When I first saw the Flying Foxes of Cambodia, I was overwhelmed by their size and strength in numbers. Being bats, they sleep during the day but as it starts getting dark in Siem Reap, they all wake up and need to feed. With thousands of them living in the trees of Royal Independence Gardens, I could only imagine what kind of a blood bath it must be when they all get munchies. Afterall, that’s what bats feed on, right – blood. At least that’s what bats are known for? But if these Cambodian Flying Foxes feed on blood of living creatures, there must be a major carnage happening somewhere each night. There are thousands of them in those trees and they are huge. Or could it be that they don’t feed on blood? But if not, then what do flying foxes eat?
I first wondered about what Flying Foxes ate when I strolled through the Royal Independence Gardens with Ha. I was on a mission to take some pictures of them flying during daytime hours and as I kept being focused on how many of them there are, I couldn’t help but search for signs of blood bath these presumed blood suckers cause in the neighborhood every night. And I really didn’t have to go far to stumble across dozens of dead birds scattered across the greens of the gardens.
From the beginning, I was pretty darn sure that all those dead birds were the work of flying foxes but when I noticed the sales of live birds taking place behind the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and saw what happens to those birds after release, I have quickly ditched my initial guess. No, those dead birds in the garden were not the doing of Fruit Bats, those died because of selfish human behavior.
In my continuous search for answers to the “What Do Flying Foxes Eat?” question, I realized that perhaps there is a reason why Flying Foxes are also known as Fruit Bats. Could the word “Fruit” just before “Bats” signify what these flying foxes eat? It sure could and it does. Flying Foxes don’t feed on blood of living creatures. Flying Foxes eat fruit, hence the name “Fruit Bats”. Jungles of South East Asia are full of mango trees, banana trees, guava trees or papaya trees. Fruits from these trees are a staple of their diet.
When night falls on Siem Reap and you look up, you will see swarms of Flying Foxes filling up the sky as they are migrating towards their feasting grounds. There are endless clouds of them flying against the darkening sky. Now I understad that this is their daily (or should I say nightly?) rite. They don’t sleep where they eat. They prefer to fly the distance to munch on fresh fruit and then fly the same distance back to spend the day sleeping atop the trees of downtown Siem Reap. They don’t care about insects, birds or other living creatures. That’s perhaps the reason why none of the locals heed them in any way. Despite their intimidating size, they are harmless to humans. They are harmless to all living things. The only people who don’t like Flying Foxes are farmers who are not amazed when their fruit gets eaten overnight. And because of their size, one flying fox can down several fruits in one sitting. But it’s the numbers of bats in each colony that makes them a nightmare for farmers. It doesn’t matter how many fruit trees you have, if it gets marked as feeding grounds by a colony of flying foxes, you could find your trees stripped of all fruit overnight.
I wanted to take Ha to the Royal Independence Gardens – my favourite place in Siem Reap. I really like it there so I thought she’d enjoy it too. And since it was a beautiful day I was not gonna use to go to Angkor Wat, I thought of at least taking my camera with a telephoto lens to the gardens and try to snap some pictures of the Fruit Bats Flying so the day doesn’t go to waste entirely.
I fully realized that taking pictures of the Fruit Bats flying during the day was not gonna be easy, but I still wanted to give it a try. Bats are nocturnal animals so coming to them during daytime would mean catching them in the middle of sleep but with a little bit of patience, I may be able to see some of them flying. From what I have noticed, Fruit Bats are pretty vicious with one another and fight a lot when they are supposed to sleep. As a result, one is bound to take flight and move from one branch of the tree to another. That was gonna be my opportunity which I really didn’t want to pass on so I can complement the pictures of Fruit Bats sleeping with pictures of them flying.
