He claims he was raised by a mountain-dwelling sage, and to have extensive memories of his past lives, and, while not a monk, he sits upon a high pedestal and attracts vast crowds who lie on the ground to be blessed as he steps over them.
But in Champa, the Prey Kabas district village where Thean Vuthy grew up, people have a different tale to tell about the self-professed holy man who has drawn the ire of Cambodia’s most powerful.
Vuthy, who built Kandal province’s Tuol Preah Reachea pagoda which has two giant Buddha statues that loom over the surrounding landscape, recently became notorious after he was accused of claiming to be the fifth reincarnation of the Buddha, known as the Maitreya, and “offending Buddhism” in the process.
However, he has been around for years attracting a devoted and financially generous following both in Cambodia and overseas – including monks – who believe he has special spiritual wisdom and abilities, reportedly including being able to speak to animals.
A 2010 video posted on social media this week appears to show him sitting on a high multi-tiered pedestal, stepping over rows of prone devotees and receiving an award from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Erik Davis, a scholar of Buddhism who interviewed the white-robed guru several times between 2004 and 2007, said Vuthy presented himself as a lay ascetic who was addressed as “lok kru”, which means teacher.
Back then, he did not profess to be a Buddha, but instead claimed that the future Maitreya had already been born in Cambodia. Vuthy allegedly knew where and when, but refused to reveal the details.
“The story he was telling at that time is that as a young child fleeing the Vietnamese liberation/invasion of Cambodia in 1979, he fled to the mountains, where he was raised and educated by a hidden sage who lived deep in a mountain,” Davis said in an email.
“When he left the mountain, he was full grown. He also claims extensive memory of past lives, including that of the most significant figure in modern Cambodian history: Ven. Chuon Nath, national patriarch and major reformer.”
But the people in Champa, the village where Vuthy was born and grew up, contradict this story – though none would speak about him openly.
According to a woman who didn’t want to be identified but claimed to have attended primary and high school with Vuthy, he and his siblings were raised by a single mother. He also had some half brothers.
He was a good student who wrote well “even though he was left-handed” but “not a person with a holy spirit”.
“When he was nearly 20, it is said he was possessed by a holy spirit and people started to believe him, and he went to Tuol Reachea pagoda where has remained until today.”
She went on to say that Vuthy had married even after proclaiming to be a “hermit” at Tuol Preah Reachea pagoda and had several children.
A man, who also declined to be identified, said Vuthy was rich, with three houses in Phnom Penh where he lived with his wife and children and a petrol station at Takhmao.
“He not only has a wife and kids, but also countless lovers,” he said.
When a Post Weekend reporter attempted to contact Vuthy’s mother he was confronted by a large, aggressive man on a 2014-series motorbike.
“Here is not a place to ask questions. If you want to know what go to ask him (Vuthy). She is old and does not know anything,” he said.
Vuthy’s life was “very mysterious” said another Champa resident.
“Thean Vuthy is famous and he likes building huge Buddha statues, but he never prays with the other monks,” said one woman.
“When they have a ceremony, he comes at the end just to collect the money and then leaves immediately after by car.
“People in Champa village do not dare to speak out, even though we know what he is doing is wrong. They are afraid. No one dares to say anything, because he is known to have a strong government connection.”
However, it seems Vuthy may have finally overstepped the boundaries of acceptability with his incredible claims.
In June of this year, the authorities seized thousands of books, CDs and photos which appeared to depict Vuthy as the Maitreya that were being sold by vendors at the Tuol Preah Reachea pagoda.
Then, this past Sunday, police temporarily shut the pagoda down and raided his living quarters where they found expensive jewellery.
After Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly called for Vuthy’s arrest, saying his behaviour was “unspeakable”, Vuthy this week apologised while being questioned by senior monks and Kandal provincial governor Phay Bunchhoeun.
He was accused of: sitting on a throne reserved for the Buddha, having monks bow to him, owning a painting of himself depicted as a godly figure and using followers’ donations to buy jewellery, which he later sold.
Vuthy said he used the proceeds from the jewellery sales to expand his pagoda, and denied committing fraud.
“I have not cheated, robbed or forced anybody to pay – what they did, they did of their own accord,” Vuthy said. He offered to publicly repent.
The scholar Davis said “spiritual leaders” like Vuthy were not uncommon in Cambodia.
He referred to the case of Chan Yipon who in 2004 was sentenced to eight years prison for pretending to be the Buddhist deity Preah Thoammeak.
“The Ministry of Cult and Religions likes to keep tabs on them to make sure they don’t claim statuses under the ministry’s control, like that of ordained monk (avoiding the ‘fake monk’ problem), abbot, etc,” he said.
“Some of the practices of the ministry also certainly include cracking down on extra-institutional religious leaders whose influence is too broad, or somehow threatening.
“Whether they need to, or are only providing grist for the narrative mills of people like Vuthy, is a separate question.”
Additional reporting by Will Jackson