K ANDAL - Every weekend, 20 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, a procession of
volunteers from across the country arrives at a unique construction
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
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."