Residents of Kampong Cham remember December 26, 2002, as the day the town ground
to a halt. People shuttered their shops, workers put down their tools, and the
stallholders in the city's busy market ceased trading to join a two-kilometer
long procession that headed through town.
Officials from the Royal Palace
and government ministries joined more than 600 monks and thousands of residents
to pay their respects to the late 102-year-old monk, Samdech Preah Udom Mony Men
Tuan. The throng accompanied his body to his final resting place at Wat
Khemavorn, on the outskirts of Kampong Cham town.
The Venerable Men Tuan
was well-known for his ardent dedication to religion. He started his training in
1913, and worked as a monk for the next 89 years. He was in charge of Wat
Khemavorn during and after its construction in the early 1960s.
many students he taught were former senior Khmer Rouge cadres Hu Nim and Hu
Youn, as well as former Prime Minister Khieu Samphan.
his steadfastness to his beliefs during the KR regime: When instructed to
disrobe and work in the fields, he refused. Instead he dyed his saffron robes
black and hid in the forest. His students made sure he stayed safe and received
But it is for another reason that the Venerable Men Tuan's fame
continues to grow. In a town that boasts only a handful of visitor attractions,
the monk has created a stir from beyond the grave. In the style of Lenin and Ho
Chi Minh, his body has been dried and preserved, laid out in saffron and encased
in a glass coffin.
And people are flocking to the site. Wat Khemavorn's
caretaker, Muo Chhorn, says more than 100 people a day are visiting the late
monk's grand stupa.
Preventing a body from decomposing in such humid
weather takes some skill - in this case that of 75-year-old Chey Sieng Ee. The
former student of Men Tuan is famous for his herbal wines and medicines, which
he sells from a small shop in Phnom Penh.
When Men Tuan said before his
death that he did not want to be cremated, Chey suggested that he instead
preserve his body. Chey is one of only a very few people with the requisite
experience: He mastered the craft of preservation as a young monk, learning the
trade from his teachers as they prepared newly-deceased monks for the three or
four months they spend in state before being buried or cremated.
years ago Chey prepared the corpses of two other monks in Kampong Cham province.
Both, he says, are still in pristine condition.
The preservation process
takes less than two hours. Unlike the Egyptian style of mummification, the
internal organs remain inside the body. A few hours after death, an embalming
fluid called Formalin is injected into the skin to prevent the flesh from
Chey then pours a layer of tea on the floor of the coffin,
and places limestone and a cloth above that. He says the combination acts like a
small oven - as liquid from the body gradually leaks out over time, the
limestone absorbs the fluid and creates a gentle heat, which dries the
While the drying process is taking place, the layer of tea acts as
an odor neutralizer. The cost of the entire process is $360 - a good investment
for something he says should last centuries.
"From now [three months on],
he will be completely dry," Chey says. "The doctor came to study the body. When
I pushed the cheek in with my finger it was hard, like a smoked fish. I think it
will last a thousand years, like an Egyptian mummy."
Peou Vichet, a
radiologist at Kampong Cham's provincial hospital, checks on the body a few
times a month. If there is any swelling, he injects more Formalin. So far he has
been impressed with what he has seen, and says there is no moisture or smell
coming from the body.
"Maybe in the future it will become dry and
fragile, but I think the body will be well preserved for at least 50 years," he
Back at Wat Khemavorn, caretaker Muo Chhorn proudly points out the hundreds
of wilting flowers and burned incense sticks that litter Men Tuan's stupa.
Chhorn says he is pleased the late monk has finally come home to rest.
After the KR regime fell in 1979, Men Tuan did not return to Wat Khemavorn, but
instead went to Wat Thmar Kol seven kilometers away to train new
"But in his last few days, although he could no longer speak, he
signaled that he wanted to come back here," he says. "It is a great honor to
have him back."
The temple will mark his life on January 18 with a
four-day ceremony. In the run-up to the festivities, some of the younger members
of the nearby village have visited the mummified monk. Although they are not
supposed to visit the stupa alone, Chhorn says some kids have stolen a look at
the wat's unique resident.
Others have made it as far as the steps before
running away, nervous or scared. Most, though, are unperturbed at the sight of
the dried and preserved body.
"When adults come, they do not laugh or get
scared," Chhorn says. "This is a place where he will be remembered forever."