Next to the nearly 700-year-old monastic temple at Wat Phnom, on the south side of the symbolic hill, is a sacred house with red lanterns hanging and a blessing in Chinese characters that, at first glance, resembles the countless Chinese temples throughout the country.
However, Prak Somnang, 68, the retired caretaker of the temple who still spends his days there as a fortune teller, remembers the building’s true history and its transformation.
For centuries it was a shrine to a Khmer neak ta – or a spirit that possesses a particular area – called Preah Chao. Still, there are only a few statues built in the Khmer or Hindu style, including the one that gives the temple its name, of an unknown man holding a staff. The statue is believed to be one of four found in 1372 by Daun Penh, the legendary figure who gave the city its name, inside a koki tree where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet.
Despite its origin, there are now hundreds of statues of Chinese gods and goddesses, such as those of Guan Yu, a general from China’s Three Kingdoms period in the third century, and Guan Yin, a female Bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism.
Somnang, the retired caretaker, said the change in the temple’s image dates back to just a few decades ago.
“When the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh in 1975, they gathered all the statues of gods and goddesses in Chinese temples all over the city, and they brought them here,” he said, though it is unknown why they chose the site at Wat Phnom. “I don’t know why they did not destroy them since Khmer Rouge were supposed to be against all religions.”
In 1982, three years after the collapse of the regime, Chinese descendants returned to collect the statues and bring them back to the temples around the city, but two were left behind – the statues of Xuanzang, the sacred monk from the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West, and Tudigong, the Chinese god of earth.
“When Cambodian-Chinese people saw that the two gods were alone here, they started buying new statues of gods and goddesses to be with them for good merit,” Somnang said, adding that sometimes when they bought new statues for their homes they would discard the old ones at the shrine.
As time passed, the temple grew overcrowded with statues and needed to be expanded. According to Somnang, a Cambodian-Chinese tycoon – whose name he didn’t know – donated money, and the result is the hybrid structure of the shrine that exists today.
Prominent historian and anthropologist Dr Michel Tranet said when he visited the shrine before the Khmer Rouge, all it consisted of was a statue inside a small cottage. The changes result from the economic influence of the Cambodian-Chinese community and the merchant class.
“In Cambodia, when you are rich, you have influence, even on shaping beliefs,” Tranet said.
“In this case, an identity of a neak ta was changed from Khmer to Chinese, which reflects the huge Chinese influence on Cambodian society and economy.”
Every day, thousands of people, from mainland China or Vietnam, or those with ancestors from those countries, come to the temple with food, incense, and money to pray for good fortune, health, happiness and the like.
Some come to have their fortunes told with Chien Tung sticks, and on Chinese holidays the temple is full.
Roy, a 25-year-old Cambodian of Chinese descent, who asked to be identified only by his first name, came to the temple on Monday to pray for luck during the rest of 2017, the Year of the Rooster – which corresponds to his zodiac sign.
“My family and I come here several times a year, especially on Chinese New Year,” he said. “For us, it is a Chinese temple.”
Although Dr Tranet admitted the change takes away “an original cultural identity”, he stressed the similarity in how the two cultures worship divine or sacred spirits, or legendary figures, a practice dating back thousands of years.
“We cannot say it is right or wrong, nor can we blame it on Chinese influence,” Tranet said. “In Cambodia, people are free to believe and Chinese and Vietnamese descendants already make up a huge part in Cambodian society, after hundreds of years of immigration.”