The dilemma of Daun Tri
In January this year, whilst on a visit to Battambang, I took a norry ride – aka, a bamboo train – south to the provincial town of Moung Russei for a scout around the town and its neighbouring villages. One of the places mentioned on my list of ancient Angkorean temple sites lay to the east of the town, on the way out towards the Tonle Sap Lake, at a place called Don Tri. As I’m always on the lookout for my next adventure in the Cambodian countryside, I rode pillion as my friend and moto-driver Sak pointed his Honda Dream in the right direction and off we went. To check we were on the correct route, we called into a couple of pagodas along the raised track, flanked on both sides by bright green paddy fields flush with water and with a smile on everyone’s lips - rural Cambodia at its most majestic.
Nearly two hours into our ride, we arrived at Wat Daun Tri North, which turned out to be a fascinating location. Used by the Khmer Rouge as a hospital in the late 70s, Chhen, the frail old gentleman who guided us around, told us that bones often wash up out of the ground in the rainy season, when much of the area floods as the Tonle Sap Lake dramatically expands in size. I quickly spied a quartet of sandstone pedestals and Chhen confirmed the pagoda was built on the site of an Angkorean temple, known as Prasat Daun Tri. He unlocked the padlocks on the vihara doors and took us inside, where a small sculpted antefix in the shape of a miniature prasat in red sandstone stood to one side of the main altar. An empty space on the opposite side signalled where a “beautiful carved stone with a thousand Buddhas,” in Chhen’s words, had stood until it was stolen at night by thieves just three months before.
This raises for me the difficult dilemma about whether valuable items like the Buddha sculpture should be kept in their original location – which seems right and proper – or moved to a far safer venue like the National Museum, Angkor Conservation or even the local provincial museum – which seems sensible. I’ve had this debate with myself many times over the years and still can’t decide on which side of the fence I sit. In an ideal world, retaining such pieces of history in their original location gives the locals a sense of pride and cultural identity about their own village and its history, but more realistically, in a country like Cambodia, they are far more concerned about where their next meal is coming from. And of course, the absence of any security other than a padlock and the high demand for Khmer art in the antique shops of Bangkok increases the huge risk of theft from these remote locations.
Meanwhile, Chhen wasn’t finished and led us outside again to show us three carved lintels made of sandstone, one of which was in excellent condition with Indra sitting atop Airavata, together with a few lines of Sanskrit script. We thanked Chhen - who is one of those locals I mentioned who derives great pride in his pagoda’s historic artifacts – and said our goodbyes to the crowd that had joined us on our tour of inspection as we headed back towards the main highway, about ten kilometres due west.
Note: Though I never saw the Buddha sculpture of Daun Tri, I have seen something quite similar I believe at the Guimet Museum in Paris. It’s actually a votive monument, 105 centimetres high and covered on all four sides by miniature images representing a standing Vishnu, 1,020 figures in total. It’s an amazing piece of art from Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, dating from the 12th century. As for the Buddha of Daun Tri, I am left to wonder, and hope that one day soon it will find its way back to its rightful location.