The sun was scorching the pavements of Siem Reap, but I was more than ready to flaunt my newly acquired biking skills. After spending the entire morning learning how to bike for the first time (since I was a kid), I roamed around the city in two wheels, looking for anything of interest. And Wat Preah Prom Rath was certainly interesting. I breezed through the gate straight to the bike parking area, where a group of young locals were quietly having a conversation. After a quick smile and a nod at them, I walked around the site.
Lying by the river, Preah Prom Rath Pagoda is adjacent to a well-embellished bridge. It was actually the bridge that caught my attention first, but my eyes wandered around the nearby places and spotted a highly ornate gate, featuring carvings of Buddha and his followers. The temple grounds are huge, hosting several buildings including the main hall (Preah Vihear building), a university building, and decorated towers scattered throughout the site. It is one of the many spiritual centers in the city proper. Some of the Buddhist monks I had encountered were friendly. While we didn’t exchange a word, they greeted me with a smile every time. It’s always nice to feel welcome at a sacred place like this.
While the many colorful towers that surround the main temple were really attractive, the most curious structure outside was the replica of a boat with a monk on it, holding a pot. I thought it was not of any significance until I stepped into the temple where a brief history of the place was written on a board.
In 1900 BE or in 1500 AD, a colossal statue of reclining Buddha was built and placed inside the main temple of Wat Preah Prohm Rath. What caused our then Buddhists to build the statue was that there was a story that in the year 1500 AD, there was a Buddhist monk who always traveled by boat to ask for food at Long Vek, the ancient capital of Cambodia, which is situated near the capital city of Phnom Penh. It is a long way from here to the ancient capital. But whenever he returned to this place from Long Vek, the rice in his pot was still fresh and so people nicknamed him Preah Ang Chong Han Hoy, which means “monk with freshly cooked rice in his pot.”
One day, while he was traveling in his boat, some sharks attacked the boat and the boat broke into two pieces. Instead of sinking into the lake, one piece of the boat floated to Wat Boribo in Kompong Chnang Province’s Boribo district. The Buddhists there built a standing statue. The other piece, the prow part, brought him back here safely. It was going with great speed that the water could not flow into it. Because of this wonderful event, our Buddhists decided to build a statue of reclining Buddha made of the wooden piece of the boat which has been kept in the Preah Vihear building. It has been subsiding deeper and deeper because the ground is growing thicker. Besides, the statue has been kept in the Preah Vihear building for over half a millennium.
I wanted to see the reclining Buddha inside but it was closed at the time. The main hall was surrounded by a gallery of paintings of Buddha and some monks. I am just not sure what they are depicting because the writings and captions were not in English.
As I was looking at the paintings, two Cambodian men approached me and introduced themselves. They were overly friendly that I thought they were up to no good. After all, I had seen scammers befriend and then trick tourists in Bangkok and I was really cautious. But they appeared really genuine so I eventually let my guard down and shared conversations with them. Only one of them was talking because the other could not speak English. The more outspoken one was Pe (not sure if that’s how it’s spelled but it sounds like it).
“I talk to tourists because that’s the only way I can practice English,” he explained. “Not many locals speak good English. I was hoping you were Filipino when I saw you because Filipinos are good English-speakers and I was right.”
Our conversation went from the education system in the Philippines and that in Cambodia to my future travel plans and his life aspirations. He was from the countryside, hours from Siem Reap, but he had been staying in the city to work.
“In the afternoon, when I have no work, I learn English,” he said. “I really want to be good. We don’t have English classes at school so I come here whenever I can. We study there.” He pointed at a small room just next to the bike parking area.
“Well, they’re not doing a lousy job teaching you. Your English is good.”
“What does lousy mean?” He threw me a confused look. I told him what it means and how it is used.
“Why is it so important for you to learn English?” I asked.
“I need a good job,” he replied. “The jobs I like require fluency in English. I want my life to get better. If I master English, I will get a good job and a good life.” His face remained bright while expressing this. There was no tinge of sadness in his words and his manner of delivering them. They were brimming with hope.
I wanted to stay longer to talk more but I needed to move on to my next stop so I had to say goodbye. Before I left, he asked me one last question.
“Why did you choose to explore Siem Reap on a bike?”
“I just wanted to try,” I answered. “I just learned this morning.”
“This morning?” The shock in his voice was undeniable.
“Well, it’s cool that you learned fast. But that explains everything.”
He tapped my left shoulder as I was about to ride my bike again. “Be careful. You’re a lousy biker.” Our tummies hurt laughing, careful to not make a sound.