To the north-west of majestic Bayon temple is a small Buddhist shrine called Preah Ngok (sometimes spelled as Preah Ngoc). Even though small in overall size, it houses a rather large statue of Buddha sitting with his legs crossed and eyes only slightly open. The shrine appears to be reasonably modern, but the statue itself is believed to have come from late Angkorian era. Some say the statue has been there since the 13th century even though the chapel itself has been rebuilt several times over the centuries.
Because of its small size and apparent insignificance, the Preah Ngok shrine is missed by most visitors to Angkor. I had the whole thing for myself when I made my brief pause to take a few pictures of it, however a few Cambodian nuns sporting shaved heads and white robes kept me company. Through my own eyes, the most significant part of Preah Ngok appeared to be its similarity to more famous shrine called Tep Pranam which is located just north of the Terrace of the Leper King and aside from looking strikingly similar, it also houses a statue of Buddha that looks virtually identical to that of Preah Ngok.
I don’t know the reason behind such similarities and I’m quite likely the only person in the world who noticed that. None of the locals I spoke with seemed to have noticed or cared and none of the guide books to Angkor ever compared the two. But that’s probably because none of the guide books ever mentions Preah Ngok in the first place.
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: