Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
now a world heritage site
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Preah Vihear Thom Sasor 100
The Origin of The 100 Pillar Grand Vihara

Or

Reung Krapeu Nen Thon
Story of Nen Thon Crocodile

scenery - Mural depicting crocodile Nen Thon story 2 - thumbnail   scenery - Princess Vor-phaks Stupa - thumbnail   secenery - 100 Pillar Vihara - thumbnail

I visited the 100 Pillar Grand Vihara with a group of friends in 2011. The Vihara is situated in Sambo district in Kratie, a north-eastern province of Cambodia. We sat inside the Vihara, situated in a pagoda compound, listening to its story told by a group of the pagoda’s elders. When we were children, most of us heard this story before. However, sitting in the very place where the story took place was undeniably fascinating. After the story, we walked round the pagoda compound looking at Princess Vor-Phaek’s stupa, the stone carved crocodile and the murals depicting the story we had just heard. I took some photos and thought to myself that I would like to share this story with younger generation Khmers and friends around the world.

This is supposed to be a true story which took place during the reign of King Preah Ang Chan Reachea, 1516-1566. The King who had a beautiful daughter called Vor-phaek, known to many as Krapum Chhouk (Virgin Lotus Flower), lived in his royal palace which was situated in Longvek, on the west bank of Tonlé Sap lake. At the age of 16, the princess fell gravely ill and, despite the King’s best efforts in looking for the top-class healers for her, no-one could cure her. Desperate to save his daughter, the King repeatedly asked the royal ‘ho-ra’ (expert in astrology) to use his power to foresee if there could be any powerful healer left in a remote corner of the country.

 One day, the royal ‘ho-ra’ told the King that he sensed that there was someone special who could heal the princess but he was sorry that he could not pinpoint the location of that person. The King then ordered many groups of royal servants to go out in every direction to search for that person. Before the royal servants left, the ‘ho-ra’ advised that they should use the sound of a drum to attract people’s attention. He however warned that only one person in the country would come forward and ask ‘Why are you beating the drum? That person would be the one – the best healer for the princess. As predicted, they eventually found him.

This person was the Abbot of ‘Wat Neak Sen’ (Neak Sen Pagoda) situated on the bank of the Mekong River.  The royal servants explained their mission and earnestly requested his help to cure the princess. The Abbot kindly agreed to go with them. As he foresaw that he would be away for a long time, the Abbot asked all the monks to look after the pagoda; to be good to all the lay-devotees; and to diligently learn the dharma he had taught them. Then he turned to his most trusted assistant, a very young novice monk called ‘Nen Thon’ (‘Nen’ – a Khmer word for novice monk) and gave him an additional instruction. Nen Thon was to regularly dust all the furniture in the Abbot’s room during his absence, and he was to make sure that no-one opened one particular cabinet. This certainly intrigued Nen Thon. Although, he loved and respected his master very deeply, his curiosity got the better of him and he could no longer resist the temptation.

 He opened the cabinet and found a manuscript containing magic formulae on how to transform oneself into various animals. But, the book warned that one had to change back to human form within seven days otherwise the change would be permanent. Nen Thon learned the magic on how to become a crocodile. Wanting to test his ability, he told other monks that he would disguise himself as a crocodile, and firmly gave them an instruction to use a ‘dong raek’ (a bamboo yoke) to hit him three times on the head in order that he could return to be human again. To their amazement, he did turn into a crocodile, a small one. They hit his head three times with a bamboo yoke, and as he said, he became human again. They gave him a big ovation. Very proud of what he had achieved and wanting to show off a bit more, without warning others, Nen Thon transformed himself into a much larger crocodile. The size of it frightened the monks and the villagers and no-one dared to hit his head with the bamboo yoke. Instead they ran away. Nen Thon crocodile could do nothing to help himself but wait for the Abbot to come back before the seven day deadline to help him.

Meanwhile, at the royal palace, the Abbot managed to gradually bring the princess back to health. The King expressed his deep gratitude to the Abbot and then arranged for him to be taken back to the pagoda.

Upon his return, the abbot was told all about the Nen Thon crocodile. He knew straight away what Nen Thon had done. He went to see the crocodile and told him: ‘as you already know, the seven day deadline has passed, and I can do nothing to reverse the spell.’ However, as Nen Thon was very young, in order that he could survive amongst other mighty crocodiles, the Abbot decided to make him the most powerful crocodile in the river and the surrounding areas. Wanting to show his gratitude, Nen Thon crocodile offered himself as the Abbot’s personal transport. As the crocodile was huge, the Abbot would have no problem perching on its back and this would save him hiring a boat when he needed to travel.

