I’m a sucker for Buddhist temples. The sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle design differences from country to country fascinate me and the pagodas of Cambodia were no exception. In contrast to the lavish decadence of Thailand’s gilt-covered monasteries, the pagodas in this poverty-stricken country were simple, with one notable exception. As if to make up for their general lack of opulence, electronic rainbow-colored discs rotate behind the heads of Buddhas statues.
There were more than enough pagodas in Siem Reap to satisfy my obsession but one in particular caught my eye. As I passed by every morning on my way to the Angkor Wat ruins and again on my way back to town later in the day, I noticed that this tiny sanctuary was always overflowing with locals, while the larger pagodas I had visited were fairly deserted. My curiosity got the better of me, so I took one afternoon off from exploring ruins to join the faithful at Preah Ang Chek and Ang Chom Shrine.
At a huge ceramic pot in front of the shrine I held three smoking sticks of incense forehead high and bowed, asking that all sentient beings be relieved from suffering, then pierced the curtain of wafting smoke and mounted the steps to the ordered pandemonium of the interior. On the right, wizened bald-headed Buddhist nuns in white robes sat cross-legged on the floor collecting donations for the repair and maintenance of the temple. To my left, saffron-robed monks patiently flicked holy water from a wicker brush onto visitors who knelt and prostrated, touching their foreheads to the marble floor.
In the center, hundreds of people streamed in and out of a small alcove where stately brass and bronze statues of Preah Ang Chek and Ang Chom stood. These sister deities, believed to have been Angkorean princesses, originally stood in the gallery of One Thousand Buddhas at Angkor Wat, however successive generations of monks moved them repeatedly to keep their whereabouts secret from invaders and treasure hunters, until they were finally enshrined in their current location in 1990. Each day, throngs of worshipers heap the sisters with flowers and wash the hands and feet of the statues with small bowls of blessed water, most especially Ang Chek, the taller, more slender of the two statues, whose outstretched palm displays a Sanskrit protection symbol.
When I grew tired of the circus inside the alcove there was still much more to see. Down one side of the shrine, flower sellers had lotus buds and jasmine garlands at the ready, while around back vendors with toothless grins hawked bamboo cages full of songbirds, which suppliants purchase and release as acts of merit. In the early evening gloom, thousands of tiny lights strung over the shrine were switched on, turning it into a glittering kaleidoscope of whirling color that matched the vividly-colored spiral discs pulsing behind the heads of the deities. As darkness fell, the crowd swelled with locals who lay food at the feet of the deities every day after work. I weaved through the crush to the exit, stopping just long enough to toss a few small bills into the baskets of the nuns, who insistently held out their hands for a donation. It was worth every cent.