Wat Preah Yu Vong is one of my favourite monasteries in Phnom Penh, not least because it’s utterly atypical. The main gate is on Norodom Boulevard south of Independence Monument. The gate is never closed, and indeed can’t be closed, because only the decorated arch remains. It gives on to what looks like, and is, a network of narrow residential alleys. I’m told the alleys are unsafe, the haunt of drug addicts and petty criminals, but it looks peaceful enough at mid-morning, a time when evil-doers are still in bed.
Once upon a time Wat Preah Yu Vong was just like any other monastery, neither particularly famous nor particularly obscure, housing the normal number of monks in the normal complement of buildings. Everyone, monks and nuns and temple boys and cats, lived happily together until fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The Khmer Rouge were the enemies of religion, and the monks of Wat Preah Yu Vong, like all others, were disrobed and sent to labour camps, where no doubt most of them died.
Phnom Penh fell again, this time to the Vietnamese and renegade ex-Khmer Rouge, on 7 January 1979, a date that continues to be celebrated as Victory Day. Traumatised Cambodians began making their way back to the city, searching for lost families and lost homes or simply for food. The first to arrive squatted in whatever houses they could find; if the true owners returned later they could either fight for their rights or just move on. Mostly they moved on. People began living in parks, along the river, and wherever else they could find a place and build a home from sheets of tin and plastic. One of these was places was the abandoned Wat Preah Yu Vong.
A former nun named Koma Pich made her home in the preah vihear. Koma Pich was the chul rup (human vehicle) for a boramey spirit, or in other words, a shaman. She installed her gods (meaning their statues) in the preah vihear and offered help and advice to anyone in need, which in those days was practically everyone. Her performance as a shaman was electrifying, and so great was the respect in which she was held, and so entrenched her position, that when monks returned to the wat they were unable to expel her. The vihear was simply divided in half, the monks on one side and Koma Pich on the other.
At first the government placed severe restrictions on the monks, not even allowing them to leave the monastery for the daily alms round, but time and the political tide were on their side. By the late 1980s religion was being viewed with official favour again, and the head monk asked the authorities to give back the temple. The authorities agreed, and Koma Pich packed her gods and vanished from history.
With the vihear back in their hands the monks installed new Buddha images (the originals had disappeared, nobody knew when or where) and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls so that it became a proper temple again. But the grounds remained overrun with squatters. They’d subdivided the monastic buildings and built them into their houses, turned the paths into alleys, planted gardens and set up teashops, and generally transformed Preah Yu Vong into an urban village. Even the chedey, the shrines for the ashes of the dead, had disappeared inside people’s living rooms, ghosts or no ghosts. The monks tried to buy up the houses, but the price of real estate had started to rocket, the monks were poor, and nobody wanted to sell.
And that’s where things remain today, a single ornate roof sheltering a handful of monks floating over a sea of quite solid little houses.
Wat Preah Yu Vong now has just nine monks, a very small number for a monastery in Phnom Penh, and its history was told to me by one of them, Thach Panith. As his mixed Vietnamese-Khmer name indicates, he’s Kampuchea Krom, meaning an ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam, although his parents settled in Cambodia long ago. They placed him in a village monastery as a temple boy when he was very young because they couldn’t afford to feed and educate him, and he liked the monastic life and became a novice at the age of 15. Eventually he became a full monk, graduated from Buddhist high school, and moved to the capital and Wat Preah Yu Vong. He’s now studying archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He enjoys the subject and wants to study more and use his knowledge to benefit society.
When he gets sick he prays to Preah Put (the Buddha) and to his dead parents. Belief in spirits and the ancestors, he says, predates Buddhism, and the people can’t forget them. For this reason he doesn’t criticise people who follow different religions or who believe in spirits, and he can’t say these people are bad or wrong, because he’s met people who say they’ve seen the mrieng kongveal and the chumneang pteah, although he never has himself, and he thinks they spoke the truth for them. He enjoys the life of a monk, the prayer and study and meditation, and has no thought of leaving the monkhood.
Pralung Pheakdey (“Spirit of Honesty”) is different. He’s 23, and he’s been a monk for six years. An orphan of sorts, he was brought up by his grandmother in a village in Kandal province and entered the monkhood because he wanted to earn merit for his lost mother, and also because a kru told him that his mother would come back if he became a monk.
His mother disappeared when he was eight years old. He can’t remember her, but people in the village have told him she might have gone to Thailand to look for work. He can’t remember her face. His father divorced his mother about the time he was born. He knows his father but has never spoken to him and doesn’t want to. His father, he says, was irresponsible, gave him life and then abandoned him. He’s not certain if will be a monk forever, because he doesn’t like public speaking, and monks have to do a lot of public speaking, such as giving sermons.
One final point about the urban village of Wat Preah Yu Vong: it’s northern edge runs along street 308, which is rapidly becoming hipster central for a certain segment of the expat community. One of the best pizza places in town is there, and an entire alley off 308 and within the Preah Yu Vong village is now lined with extremely stylish bars. Real estate values here really should rocket, but they can’t because nobody has valid land titles – they’re all squatters.
From Spirit Worlds, out in August at a bookshop near you, provided you live in Cambodia. If you can’t wait to hear more about monks, you can sneak a preview look at the Second Monk’s Tale and the Third Monk’s Tale.