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.
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.