Bearing a delicate bunch of white lotus flowers and incense sticks, a middle-aged woman walks towards a gathered congregation. The crowd is hushed, burning incense before a glossy black statue of a deity, Preah Ang Dorngkeu.
With the sound of Khmer traditional Pin Peat music echoing, this is the Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine located on Sisowath Quay, just across from the Royal Palace.
Still bearing her lotus flowers, a smiling Touch Sunny, 40, told The Post that she has worshipped him since she was young. Her mother often brought her here to pray as a child.
It was only when she married that she truly began to believe in Preah Ang Dorngkeu, she said. She had now worshipped here for many years, saying she often came for blessings or to request help with any issues that may confront her.
“I believe in Preah Ang Dorngkeu because whenever I face any suffering, I pray, and then it is resolved,” she said.
“Sometimes I see people coming to pray because they want children. I believe that this is the best place for pray for such things,” she said.
People passing by the shrine would be surprised to see faithfuls of all ages flocking to worship there, she added.
Like Sunny, a 73-year-old Phnom Penh resident who asked not to be named, said she had believed in the spirit’s power since the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk era. This is because when she was in trouble, she had always turned to the shrine and then got what she wished for. Therefore, she could not give up her belief.
She added that when her business was not running well or her children were in danger, she never hesitated to return to the shrine.
“Many people make the journey here from far-flung provinces. I know that all religions teach people to do only good deeds in the world. As I am proud of my Khmer heritage, I must believe in the deity,” she added.
There are many offerings on display at the shrine, including decorated coconuts and sections of banana stem, white lotus flowers, songbirds in cages and candles.
Sok Chea, a 34-year-old from Takhmao town, Kandal province sells lotus flowers at the shrine.
In order to arrive in time to sell her flowers, she leaves her home early each morning. She spends all day at the shrine, heading home only when she has sold all of her delicate goods.
Chea said that she inherited her career from her mother, who first brought her here more than two decades ago. As her mother became too old to continue with the work, she continued the family business.
In an average day, she earns a profit of about 50,000 riel. She has now been in the business for over three years.
According to Chea, many people of all ages come to pray at the Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine. The busiest days are Buddhist and Chinese holy days, she said, saying that she had also seen Vietnamese praying there, although she was unsure of their faith.
“Occasionally, Vietnamese people visit here with tour guides. They often buy coconuts and flowers and so on. One other time when the shrine is unusually busy is around national exam days. Many, many students come here and pray that they will pass,” she added.
Nou Samuon sits beside the statue. At 51, he is one of the four caretakers of the shrine, and has been doing this work for more than three years.
The four men take turns guarding it day and night, and never cease the work of sweeping and cleaning the area. They also weave red strings to tie about the wrists of those who pray.
“This is a holy place, with many worshippers. I do not know how far her powers reach, but I do know that many people believe in them,” he said.
Sambo Manara, a professor of history, told The Post that the shrine’s origins lay in the early stages of the Chaktomuk era, with its location being a meeting point of several major waterways, the highways of the time.
“It was a place that water travelers, who wanted to respect the spirits they believed in, created a shrine. Those who passed by would raise flags in tribute,” he said.
He added that the raising of flags signaled that it was a place of worship, and so it gradually became a stopover for passing vessels.
At that time, he explained, it was probably a group of Vietnamese travelers who named the place Dorng and Keu (flag pole) – Khmer would have used Kampong (shore or port) – but regardless, it is a place of worship in the Khmer culture.
“When people were successful in business, they would make offerings of pig’s heads and fruit, and this added to the perception that it was a lucky place,” he said.
“We must be mindful of putting too much weight behind this ideology. We pass our exams because we have studied hard, not because of praying. Disease can be healed by professional medical staff but not by prayer alone. It is true that prayer provides comfort, but we should remember that we need to help ourselves as well, he added.
“If someone prays for a patient and the patient is healed, they will say that the spirit helped them. If the patient dies despite the prayers – what will they say then? I think faith is important, but so is science,” he concluded.
Additional reporting by Hong Sereifong, Ry Sophim, Som Sreypich, Hieb Sithet and Runn Sreydeth