A group of young Cambodians have made it their mission to save an ancient temple from ruin while encouraging peers to explore hidden corners of the country. Editor Marissa Carruthers joins them on their mission.
As we clamber off the slim wooden fishing boats, having spent the last 30 minutes whizzing past the mass of floating homes, schools and stores that make up the floating villages in Kampong Chhanang province, we are met by crowds of children clapping and cheering as we make our way up the islet’s banks.
Our welcoming committee – seemingly the village of Chhnok Trou’s entire young population – flock around us in excitement as the day’s events get underway.
The ultimate aim is to raise funds, and awareness, about one of Cambodia’s many forgotten historical religious sites: Kampong Preah temple complex, which houses religious structures dating back to the eighth century.
Sitting on an elevated spot of land that stands above its flooded surroundings, the area is the only dry communal space for the floating villages during wet season. Home to the small temple complex and a smattering of communal buildings, the elderly sit in the dappled shade, screaming children play volleyball on dusty ground, monks stroll through the courtyard and dogs laze under trees.
“I wanted to raise funds to save this temple when I realised it is aged, dilapidated and remote,” says Sokmean Srin, organiser of the Amazing Cambodia Architectural Charity Trip. “It has great architectural and historical value as it is situated on an ancient hill next to the Tonle Sap river, is eye-catching and deserves immediate help from outsiders.”
Srin first discovered the crumbling complex during his high school studies about a decade ago when he read about it in Khmer history text books. But it wasn’t until June that he visited it for the first time, and launched his fundraising efforts.
“During my research, I found this historical site has been intruded upon many times,” he says. “One side of the two pediments of the vihara [main wat building] has been stolen and some bricks from the nearby ancient temples have also been removed.”
Determined to help restore this fragment of Cambodia’s history, while encouraging more people to explore almost-forgotten corners of Cambodia, he set about organising his mission. Teaming up with like-minded people, he recruited a team of about 30 volunteers from various high schools and universities across Phnom Penh, and Kampong Chhnang.
When architect and heritage tour guide, Virak Roeun, heard about the project, he was keen to jump on board, having harboured a lifelong love of the Kingdom’s historic religious structures.
“Cambodia’s vernacular architecture has always been special to me as I can learn a lot from it. I love the ornamental designs here,” he says. “Wats have always been an important part of Cambodian society as they are used as a communal or educational space. On this site, children and other people from the community come here in the rainy season as it is the only elevated place nearby.”
With the complex comprising of two crumbling pre-Angkorian towers – a third has been completely destroyed – and a prayer hall built at the end of the 19th century, funds raised will replace the hall’s roof. Leaking rain water is currently pouring in and destroying the wooden columns, original tiles and sanctuary inside.
“If this building is protected, there is no need for this to be destroyed and then a new buiding,” says Roeun. “Destroying this building is like destroying a part of Cambodia’s history.”
Parts of the two remaining towers have also fallen into ruin and remain unprotected. Funding is sparse for the restoration work that needs to be carried out by experts under specialist government guidance. So, the group hopes to receive permission from the Ministry of Fine Arts to build fences around the towers – Prasat Pros and Prasat Srei – to prevent further pillaging. It also wants to install information signs explaining the site’s rich history to visitors.
As part of the day’s activities, guests were treated to a private tour, as well as a series of traditional ceremonies. These included a folk dance in the shadows of the temple towers by the Department of Art and Culture’s Bes Sloeuk Chea Dance troupe, a noodle buffet picnic, a Dal Ambok show – or traditional roasted rice-making ceremony – and a bathing ceremony for the elderly. Usually carried out on the last day of Khmer New Year, the village’s elders are soaked with water by the young as a way to cleanse them for the year ahead.
“The special thing about this community is it is filled with a wide diversity of nature, culture and history,” says Srin. “It has a magnificent vihara, with rare traditional-styled wooden pediments, and there are eighth century Hindu temples, which are the birthplace of Kampong Preah’s architectural style. It also stands next to two floating villages on the neck of the Tonle Sap lake. Along the way, visitors can see how locals settle on the water and make their living.
If anyone wants to explore a variety of Khmer culture and lifestyles, this area is highly recommended.”
Srin also hopes his efforts will encourage Cambodians and other visitors to the country to get off the beaten track and discover more. “Explore places you have never been before,” he urges. “Many local youths think provinces, such as Kampong Chhnang, have nothing to see or do. To me, all places have their own distinct identities. Learn about them, and visit at least once to see how each place is.”