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 I was receiving my introduction to Buddhism, I was told about the reason why Wat Preah Prom Rath pagoda was so full of people, why traditional Khmer music was being played from a loudspeaker why there was so much food all over the place. It was the first day of Pchum Ben Festival, which was loosely translated to me as The Festival of the Dead or sometimes as The Festival of the Souls (or spirits).
Pchum Ben is a Buddhist Festival but even though Cambodia is surrounded by other Theravada Buddhist nations, Pchum Ben is only celebrated in Cambodia and nowhere else. Pchum Ben Festival celebrations last for 15 days with final, culminating day falling on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar. Granted, Khmer calendar is different from the Gregorian one which is the one used by western countries so even though it was the beginning of September, the Pchum Ben Festival has already started.
The most prominent observation a foreigner notices during Cambodian Pchum Ben Festival is the fact that it involves a lot of food. You see Khmer families coming to temples and pagodas carrying dishes with food which they arrange along the walkways while they spend hours chanting prayers inside temples, kneeling before statues of Buddha. As it was explained to me, the food is meant for the dead. The premise of Pchum Ben Festival is to feed the spirits of the dead. Cambodians firmly believe that the act of feeding the souls of their deceased predecessors will make their stay on Earth more enjoyable.
During Pchum Ben the spirits of the dead descend from the spirit world and walk the Earth. Those who are still alive prey for their souls and offer them food. As it goes with Buddhist Monks in Cambodia, people also bring food for them. The festival is very spiritual and considerably one of the most important festivals in Khmer calendar. As the history of Pchum Ben has it, the festival was originally celebrated for three months but has been shortened to 15 days as modern lifestyle makes 3 months of celebration complicated.
After me and my girl guide were done talking about the life of Buddha, we went to the prayer hall where several people were already gathered and chanted their prayers as one while their chants were played back from a loudspeaker. As confused westerner, I asked if I could join them for a prayer and take a few pictures while I was at it. There was no issue with that as Cambodians are vastly tolerant of foreigners when it comes to cultural and religious differences.
This was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival but as it became apparent during the following 15 days, Pchum Ben was a big deal for Khmer people who take the festival very seriously and dedicate most of their focus to it while the festivities last. Even Cambodians who are otherwise non religious would prepare their food and bring the offerings to one of the temples. during Pchum Ben Little did I know at the time that the most significant events of my personal stay in Cambodia will be directly connected to Pchum Ben. Let the festivities begin!
This was one of my biggest pet peeves about Cambodia right from the start. In most restaurants (translation – all restaurants, except from upscale, splurge style establishment for extremely rich), you will be breathed down your neck throughout your stay as a patron. I’m saying this without slight exaggeration. Cambodians take excessively wrong approach towards tourists in most instances and waiters in restaurants are no exception. I found it truly hard to accept from the beginning and still can’t get myself to feel easy about it, but I grew to accept it as necessary evil.
Awful Experience Placing Orders
This is what it looks like when you walk into a restaurant with intentions to get something to eat:
A waiter or waitress follows you to the table (or escorts you to it if she got to you before you could seat yourself), hands you the menu and stands there right above you staring at you as you browse through your menu. If you tell him/her that you will take a minute to choose, it will be ignored and the waiter will simply stand there, breathing down your neck, forcing you to make hasty decision just so you get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of having someone stand over you, staring at you while you’re trying to make a decision.
Awful Experience Eating
Once you have placed an order (9 out of 10 it will be a hasty order as you will feel pressure having someone breathe down your neck while you’re choosing), unless you are in an upscale establishment for extremely rich, you will be stared at from a distance. Your waiter will stand nearby with eyes fixed on you, staring you down nonstop. Occasionally, if it’s slow and there are few servers at the restaurant, they may engage at a conversation with each other giving you the room to breathe. But it is very common to have your server stand a few tables down facing you and looking at you non stop. You will feel their breath on you, you will have them within your peripheral vision which makes it really hard to cope with. But this is the way they do it in Cambodia.
Awful Experience Paying
Once you’re done eating and ask your waiter for a bill, you will be brought a little folder with your bill that lists the total for what you have consumed. I have never had any unexplained charges on my bill which is a very positive experience, however… your waiter will wait right there by your side, staring at you as you pull your wallet out, browse through the bills inside and pick what you wish to put inside a folder. The feeling of being pressured and having a person breathe down your neck is unbearable but again – this is the way they do it.
Cultural Differences in Dining Services
Apparently the reason why waiters at Cambodian restaurants put you as a patron through such unpleasant experience is because this is the way Khmer (Cambodians) like it. Khmer people want everything now so servers are always at the ready, never close by, but rather right there.
It is difficult to hold this against your waiters. They actually believe that they are doing you a favour and are providing you with exceptional service by being there for you at any given time. Unfortunately this belief is so deeply embedded that any attempt to try to explain that this makes guests uncomfortable is futile. You will be deemed a weirdo if you express your feelings and ask not to have anyone breathe down your back. Khmer people believe this is quality service. They do not realize that for us westerners this is rather rude and feels like you are not given the room to breathe.
You are likely to experience this type of treatment in one form or another. While Cambodians slowly grow to become a little better behaved, unintentional, yet ill treatment is very common. Unless you are staying in upscale establishment and eat in high class restaurants where western owners train their staff appropriately and maintain standards acceptable by westerners, expect to feel uncomfortable by having your waiter stare you down and breathe down your neck during your stay at their establishment.