I woke up to a new day ready to explore more of Siem Reap’s pagodas. The sun was already baking the air outside which made me happy since it was rainy season in Cambodia, but this was the second day with no rain. Already well aware of how devastating Cambodian sun is, I fortified my skin with natural sun block (as close to organic as it gets), applied powerful mosquito repellent (don’t even bother with anything that contains less than 30% deet – Cambodian mosquitoes are vicious, plentiful and active during all parts of day and night), sat on my mountain bike and off I rode for Wat Damnak.
As always, I used the map provided in Angkor Siem Reap Visitors Guide to find locations of most relevant temples and pagodas in Siem Reap and used it as my main guide in choosing the best itinerary to get me there. Not that it’s in any way difficult, given rather small size of Siem Reap.
Wat Damnak is located near Phsar Chas aka Old Market, just on the opposite side of the Siem Reap river. If you were to take a walk around the Old Market, you would see the stone bridge right on its south-east corner. Take a walk across the bridge and by the time you made it half across, you will see the roof of beautiful Wat Damnak to your slight right.
Once I was across the river, I just followed the road that seemed to go in the general direction of Wat Damnak and it got me there. The entrance gate was the same way I got used to seeing from other temples I have visited before – magnificent, but spoiled by presence of disorganized bunch of cables which are used to electrify Cambodia. These cables spoil the view of basically every important or nice to look at structure in Cambodia, except from Angkor Wat temples since this part of the country has not yet been electrified. This was driving me up the wall as no matter where you go, you see beautiful temples, but you have no means of finding an angle under which to take a picture so it is not ruined by crap loads of cables cross knitted along each other.
This would have been the second day of Pchum Ben Festival. The 15 days long Festival of the Dead is an important part of Buddhist Khmer culture so during these two weeks I was encountering it on my every step. Pchum Ben was the most prominent within temple grounds. It always involved presence of dozens of monks, very loud traditional Khmer music played from really old loud speakers (awfully painful for the ears) and lots and lots of food and then some more.
Just as with any Cambodian temple during Pchum Ben festival, there were many people around and lots of traffic in and out. It was a scorching hot day but locals were all nicely dressed and carried bowls with food they’d use as offerings to their dead ancestors and to local monks. I parked my bike by Vihara – the prayer hall. It was close to Wat Damnak’s entrance gate and there seemed to be most commotion happening there. Aside from noticeable crowds, there was also obvious audible effect as Buddhists inside were repeating chants with powerful unison after the leading monk.
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.
This photo gallery contains pictures of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine in the Royal Independence Gardens in Siem Reap taken at night. This was also the first night of Pchum Ben Festival so the shrine was being continuously flooded with Cambodians bringing offerings for the Buddha and food for the dead. Few stalls selling decorated flower bouquets, decorated coconuts, burning incense sticks and live birds were nearby so devotees can purchase those for use within the temple. There was a band with traditional Khmer instruments set on the shrine floor playing traditional Khmer music. Few monks were seated on the side to give people blessings and take offerings of food and clothes from devoted Buddhists. Inside a small room, there were two statues of Buddha and people were hanging flower rings on them, touching their hands or just leaving other offerings at their feet. Hundreds upon hundreds of incense sticks were being lit up and burned in a large ashtray. The smoke from these could be smelled and seen half a mile away. Devotees also prey before the Buddha images with their palms joined together for a prayer while burning incense sticks are held between the palms. Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a small, but nicely located and beautifully built shrine that enjoys vast popularity among people of Siem Reap. The gallery is below:
As I leaving Lucky Mall, I took my right turn on the traffic lights where Siem Reap’s Sivatha Bulevard is crossed with National Road #6. According to the map this was near direct way back to Two Dragons Guesthouse and I was really looking forward to munching on my fresh watermelon. As I started riding down National Road #6 and started getting closer towards Siem Reap’s Royal Residence, I noticed quite prominent shriek coming from the opposite side. According to the map, that’s the location of Royal Independence Gardens. Since it was already dark (it basically gets dark at 6pm every day in Cambodia), I didn’t feel like strolling Royal Independence Gardens, but the shriek was so paramount, I felt attracted to it and wanted to find out what was making it.
At first I thought there must have been some ponds within the Royal Independence Gardens with millions of some viciously exotic frogs who spend their nights trying to out-shriek one another and I wasn’t far from the truth. There truly are small water reservoirs at Royal Independence Gardens, but these were no frogs.
Another thing that instantly caught my attention as I started passing by the Royal Independence Gardens was tiny Ya-Tep Shrine in the middle of the road breaking traffic in half and another, bigger shrine called Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on the left hand side, opposite Royal Residence palace, basically directly within Royal Independence Gardens. Because this was the beginning of the Pchum Ben Festival there were many people around and with all that shriek and major commotion I felt compelled to pull over, park my bike and hang around for a bit. I was truly looking forward to munching on my watermelon, but this could wait.
I’ve parked my bicycle by the small gate that was used as a barricade to prevent motor vehicle access to the Royal Independence Gardens. There was about 100 people around. Few street vendors were selling decorated flowers, incense sticks and live birds. The smell of burning incense stick was so prevalent, the haze from the burn was so thick you could touch it. I didn’t mind it as Cambodian incense sticks have really pleasant, oriental smell that’s not offensive in any way. This whole place seemed so alive now that the sun was down and Siem Reap was engulfed in the darkness of the night, I really wanted to stay and see what exactly is happening. Plus there was that continuous loud shriek that was raising so many questions and even though it added indescribable creepiness to the night, I was attracted to it and perceived it as music to my ears. Then at one point I looked up against dark blue sky of the night and my breath was taken away. There were thousands upon thousands of bats size of an eagle filling the sky. They were the creatures making that shriek, not frogs and none of the people seemed to mind. I was in awe.
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!