I ran across this temple in the middle of Siem Reap on our first jaunt around town. It sits at the edge of a small park and across the street from the Royal Residence (not much to see and not open to the public) at a main cross roads.
I have to say that I didn’t realize this was a temple at first – the thing is completely outlined with neon lights and lit up like it’s Christmas every day, with vendors selling all kinds of critters (for offerings), snacks and flowers in the alley just behind the building. There were lots of people coming and going, both tourists and the devout who came to get their fortunes read or be prayed over by the monks, give alms to the cripples or make offerings to the statures of two statues dressed in the traditional robes of Theravada Buddhism. “Preah” means “holy/sacred” and is commonly used to identify individuals who have achieved enlightenment, or Buddha-hood. Locals believe that both the statues are of sisters or princesses (the taller being Chek, the shorter, Chorm) and were originally installed at Angkor Wat but were later removed and hidden for their protection. In 1950 they surfaced again and have had an interesting history since then.
Upon hearing of the rediscovery of the statues, the general in charge of Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces, Dap Chhoun, had the statues seized from the Angkor Conservation office and transported to his headquarters. The heist gave Dap Chhuon an extraordinary reputation. One popular story was that possessing the statues granted him superhuman strength, making him able to singlehandedly hoist both of the 150 kilogram Buddhas onto his shoulders at the same time. Whatever the truth of Dap Chhuon’s statue-lifting powers, the general made his troops pray in front of the statues for half an hour each day, until his sudden downfall two years later.
In 1957, King Sihanouk sent a convoy of troops to arrest him. He was suspected of involvement in the so-called “Bangkok Plot” – an alleged conspiracy to topple the king, instigated by right wing politicians angered by the throne’s close ties with communist China. But the power of the statues intervened. They supposedly granted Dap Chhuon foresight of the impending danger so he made plans to flee to the Thai border and attempted to take the statues with him. However, the statues did not care to leave and became so heavy that he could not lift them as he had before. In fact, no amount of men he summoned to help could lift them. With his powers gone, and the inability of his men to transport the Buddhas, Dap Chhoun was reduced to breaking off five fingers from the right hand of the Preah Ang Chek statue and fleeing to his farm at the Thai border.
It was here that Dap Chhuon was cornered by Sihanouk’s soldiers. A brief shoot-out ensued after which he surrendered himself into their custody. According to accounts of the failed coup, Dap Chhuon was then taken to an unknown location and killed.
In the aftermath of Dap Chhuon’s death, the statues were taken to the Provincial Department of Cults and Religious Affairs, where they were installed at the front of the building in a grand ceremony in 1958. But after fifteen years of relative peace for the statues, they became endangered again during the Cambodian Civil War, when Khmer Rouge soldiers started shelling government forces inside Siem Reap in 1973. The Buddhas were moved for their own protection to Wat Damnak pagoda, but captured one year later when Khmer Rouge forces overran the city.
The commander of the Khmer Rouge garrison in Siem Reap was a fervent believer in the need to eradicate Buddhism and ordered his troops to take Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm and drop them in Siem Reap river. His orders were obeyed, and the statues lay covered in silt and reeds until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge retreated from Siem Reap. Popular legend has it that the Khmer Rouge soldiers responsible for mistreating the statues, along with their commander, died of illness shortly after.
As the Khmer Rouge retreated, the citizens of Siem Reap dredged the statues from the bottom of the river and restored them to their previous home at Wat Damnak. In 1982, the head of the Buddhist monkhood in Siem Reap joined forces with the governor to fund the construction of a shrine for the Sister Buddhas. The shrine was enlarged in 2004 with money donated by the Minister of Commerce.
Nowadays, the shrine is said to bring good fortune to the newly married and to provide spiritual protection for Siem Reap. Every day the shrine welcomes almost 300 people, but on special days like Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day), the Khmer New Year and the Water Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is crowded with more than 800 people.