vihear sour commune, Khsach Kandal district, Kandal province – With businesses and government offices around the country closed for the three-day Pchum Ben celebrations, thousands of people began flocking on Sunday to Preah Chas village to take part in one of the festival’s most celebrated events.
Arriving in overcrowded automobiles—many with extra passengers perched on the roof—and groaning motorbikes piled high with supplies, the festivalgoers endured Kandal province’s dusty and sometimes dangerous roads to reach Wat Preah Vihear Sour.
For many, the highlight of Pchum Ben will be a chance to watch one of the few performances of traditional buffalo racing and Khmer wrestling at this Kandal province pagoda.
“From year to year, Wat Preah Vihear Sour has become more and more popular,” said pagoda chief Prak Than. “People travel from Battambang, Kandal, Kratie, Pursat and almost every province,” he said.
The 69-year-old pagoda chief said that its historical importance and its powerful wish-granting properties can explain the wat’s popularity.
“The pagoda’s magic is very strong. Pilgrims believe that the Buddha can help them with anything they wish for,” he said, while sitting on the raised wooden platform of the wat’s enormous central pagoda.
“This has always been a famous temple. Even King Sihanouk came here to pray for peace and success in his life,” Prak Than added.
The sprawling Buddhist complex—which features three pagodas, a peaceful lake and the shade of massive trees—seems to offer something for everyone.
Newlyweds are said to come here to pray for a child, while farmers pray for the health of their animals and their rice crops.
Lanh Lor, a 54-year-old mother of 10, was at the pagoda Sunday to thank the wat spirits for the wealth she acquired over the last year. “This year I’m praying for peace in the whole country and for rain,” she said.
According to Prak Than, Prime Minister Hun Sen has visited Wat Preah Vihear Sour twice, most recently at the opening ceremony for the temple he paid to have constructed here.
This temple, said to be a favorite visiting spot of high-ranking military officials, was built next to one constructed by Retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s grandfather in the 1940s, only to be destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“It’s a sad story looking back on the Khmer Rouge time. The whole pagoda was destroyed. The King’s temple was turned into a rice warehouse. Even the traditional murals on the wall were painted black,” Prak Than said.
“At the time, I never thought the wat would come back to be what it is today. The sports that people cared about were banned. There was no wrestling or buffalo racing.”
Although the popularity of the Pchum Ben ceremony and its colorful sporting events has aided this rural economy, some locals are struggling with success.
Mon Moeung, a 29-year-old buffalo racer, said that last year buffalo racing was so popular that most of the male buffaloes were purchased.
Today he is left with just seven female buffaloes grazing in his front yard and only one male to enter in the race today.
“If all the male water buffaloes are sold, this tradition will be gone from our district,” he warned ahead of this year’s races.