At the Chaktomok point, where Phnom Penh’s four rivers intersect, villagers from Chroy Changva district are abuzz with rumors of sunken treasure.
The Phnom Penh municipality is dredging the river near the peninsula, just across the Tonle Sap from the Royal Palace. Occasionally, amongst tons of waste silt that spill out of two huge drain pipes, pieces of gold and silver jewelry appear. Local children sit and wait for the rare glimmer of precious metal, snatching up their findings and taking them home to their families.
The Khmer Rouge began using the Chaktomok intersection as a dumping ground for corpses after they took over Phnom Penh in 1975. If there is gold on the river bed, it was not thrown there on purpose, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“The Khmer Rouge understood the value of gold,” he said. Gold could be traded for weapons and supplies, so any treasure found today was probably hidden amongst clothing or other items taken from victims, and went undetected by cadre, said Youk Chhang, whose own family buried silver under a mango tree during those times.
There was also fighting at the intersection before and after the Khmer Rouge regime. Supplies, ammunition and possibly more gold remain in the river from those times. Over the years, villagers say, amateur salvagers have drowned while diving to look for scraps of metal the fighters may have left behind.
While some families in the villages are profiting from the treasure, many are frightened by it. Profiting without properly thanking the spirit that protects the river can mean death, villagers say.
Dangker, the guardian spirit of the Chaktomok point, is very powerful and should be properly honored, they say.
“Whether you believe me or not is up to you,” said one man who lives near the dredging site and drives trucks in Phnom Penh for a living. “But I have lived here a long time, and I believe in Dangker.”
If someone finds gold dredged from Chaktomok, but fails to pray to the spirit or the spirits of those who perished during the Khmer Rouge, “then they will die,” he said.
The dredging is being done to fill in land for the construction of a promenade and conference center, and uses huge floating pipes to vacuum the river bed and pump the silt onto the flat peninsula.
All day, black, murky water filled with debris from the river bed shoots from the pipes. The young treasure-hunters who sit beneath them spend their days covered in mud.
Along with sand, rocks and chunks of scrap metal, they say rings, bracelets, necklaces, watches and coins tumble from the pipes.
Half of any valuable find must be shared with the site’s construction supervisors, the children say.
Mao Riththeareth, 40, was so poverty-stricken just one week before the Pchum Bun festival last month that she couldn’t even afford to repair her moto. Her children had been spending their days at the dredging site.
One evening, overwhelmed by her financial situation, Mao Riththeareth prayed to her family ancestors for luck. That night, she dreamed a Buddhist monk gave her a handkerchief.
The next day, she said, after just five minutes at the dredging site, her son found a ring worth more than $50.
“It felt like the ring came to me very easily,” said 12-year-old Chhun Riththearo.
The family sold the ring in a Phnom Penh market and had money to celebrate Pchum Ben, Mao Riththeareth said.
You don’t have to look far to come across superstitious stories of ghosts and spirits here.
It is a common belief that during the Lon Nol regime, a woman climbed a tower that still overlooks Chaktomok from the palace side of the Tonle Sap, and leaped from it, causing the bad luck that later brought the Khmer Rouge to the city.
In March 1997, Sam Rainsy Party supporters prayed at that same tower before holding a demonstration, asking the spirit to protect the opposition leader. Four grenade blasts at that demonstration killed at least 17 people. Sam Rainsy was spared—some believe it was the spirit that protected him.
Prum Him, 70, the village chief of a Cham community, has lived on the Chroy Changva peninsula since 1980.
Over the years, he said, soldiers would occaisionally dive for gold. When they found some, they would throw lavish parties. But those who failed to give thanks to Dangker died, Prum Him said.
“If someone gets something from the river, and they pray later on or have a ceremony giving [the guardians] thanks, there is no problem,” he said. If not, “they get sick and die.”
Angering spirits in the nether world is not enough to keep most families away from a chance to improve their lives in the real world.
Even the Chroy Changva truck driver who so fears Dangker sends his children to the dredging site to treasure hunt. So far, they have not been so fortunate as their neighbors.
“My children are unlucky,” he says, looking down at a young girl and two smaller boys. “They’ve found nothing but scrap metal.”