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Pagoda of the people

Pagoda of the people

K ANDAL - Every weekend, 20 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, a procession of

volunteers from across the country arrives at a unique construction

site.

Grandparents and children, market vendors and rich businessmen - up

to 200 people a week - line up in the shadow of Phnom Prasit to haul baskets of

crushed rock and sand up to a worksite they call Prasat Pich, the Diamond

Palace.

Wearing flowered dresses and high heels, blue jeans, business

shirts or kramas, strangers toil beside each other in a display of team-work

designed to bring them merit in this and the next life.

Inspired by a

mild-mannered teacher named Ros Saroeun, 51 (pictured above), - a former

moto-taxi driver and one-time monk - they are building a pagoda unlike any other

in Cambodia.

Started on March 21, 1994, Prasat Pich - built at a site

known as Phnom Reap - has no rich benefactor and no organised group of monks

overseeing its construction.

Its design and most of its construction has

been done by volunteers, supplemented by the work of 50 paid laborers (who earn

6,000 riel a day, plus meals) and seven trained tradesmen.

Volunteer Sok

Sileang, 54, adjusts the strap of her black handbag and pulls down the brim of

her red straw hat before grabbing the next basket of rocks. This is her tenth

visit.

"I'm not afraid of being hot and working hard because I have come

here to do good things. We came here by ourselves - nobody forced us, so we are

happy to do it," says Sileang, who this time has brought along a group of her

neighbors from Psar Thmey.

Som Lang Ing, 65, stands serenely in the

midday sun, wearing a white lace blouse and a huge smile. It is her first

visit.

"This morning I could hardly get up. Now I feel happy and have no

problems," she says, hefting cane basketloads of rock as part of a chain gang.

"At home I am always sick. I can't do anything."

Some pagodas take years

to complete. Saroeun says this one will be done in about five months, as

donations - more than $100,000 to date - continue to pour in from home and

abroad while enthusiastic volunteers keep showing up.

The Diamond Palace

will ultimately stand 34 metres high, on a base 15 metres by 21 metres. It will

have four towers in the Angkorian style, with its doorways sculpted to look like

a palace entrance, its walls painted white and inside, a nine-metre statue of

Buddha.

"The first reason to do this is to keep Khmer civilization alive.

This is a symbol of being Khmer," says Saroeun, who first proposed the building

of the temple in 1990.

"I organised a small religious ceremony and told

people about the fact they should do some good things for the benefit of

religion, of Buddhism. I told the people about my idea to build this temple and

asked them if they would support me or not. It turned out to be a lot of support

from them."

He says the project has fostered a sense of community and

cooperation among the volunteers - something needed to help rebuild the rest of

the country as well.

Phnom Penh accountant Sam Bath Prang, 40, agrees.

She has been volunteering at Prasat Pich every weekend for more than a year.

"I come to carry out my Buddhist religion and to work for peace in

Cambodia," says the widow and mother of one son.

Saroeun is the reason

most of the volunteers keep coming back. Although he left the monkhood in the

late 1960s, Saroeun is revered by the volunteers at Prasat Pich.

His

religious life began at age ten, when he says he began nine years of study with

a forest monk near Oral Mountain in Pursat. He then joined Wat Leach in Pursat.

Four years later, he left the monkhood to look after his parents and joined the

Phnom Penh Police force, where he stayed until the Khmer Rouge took power.

From 1979 until 1989, he worked as a moto-taxi driver. However, he

continued to return to the forest in Pursat, where he says meditation puts him

in contact with the forest monk - who he says inspired him to launch the Diamond

Palace project.

"The monk is 110 or 120 years old. He is still alive in

the forest, but he does not show himself. Since I went to him the first time as

a child, he has never told me his name," claims Saroeun. "When I want to meet

him, I have to go to the forest and meditate and recite a piece of the Dharma

and he will show up."

"It was the monk's advice to build this temple, to

do good things for the benefit of the people and to build temples in

commemoration of ancient Khmer society."

With agreement of the monks at

Phnom Reap, where two small temples, known as the gold and silver pagodas,

already stand, Saroeun began fundraising and planning the Diamond Palace, which

stands on the site of an ancient palace, later a wat which was destroyed by the

Khmer Rouge.

Saroeun, says that when his 14-year-old son is grown, he

plans to return to the monkhood. Later, he would like to build a second pagoda

behind the Diamond Palace.

Meantime, the volunteers keep spreading the

word about Saroeun's pagoda. Tang Kim Hieng, 35, visiting from Ottawa, Canada,

came with her sister, who lives in Phnom Penh. "At home, we don't have proper

pagodas so I'm enthusiastic to help," she said. "I copied it onto my video and

I'm going to show it to people when I get home."

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