Obviously, because of how high in the trees they dwell, it was gonna be difficult to get a decent close up photo even with a telephoto lens mounted on the camera. Armed with a great deal of patience, I’ve explained to Ha that the gardens are truly beautiful and the shriek of Fruit Bats magical so we were gonna stick around and enjoy the heat while I would keep my camera on standby to snap a photo should any of the sleeping flying foxes get awaken and take flight. The pictures in the gallery below capture these beautiful, huge bats flying against the blue Cambodian sky:
Trouble with Cambodia is that it’s a tropical country so it’s always very hot there. Because of that, no matter what time of year, the moment you step your foot outside of the air-conditioned room, you will find yourself instantly drenched in sweat. I had my digital SLR camera with two lenses with me. One was a wide angle lens and the other one was a telephoto lens. Each time I was gonna leave the room, I only took a camera with one of the lenses mounted on it because carrying extra equipment in this heat was extremely difficult. Wide lens seemed to have more general uses so unless I went to a specific event where I’d know telephoto lens would be needed, I would leave with the wide angle one mounted on. It was also the case of my latest visit to the Royal Independence Gardens.
I was looking forward to observing those majestic Flying Foxes during the day after my night time visit left deep impressions. Now that I could see, I noticed that the Flying Foxes dwell in the highest branches of old, tall trees that lined the main walkway across the Royal Independence Gardens. Even though bats are nocturnal animals, the shriek was as intense as during the night when they are awake and active. Vast majority of the Fruit Bats slept in their typical upside down position but their numbers were so vast, there were always odd individuals that were awake and shrieked.
I could see there were thousands upon thousands of those Flying Foxes dwelling high in the tall trees, completely oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the life on the ground. I took a break to simply watch them from below and it seemed as though the most common reasons for awaking and shrieking was either fighting for space or wanting to copulate. Females seemed to play loud and obnoxious hard-to-gets but males were just as loud. Feisty nature of these huge mice with wings was apparent in how freaky they got each time another member of the pack appeared too close. This was assumed to have been an invasion of space and was opposed by deafening shriek which turned the heads of all passersby.
I do not know what the trees on which the Flying Foxes dwell are called. Their trunks are covered in lush vegetation making them look as though they belonged in the jungle. Bats occupied only the highest branches and none seemed to hang lower than in top quarter of each tree. Those trees were fascinating me, but main fascination was with flying foxes themselves. They are so big and so loud you can hardly hear yourself talking. Yet fascination went on with locals visiting the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and acting as though those bats were not there at all. All of us foreigners could not take our eyes off of those massive bats, yet locals wouldn’t even acknowledge their presence. It was as though the Flying Foxes were as common as omnipresent mosquitoes.
The Ya-Tep Shrine is unique in a way that it’s built right in the middle of a major road passing through Siem Reap (National Highway #6) so the road splits to go around it. Since Ya-Tep Shrine is a small structure, it only creates an effect of a traffic circle, not any major detours. Despite its small size, it’s a busy shrine that enjoys immense popularity among local Khmer people. It is said that the statue of Ya Tep that is housed within the shrine is a powerful spirit locally known as Neak-Ta. Neat-Ka spirits are localized, meaning that they protect the land where they are located and the people who live in the area. Ya Tep spirit is also believed to bring good luck to people playing the lottery so the shrine gets particularly busy on days of the draw.
While Ya-Tep Shrine is a standalone unit that’s not part of anything bigger, it is located right between two important landmarks of Siem Reap – Royal Residence is to the south of the shrine and Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to the north. Ya-Tep Shrine is basically right in the middle of the road that separates these two.
The night when I discovered majestic Flying Foxes in the Royal Independence Garden and stayed to take pictures of people bringing offerings for the dead, the Buddha and the Monks since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival was also the night I first saw Ya-Tep Shrine. Well, no kidding since it’s only half the road across. Local Buddhists who paid a visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine also stayed for a player and burned incense sticks before the statue of Ya-Tep.
The popularity and high regard of Ya-Tep Shrine was truly evident. Each time I would be passing by on my bad ass bicycle, whether it was during the day or after dark there would be people kneeling and praying before the statue of their local protector. Speed bumps to the west of the shrine slowed down the traffic so vehicles don’t run into the island housing the shine or people who frequently come to the shrine to pray. Sadly, because of close proximity of several major landmarks, poshy hotels (Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor and Victoria Angkor Hotel) and Angkor Shopping Center, the area is overrun with Tuk Tuk drivers who will do their best to annoy the heck out of you while you are enjoying the sweet shriek of gianormous Fruit Bats. Ahh well… Tuk Tuk drivers, the plague of Cambodia.
