her grandson's face.
"I get a little bit tired [of dishing out the water]," admitted a sopping Eour Keng. But, he added, "I will serve this Buddhist job as long as Preah Arng keeps coming." Keng, 32, was a soldier before he became a full-time "concubine". He has now left his unit. His brother and fellow turtle tender, Loeun Nil, receives credit for discovering Her Majesty. Nil was fishing about a month ago and caught a turtle, which had names and dates written on its back dating to 1972. Believing it to be lucky, he released it and later successfully called it back, he said, with prayers and promises of perfume.
"I did not believe it at first," said Keng of his brother's story. "But I went to the river... and prayed to her, 'If you are really mean bon (divine), please float up again.'" Her Majesty obliged, surfacing 20 feet from him. He asked again, and she appeared a meter away. On the third request, she came to his feet. At that, Keng knelt in the shallows, clasped his hands in a sampeah, and said: "I believe."
From such beginnings, the sightings have turned into a veritable capitalist turtle-fest - complete with drinks stands, food hawkers, cigarette sellers and money-changers - and people are shelling out, according to deputy village head Nhem Soeun. He claims collection bowls are netting up to 50,000 riel per day, and six tons of cement have been donated towards a new pagoda.
While Her Majesty is certainly providing a windfall for local villagers and the pagoda, her devotees worry about her health.
"Preah Arng is so slim now, and before she was so fat," says Eam Varn, 46 - who has walked a total of 50 kilometers in her five visits to the turtle. "She is fatigued," she says solicitously.
After an hour or so, the pilgrims have enough water and Keng carries the precious and tired reptile back to the river.
"Oh, Preah Arng swims in a circle with her head above the water, and now she disappears," says Eam Varn excitedly. "Oh, Preah Arng is gone."