Kompong Cham's 11th century temple gives up its legend (with a little help from Vanak, a local motodop).
Ancient temples have ancient stories. But as temples can’t tell these stories we’re left to receive these imaginative tales as they are passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from mother to daughter. And with each telling the truth stretches here, the facts are pulled there, and an historical fact one day becomes a legend.
Kompong Cham’s Wat Nokor has such a legend. It’s a legend that not only explains how the temple came to be but also explains how the Chinese came to settle in the area. The story was related to me by Vanak the Motodop while sitting in the cool shade next to nearby Phnom Pros temple. I found Vanak at the boat pier looking for potential customers. He is a really nice fortysomethingish guy and he speaks good English, too. A truly valuable motodop.
As with most legends, the story varies from storyteller to storyteller and again from me as I take literary license and throw in a few dramatic embellishments. But in essence, here’s what Vanak told me…
Long ago in a village known as Tol Sbove, there lived a farmer with a beautiful young wife and a beautiful baby boy. Proud of his baby, the farmer would bring him along each day he worked in the fields. But as the sun was hot and the days were long, our farmer would lay the baby in the shade of a large tree.
One day the farmer returned from the fields and found that a large group of birds had nested in the tree directly above his now two-month old baby. And as birds are birds and do what birds do, the baby was, shall we say, a little dirty.
Muttering about ‘pigeon stew’ and 1,001 uses for a dead bird, the farmer took the baby down to the Mekong to clean him up. Perhaps tired from the long day, the man was careless and let the baby slip from his hands. Try as he could, he could not reach the baby before a huge fish came along and swallowed the tiny boy whole. Heartbroken over the loss of his son the farmer fell into a great depression, died a broken man, and disappeared from our story.
The fish, however, full and satisfied, began a long journey down the Mekong River (note: why the fish began a long journey down the Mekong River has not been satisfactorily explained so we are asked to use our own imagination as to why it did so - I'm open to suggestions). Eventually the fish reached the South China Sea. It then turned north and swam along the coast of Vietnam until reaching southern China.
All through this long journey our fish displayed great adeptness at evading the skillful fishermen’s nets, but now off the coast of China, one fisherman was just too clever and snared our giant fish. While pulling his catch ashore, excited villagers crowded around insisting that this fish be sliced open and immediately enjoyed by all.
So it was done. But as they opened the fish they made a remarkable discovery. A baby, still alive, was in the belly of this great fish. This was truly an auspicious event, and it was decided that this baby should be delivered to no other than the Emperor of China himself. With great humility the baby was brought to the great Emperor who agreed that this was truly a magnificent occasion.
The fisherman was duly rewarded (as he should have been - the villagers ate his fish) and the Emperor raised the baby as his own son. The boy was given every privilege and educated in all things important: benevolent administration, the skills of war, the ways of science, and so forth. Needless to say he grew into a fine young man who excelled in all that he was taught, a true master of many trades.
But being of an especially inquisitive nature, he often wondered about his real parents and his homeland. His origin, at least from the discovery in the great fish’s belly, was secret to no one, but no one knew from where the great fish had come. However, the young man’s looks were distinctly Khmer and many suggested that the land of the Khmers was where he should seek his roots.
As the Emperor was a kind man, he granted his adopted son’s request. Upon reaching the age of 25, the Emperor provided him with a great boat and 5,000 assistants to accompany him (note: as readers we are asked to accept without question that 5,000 Chinese boarded a rickety-old wooden ship and sailed off into the open seas).
And with that, the young man set upon a journey to find the parents he never knew. He eventually reached the mouth of the Mekong and began his journey up this great river, stopping along the way to inquire as to whether anybody knew of a baby swallowed by a great fish 25 years ago. Nobody knew anything.
After many months of searching he arrived at the small village now known as Kompong Cham. Our young man found himself quite taken by this village despite the fact that no one here knew anything of his story, either.
Tired of searching for what now seemed like a lost cause, our hero informed his crew that he wishes to travel no more. He gave his crew the option of staying in Kompong Cham or returning to China. The crew of 5,000 decided to stay, thus explaining for generations to come the source of the Chinese settlement in Kompong Cham.
As happens in every good legend, our man soon met a woman. Though older than he, she was a truly beautiful and kind woman. He courted her and finally after two years, they were married.
One day while resting his head upon his wife’s lap she spotted a small but most unique birthmark upon his head. She asked him about it, and the husband related his story of how he was found in the belly of a great fish when he was but a little baby (note: why he waited two years to tell his wife this story is not explained. Perhaps it’s because he spoke Chinese and she spoke Khmer and it would have taken them awhile to overcome this minor communication problem).
The wife than told her story of how her husband lost their baby and that the baby she lost bore the same birthmark as the man she had now wed. The man at first refused to believe this story but soon came to accept that it must be true. This is of course a big problem. On the one hand, there is great happiness for both - the woman is reunited with her son, and the son has found his mother. Unfortunately, his mother is also his wife, and well, there are other obvious complications at hand.
Panicked and fearing eternal damnation for the carnal knowledge of his mother he begged his wife/mother for forgiveness. To make amends she ordered him to become a monk for the remainder of his mortal life and to construct a great temple for her. Within the temple he was required to build a stupa, where, upon her death, her ashes would be placed. Nearby, he was to construct a simple pagoda, and there he would place a statue in the image of himself, seated and paying respect to his mother for all of eternity.
Today, a few hundred meters from the main temple, is a small pagoda with this seated figure facing the stupa fulfilling the request of his mother. Many Chinese-Khmers come to the temple to pay respect to this statue. The original statue was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but was promptly rebuilt in 1981. The original stupa is still in place.
Kompong Cham is now an easy two-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh or take a speedboat. Local transportation is of course, best found in the form of a motodop. Aside from Wat Nokor, nearby are Phnom Pros (man hill) and Phnom Srei (woman hill) that help make a day trip to Kompong Cham a worthwhile excursion. An English-speaking motodop who knows something of the area (like Vanak) is a real help. Look for one.
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.