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine blew my mind right out because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding my discovery of it. The presence of thousands of Cambodian Flying Foxes that circled over Royal Independence Gardens where the shrine is located gave it the movie-like feel. Subtle but pronounced illumination of shrine’s edges and distinct roof draws eyes of passers-by after dark and since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine was enveloped in a haze of smoke from hundreds of burning incense sticks which is part of Khmer ritual surrounding the Festival of the Dead. There was no other temple or shrine anywhere in Cambodia that would leave me with profound impressions similar to those I felt after visiting Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine.
History of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As its name suggests, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is dedicated to two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm. Two standing statues located inside depict these two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek is the taller Buddha and Preah Ang Chorm is the shorter Buddha. Local Cambodians believe that Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine provides protection for entire town of Siem Reap. Legends have it that when Khmer Rogue, who were on a mission to destroy religion in Cambodia, entered Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and attempted to remove both Buddha statues, these were growing heavier by the second until they’ve reached such weight that Khmer Rogue cadres were unable to move them. Aside from beliefs of its indestructibility, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is also believed to bring good fortune to newly married couples and is therefore frequently visited by newlyweds on their wedding day.
Inside Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
As soon as I was done admiring heart-stopping Fruit Bats I proceeded to pay the visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. The place was incredibly busy with whole families coming in and out all the time. There were Buddhists praying at every part of the shrine, whether it was inside before the statues of two Buddhas or outside by large pot where devotees put their burning incense sticks.
Pilgrims and Beggars
From what I found out, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a place of great reverence for pilgrims and beggars. It was easily noticeable that all visitors entering the gates of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine gave the beggars some money. There were quite a few of them and from my independent observation, they were cashing in big time. Out of hundreds of families I saw come in, virtually every members would give them some. They probably made more cash there in one day that all those families see in a year.
Despite my solid and well reasoned philosophy that I don’t give to the beggars, I caught myself breaking my own rule on the steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. There was this boy who was incredibly crooked. He was crawling around the ground with all limbs and facial features crooked really badly. He was obviously not faking his condition and it seemed pretty bad, however as I have observed later, he was not disabled enough to safely grab at handed money and store it in his large pockets. He truly needed massive pockets to store all those bills that were coming in large numbers from everyone entering the shrine. My beef with him was that he came chasing after me as I was walking in, and did the same as I was walking out. I told him I gave him already and just because he sees me again, it doesn’t mean I was gonna give him again. I did not have this type of budget, no matter how much I would like to help. He was extremely hard to get rid of as he knew real well how to use his disability to his advantage.
Street Vendors at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
The area along National Road #6, on south west corner of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine houses several street vendors selling flowers, decorated coconuts, incense sticks and live birds. These items could be bought by the Buddhists heading to the shrine and used as offering for the Buddha statues inside. Most of these made good sense to me, except from live birds. I don’t know how they capture these beautiful, wild birds, but somehow they do and keep them in small cages where many of them are cramped together. Bottoms of these cages are sprinkled with dead birds who suffocated in confined space, or were trampled by too many other birds inside, or simply beat themselves to death trying to escape.
People who buy these birds, hold them between their palms they keep locked together as if in a player, often close to their mouth with eyes closed while they utter a prayer in their minds and then they release them. This is an extremely sad sight for me as I feel strongly for the animals and while some of those released birds take off happy to be returned back to their wild homes, many try to fly but go straight for the ground. Their wings are too crippled from being caged for so long, or they’re broken from overcrowded cages, or they are otherwise disabled and can’t fly anymore. You can find these dead birds sprinkled all over the grassy padding of the Royal Independence Gardens and it’s truly a sad sight. I couldn’t believe this abuse of birds was happening and that local Khmer people think it’s really awesome. They think Buddha likes it when they release the birds in the wild, but they don’t take into account what birds go through in order to be available for sale and subsequent release. Very sad 🙁
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on Pchum Ben Festival
The shrine was so alive it was breathtaking. The shriek of thousands of bats above was dubbed by chatter of hundreds of people below. There was a traditional Cambodian band playing traditional Khmer music on the right hand side of the terrace, several Buddhist Monks were kneeling on the left to accept offering from devotees and give them blessings. The inside of the shrine was getting filled up with offering from devoted Buddhists. It was dark outside but the smoke from incense sticks and the lights of the shrine created a peaceful and mellow atmosphere in which anyone could enjoy themselves by just sitting and observing. Which is exactly what I was doing. I found Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to be a magical place and visited it often. Besides, the Fruit Bats were the coolest thing in all of Cambodia.
