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Wat Vihear Suor: a king's sanctuary

Wat Vihear Suor: a king's sanctuary

Wat Vihear Suor is one of Cambodia's best-known temples. It was an important place

of pilgrimage for hundreds of years, and its links to past powerful leaders still

draw today's politicians: two new temples there were built by King Norodom Sihanouk

and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Legend has it that the pagoda was built by Baksei Cham Krong, an 11th century Cambodian

king. It was constructed in gratitude for his escape from the forces of his predecessor,

Punhea Krek, who wanted to kill him.

After Krek ascended the throne he sought to eliminate the threat of potential rivals

by killing all royal progeny. Krong's mother, pregnant with him, heard of Krek's

plan and fled to the countryside. There she lived under the protection of her parents,

Ta Kohe and Yeay Lak.

They lived there for several years. Each day the couple would bring their grandson

to the field while they harvested rice, before returning home in the evening. On

one particular day a large bird landed next to the infant's side. Ta Kohe was alarmed

the bird would harm his grandson, but was amazed when it merely spread its wings

to shade the boy. This event provided the child's name: Baksei Cham Krong means 'a

bird providing shade'.

Some years later King Punhea Krek dreamed that a Garuda - a mythical bird - pecked

out his eyes. The nightmare alarmed him, and he asked his fortune-teller its meaning.

He was told that in the kingdom was a young Neak Meanbun (an honorable person) who

had Chakral marks on his hands and feet. The king ordered his soldiers to bring to

him all 7-year-old boys with such markings.

Baksei Cham Krong was among those ordered to go. His grandfather noticed the marks

on his grandson's hands and fled with him, pursued by the king's troops.

On their long journey Ta Kohe lost his bamboo stick at a place known today as O'Dambang

(literally 'stream stick') in Battambang province. They continued through a forest

to a small hill where the rolus tree provided them with shade. That became known

as Rolus village, in Soth Nikum district, Siem Reap province.

Soon the king's soldiers drew near. Ta Kohe and the boy were hidden in a mosquito-infested

bush, causing them great discomfort. The boy prayed to a powerful spirit that if

he really was an honorable person, the spirit would make the mosquitoes disappear.

They did.

The next morning they arrived at a wide river. They had no way of crossing, but Krong

prayed again asking a roka tree on the north shore to reach out to a lavea tree on

the south. In doing so the trees formed a bridge for the fugitives. The villages

at those points also took on the names of the trees in the legend: Roka Kong, meaning

'Roka curved' is in the Mok Kampol district of Kandal province, and Levea Te, meaning

'Levea bend', is in the Srey Santhor district in Kampong Cham.

The two then came to a hill where they built a small cottage. One morning Krong was

woken by the calling of water fowl. He thought they were warning him that the king's

troops were coming, but after climbing to higher ground, he saw none. However the

two left the hill, crossed a river and spent some time hiding in a cave in Basith

Mountain, 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

In time the evil King Punhea Krek died. Krong was appointed his successor, and

to remind his citizens of his plight at Krek's hands, he ordered temples built at

several places important to him on his journey. A temple was also built on the hill

where the waterfowl woke him - Vihear Suor.

During the Lon Nol regime, the temple was badly damaged by fighting between the Khmer

Rouge and government soldiers. Repairs began in the 1980s.

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