Friday, July 27, 2012

The Sacred Cows of Bet Trang

Another story of Cambodians flocking to yet another ‘magic’ object has been making the news for the last 24 hours or so – this time it is a ‘magic log.’ An article appeared in today’s Cambodia Daily, and the story has since hit the wire, different versions of an AFP story popping up in papers around the world. These stories of Cambodians worshiping turtles, anchors, snakes, meteorites and so on have been showing up in the international press at least a couple of times a year for more than a decade. And often they seem to have something of a condescending tone, usually nothing too overt, but still as if we are to snicker a bit and feel a twinge of superiority over these superstitious people who do such silly things. There often seems little context to it all besides the occasional hollow nod to tradition as the source of their superstitions.  

Almost 15 years ago I did such a story for a local paper here in Cambodia  – ‘The Sacred Cows of Bet Trang.’ In fact I like to imagine that it was the first of its kind in Cambodia. I hadn’t seen any similar stories in the English press prior to that, and at the time thought it was something new and fresh. Perhaps there were other such newspaper articles prior to mine and I just hadn’t noticed them. I can't be sure.

One thing I tried hard to do in writing that article was avoid the all too easy mocking angle, instead aiming at contextualizing and perhaps offering some grasp of the meaning the participants felt in it all, or at least as much as I could do within the limitations of a daily newspaper. I’m not sure I fully accomplished that, but I think I did better job of it than some others as the story was picked up in the international press in the following days and weeks.

This story was originally published mid-October 1997. The UN sponsored elections had taken place in 1993, followed by steadily rising political tensions that boiled over and found an edgy resolution in the violent factional fighting in Phnom Penh in July 1997, just 4 month earlier. Low level war with the Khmer Rouge continued but the end seemed in sight. The mood of the country was tense but hopeful as Cambodia fitfully but persistently pulled itself up from the muck of 30 years of war and isolation. It was then that the sacred cows appeared in Bet Trang. 

The Sacred Cows of Bet Trang

“Have you been to see the cows?” seems to be the most oft asked question in Sihanoukville these days.

Tales of miraculous healings and the extraordinary powers of two very special oxen have consumed the southern coastal region.

“Preah Ko and Preah Keo (have) come back to Cambodia” said one Sihanoukville restaurateur. “They can do anything...heal people, bring peace, fly, anything!”

It all began shortly before Phra-Chum Ben last month when rumours started to emerge of two oxen that were curing people’s illnesses in the village of Bet Trang, about 10 kilometres north of Sihanoukville.

According to Sok Vanny who tends their shrine, the oxen’s powers were discovered after a farmer from Bet Trang unknowingly sold them to a butcher. That night, he had a dream that the animals were actually Preah Ko and Preah Keo (Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem), the sacred oxen of Cambodian legend.

He bought them back and, upon returning to the village, the ox known as Preah Ko reputedly performed two healings, first restoring the leg of a lame man by licking it and then curing a chronically thin woman by drinking from the family cistern.

Photo sold by vendors in Bet Trang
Since then the oxen have become local celebrities and Bet Trang has become a boom town as hundreds of pilgrims arrive everyday to pray and seek relief from a variety of conditions. The kilometre long path from the main road is lined with vendors hawking everything from 500 riel bundles of grass and herbs (ox food) to photographs of the pair for 1500 riels.

At the end of the path, in the middle of the village, their manger has been turned into shrine, adorned with candles and incense and continuously packed with people.

Once in their presence, many of the faithful attempt to feed Preah Ko (considered the more ‘powerful’), grass, bananas, water and anything else he might eat, in the hopes of retaining the scraps from which to make medicine.

Ur Sovath, a pilgrim suffering from a skin condition, said that he was sceptical but that he had visited them three times. “The first (two) times I washed with the urine of Preah Ko but it did not help. If they help I will believe.” This visit he was hoping to be licked but there were too many people to get close enough.

To the naked eye the oxen appear normal save the swirl of people that constantly surround them. The ox called Preah Keo is white and slightly larger than Preah Ko who is dark brown with a “5” branded into his rump from his stay with the butcher.

Despite their average appearance, many of the faithful argue that these oxen somehow embody the legendary Preah Ko and Preah Keo, though many of the pilgrims I spoke to could not agree on the precise telling of the legend or its connection to these oxen.

“Young people (like me) didn’t study this, only the old people know the story clearly,” said Mr. Sovath, a 30 year-old pilgrim at Bet Trang.

Scholar and author, David Chandler, noted that “there are no approved versions of (the legend), only stories that people tell and listen to” and that this particular legend is “deeply embedded in Cambodian culture.”

In his History of Cambodia, Dr. Chandler relates a standard telling of the traditional legend. Preah Ko and Preah Keo were statues, one of a cow and the other a Buddha image, which contained Cambodian sacred books and treasures. In an ancient war, the king of Siam sought to capture the sacred statues from the citadel in the city of Lovek, but the city was fortified by a bamboo forest. So the Siamese fired coins from their cannons into the forest, leading the Khmer soldiers to cut down the bamboo in search of the money. When they did, they also exposed the city to attack, allowing the statues to be captured and taken to Ayudhya, the capital of Siam, never to return. Lost with the sacred statues, so the legend goes, was Cambodian power and eminence in the region.

Shrine tender, Sok Vanny, offered a similar but more flowery version of the legend which included flying cows and magic formulas but ending with the same great loss to Cambodia. She went on to explain that it is the “spirits” of Preah Ko and Preah Keo that have returned to Cambodia in the oxen in Bet Trang.

To believers, the return of Preah Ko and Preah Keo to Cambodia, even in this spiritual form, represents a return of power and possibility. They offer hope for the future on both a personal and national level.

To skeptics, their appearance is obvious charlatanism. “Who’s making the money on these ‘magic cows’?” seemed to be the most common sentiment expressed at an expatriate pub in Sihanoukville. One British expat could not resist but make note of the primary by-product of feeding a male cow. But to many this event remains enigmatic even in the face of skeptical doubt. After long discussion, the Cambodian barkeep concluded “I (will) believe it when I see it work...even if I don’t see it, many people do. For this I must have respect.”