As soon as I could recognize what was making that loud shriek I could hear from a block away I was impressed with extraordinary size and numbers of these bats. These bats are locally known as the Flying Foxes because truly the reference to a flying mouse would be highly disproportionate to their actual size. I would have never thought bats this huge exist. As I have later found out, Flying Foxes belong to the Fruit Bats sub group (Pteropodidae family) and some fruit bats are known to grow this huge. There were thousands of these flying foxes high up in the trees and since it was dusk, they were all waking up and started getting active. It took me a while to recognize a shape of a bat against the dark blue sky, especially since I’ve never seen a bat of such humongous size.
This entire place had an amazingly magical feel. First of all I found myself amidst beautiful garden with pathway lined with huge trees tops of which were a dwelling place of monstrous bats and secondly, in the middle of it all there was a small-ish, but gracefully illuminated shrine which was incredibly busy because it was the first day of Pchum Ben Festival and both nearby Ya-Tep Shrine as well as Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine are believed to gain magical powers this time of year allowing Buddhist devotees to deliver their food for the dead. I was impressed how none of hundreds of people visiting the shrine would pay any attention to overwhelming numbers of huge flying foxes above their heads. And similarly, none of the thousands of bats flying over the shrine would care about any of us humans down below. It was such a sense of incredible harmony between men and nature my heart felt like jumping out of my chest with joy. I’m very environmentally conscious and seeing animals strive in an area close to humans gives me some hope for our future as the species.
Oddly enough, as I have found out later, flying foxes or any other kind of bats that can be found throughout Cambodia are habitually killed for food. Virtually anything that can be eaten, is eaten in Cambodia. Not only bats, but also spiders, cockroaches, snakes, toads and whole lot of anything that has meat on it. Luckily for Royal Independence Gardens flying foxes, because these gardens are right opposite Royal Residence and because of presence of holy Buddhist place (Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine), killing these fruit bats was strongly prohibited here. The Royal Independence Gardens were a safe-haven for Flying Foxes. It was a sanctuary where they could peacefully live and breed and both they do. They truly strive here.
I have fallen in love with Royal Independence Gardens immediately after this first exposure to it. I have fallen in love with shriek these bats make and with their sizes and numbers. This became my most favorite place in all of Cambodia and I would visit often, especially if I didn’t particularly feel well.
The shriek of Flying Foxes was like poetry to my ears. There were so many people around, but all I felt like doing to to take off my camera, walk up to the walkway amidst the trees where the bats live, spread my hands wide, kneel down and say: “Come to me, my babies. I have arrived at last!”
Call me a freak, this is how awesome Flying Foxes sound. It’s an insanely loud and hair-rising shriek but when you see the power these bats wield given their numbers and size, it makes you feel powerful as well. Fruit Bats were for the win. They never seemed to have come too low to get close to people and during the day, when they slept they were inhabiting highest branches of the tallest trees in the gardens. They kept their distance from people and none of the Cambodians seem to pay any attention to them. Everyone acted as if there were no bats there. Nevermind the deafening noise and blatant presence. I must have truly looked weird having been completely captivated by them.
Since it was already dark, taking pictures of fast flying Fruit Bats was extremely difficult. I also only had wide angle lens mounted on my camera so my options for capturing a decent photo of Flying Foxes were narrow (basically equal to none). So instead I went and visited the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine which was entirely immersed in haze from burning incense sticks. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. I was unspeakably grateful for my bicycle because it was just thanks to it that I made it to this magical place on this evening. I could not have been asked for a better place to be on the first night of Pchum Ben Festival.