Some time later, the princess fell ill again. Once more, the King sent for the Abbot. He agreed to help and informed the royal servant to let the King know that there was no need to send a boat for him as he could travel on the back of Nen Thon crocodile. As usual, with his master on his back, the crocodile was very careful and tried his best to make him as comfortable as possible. The journey went smoothly until they reached Phnom Sopor-Kaly (Sopor-Kaly Mountain is in Prek Prasob district of Kratie province), they encountered a fierce female tail-less crocodile called Neang Orai – which belonged to a ‘Neak Ta’ (a powerful spirit). Thinking that Nen Thon was invading her territory, she swam up to him and started a fight. With his master on his back, Nen Thon was not able to fight, so swam away as fast as possible. Neang Orai, satisfied that Nen Thon was afraid of her, stopped the fight. Nen Thon was then able to bring the Abbot safely to the royal palace.

Once again, the Abbot managed to cure the princess’ illness. He stayed at the palace for some time to make sure that the princess was completely well before bidding farewell to the King and the palace. Then on Nen Thon’s back, he set off to travel back to his pagoda. After a while, they arrived at the same spot where the crocodile Neang Orai lived. Angry at the sight of Nen Thon, Neang Orai started to fight without warning. In order to protect the Abbot and with his permission, Nen Thon had no option but to swallow him temporarily. Nen Thon expected that, being bigger and more powerful than Neang Orai, the fight would not take long. The fight however went on longer than Nen Thon had expected. Although Nen Thon eventually won the fight, by the time he arrived to the pagoda, the Abbot had already died when Nen Thon regurgitated him.

All the monks and villagers, who loved and revered the Abbot and didn’t know the full story of the Abbot’s death, blamed Nen Thon for killing him. Full of regret and sorrow, Nen Thon in turn blamed the princess for his master’s death. ‘Had it not been for her, my master would still be alive,' he thought to himself.  Upon that thought, he swam back to the palace to take revenge. When he arrived to the palace bathing resort, he hid and patiently waited for the princess to come and take a bath – he waited and waited …

One day, Nen Thon saw the princess and her entourage wading into the water. He recognised her because she was followed by her ‘Srey Snams’ (royal maids) as she was enjoying herself swimming around. Wasting no time, he swam to her, seized and swallowed her and immediately left the area.

 Upon hearing this, the King was devastated and extremely angry. He ordered his staff to pursue the crocodile, to capture and kill it in order to get his daughter back. At the same time, his royal ‘ho-ra’ used his power to estimate the location of Nen Thon crocodile.

 Nen Thon’s intention was to swim away as far as possible so no-one could reach him. Unfortunately, he could go only as far as the water fall ‘Khone’ at the Laotian border. Realising that there was an intensive search for him in that area, he turned back and hid himself in different places. Meanwhile, the royal ‘ho-ra’ held a prayer ceremony using a ‘kan-taung’ (floating vessel made from banana leaves) to pinpoint Nen Thon’s location. The vessel would even float against the current to follow Nen Thon. It would lead the searchers to the exact position of Nen Thon. Eventually, Nen Thon was so exhausted that he was caught in Prek Chlaung, a tributary of the Mekong River. He was killed and his stomach was cut open to retrieve the princess. Unfortunately, she had already passed away.

 After the princess’ funeral, a suitable location had to be identified to store her remains. According to Khmer belief, so her soul could be peaceful and happy, this location had to be identified by a special ceremony. Once again, the kantaung (the banana leaf floating vessel) accompanied by ‘Pin-peat’ music (royal traditional music) was used. The royal staff followed it to where it stopped at a place called ‘Khum Koh Khmer’ (Koh Khmer commune), ‘Srok Sambo’ (Sambo district) in Kratie province. This was the place that her remains should be enshrined.

 A stupa was then built followed by a Vihara. To make it very special, the King ordered that the Vihara should be built with 100 pillars. Under each pillar the body of a volunteer virgin girl was buried so the princess’ soul would have her entourage. The place was then named ‘Preah Vihear Thom Sasor 100’(The 100 Pillar Grand Vihara). Today, however, some people call it in short ‘Wat Sasor 100’ (The 100 Pillar Pagoda).

That stupa later held the remains of many other royal family members. Eventually in 1955, HRH Norodom Sihanouk had both the stupa and the Vihara renovated and they were inaugurated on 30th April 1956. 

THE END

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