Head monk at Wat Panha Chi, Sim Khat, is proud of his new statues.
Four kilometers from Phnom Santuk on the road to Kampong Thom town an old gateway
with the sign "Wat Panha Chi" draws the eye. A new Buddhist temple is under
construction near the Stung Sen stream, some three kilometers down the dirt road.
The pagoda and nearby village take their name, so the legend says, from a wise monk
who saw through the wiles of traveling Cham traders in their bid to cheat the head
monk of the pagoda's valuable cows.
Trade with other regions was common, and the appearance of a group of Cham traders
one evening was not unusual. The traders announced that they were there to buy livestock
such as cows and buffalo, which they would take to sell in their home town of Kosang
Sin what is now Vietnam.
The men asked if they could stay the night in the pagoda. While there they a fine
pair of cows, which they knew would earn a good profit.
When they paid their respects to the head monk, they flattered him. Allowing people
of other faiths to stay, they told the head monk, was a kind gesture. They added
that if it had been their good fortune to be born Khmer, they would most certainly
have become monks themselves.
In addition to their comments, they offered the monk a gift: dye to renew the vibrant
colors of his robe. The monk was seduced with their fine words and the traders saw
it was a good time to try and buy the cows. Would ten baht - equivalent at the time
to ten riel - be a fair price? they asked. The monk agreed, and the traders put down
a deposit of two riel, promising to return and pay the balance in seven days when
they collected the cows.
After the traders left the monk told his followers that he had sold the cows. They
were outraged - they knew the cows were worth far more than that. Realizing his error,
the monk locked himself in his room and refused to come out or let anyone visit him.
All seemed lost, until a young monk, who was smarter than the rest, stopped by the
head monk's room. Come and eat with us, the young monk said. I have a solution to
His answer was for the old monk to take the cows away from the pagoda and let him
confront the traders when they returned.
The Cham traders arrived back at the pagoda as promised and asked for their cows.
No problem, said the young monk, as long as you pay the agreed price. The traders
handed over eight riel, at which point the monk told them that this was by no means
the price they had negotiated.
You negotiated to fill ten Baat - the name for a Buddhist monk's alms bowl - with
cash, the monk told them. Paying a small sum like ten baht would simply not do.
The traders had no choice but to leave without their cows. After they left the head
monk returned with the pagoda cows and bestowed the name Panha - which means 'intelligent'
- on the young monk. In time both the pagoda and the nearby village adopted the name
Panha Chi in his memory.
These days Panha Chi pagoda is like many others: a general lack of funds means its
re-building has taken many years. At the back of the mostly completed temple are
several cement statues of the intelligent monk, Panha Chi, the Cham traders, Buddhist
alms bowls, and two cows. In front an area has been set aside for believers to burn
incense to the monk.
The head monk these days is Sim Khat, 83, who said that the statues describing the
legend are brand new. More money was still needed from donors to keep up with the
pagoda's development needs.
Khat complained that his pagoda was used by the Khmer Rouge as a base to attack Lon
Nol's soldiers in nearby Kampong Thom. Attacks by government troops were not uncommon,
he said, adding that most of the pagoda was destroyed at that time.
"You see in my room bullet holes that remain from that time," he said,
pointing out pockmarks in the plaster.
Since reconstruction began in 1985 the Panha Chi pagoda has risen again, but it could
be some years yet before work is finished. Funds are hard to come by in this impoverished
area, whose villagers battle seasonal floods.