Rising from its lush green surroundings on Odong mountain, the golden colored spire of Preah Shakyamoni Chedi pierces the blue sky and forms a fitting home for the resting place of relics of the Buddha.
Three small pieces of bone said to belong to the Buddha are enshrined at this Kandal province temple in a 42-meter tall, grey stupa adorned with elephants, nagas, lions and guarding deities.
The temple and the relics have long been a unique focal point for Cambodian Buddhists.
In 1957 Sri Lanka donated the relics to Cambodia through the World Buddhist Association, with the aim of promoting Buddhism and increasing cooperation and relationships between Buddhist countries.
The donation formed part of the centuries-old cultural connections between Sri Lanka and Cambodia and falls in line with the island’s historic role in propagating Theravada Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia.
During a reverential procession in December 2002 the relics were relocated from a stupa in front of the Phnom Penh railway station to the then newly-constructed Preah Shakyamoni Chedi at Odong.
The procession at the time was led by then-King Norodom Sihanouk and was the biggest religious ceremony to be held in Cambodia in over half a century, with an estimated 1 to 2 million people lining the procession’s route and attending the seven-day ceremonies which accompanied the relics’ relocation.
The relics were moved from their decades-old location in front of the railway station, which was deemed insufficiently serene by Royal Palace soothsayers.
“When we worship here we can meet the Buddha and concentrate our feeling towards [worshipping] the Buddha,” said Chhum Chhuon, 24, a monk and Buddhist high school student who was visiting Odong with a group of fellow villagers on a recent morning.
“We get a special energy within ourselves and we can see the Kingdom of Buddha,” Chhum Chhuon said of his pilgrimage.
Relics claimed to be the remains of Gautama Buddha are revered at religious sites throughout Asia.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha. Phra That Luang, a giant stupa in Vientiane, Laos, holds a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone and Wat Phra Mahathat in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat in Thailand is said to contains a tooth relic of the Buddha.
The visitors that ascend the 509 steps leading to Preah Shakyamoni Chedi at Odong are rewarded with magnificent views of the countryside and the opportunity to worship at the stupa.
The dark cool room underneath the monument houses the Tripitaka-the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism-and 3770 different-sized Buddha statues donated by visitors.
“We have received these statues from Buddhists from Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan and other countries and we will continue to collect more until we have 5000,” temple keeper Oeu Tol, 57, said.
“Visitors believe in the powers of the relics, and worshipping here will protect them from evil spirits and give them peace, happiness and good luck,” Oeu Tol said.
Preah Shakyamoni Chedi receives most visitors during weekends and Buddhist holidays, he said, adding that the royal family and high ranking officials usually worship at the stupa on Visaka Bochea, as they will do so this year.
Under the rising heat of a recent morning sun, Nuth Monireth, 30, a monk from Wat Rasmei Sameki in Mesang district, Prey Veng province, led a group of 40 fellow villagers—7 monks and 33 other observers—to Preah Shakyamoni Chedi. Chhum Chhuon was one of them.
The visit to the stupa gives the villagers the opportunity to pray for the departed and worship Buddha, while learning more about practicing Buddhism, Chhum Chhuon said.
The trip was also a chance for the villagers and monks to see the former royal capital, which they had never visited before, he added.
The stupa containing the Buddha relic also provides a source of income for local people.
Vendors Lor Sokha, 31, and Cheap Sokha, 48, who live in the nearby village of Sra Poh, make a living by selling refreshments, food and temple offerings like lotus flowers and incense sticks on the mountain.
Since Preah Shakyamoni Chedi opened in 2002, business has much improved, and on weekends and holidays the stupa receives about 100 visitors a day, they said.
The proximity of the sacred relics also has an uplifting effect in their daily lives, they said.
“Besides making business here, we also feel good and quite spiritually refreshed because we are close to the Buddha,” Cheap Sokha said.