Cambodia Daytrips: Wat Puthai, TakeoSeptember 2, 2006
Without a guidebook to point out the way, my plump Khmer ex and I embarked on some genuine countryside exploration last year, pestering shopkeepers, accosting motodops, and sniffing out leads to any out of the way little places that might justify a day or two in Takeo.
The first subjects of my inquisition were the swarthy owners of a noodle shop on the main drag in Takeo town. As my plump Khmer ex translated, I ran through a list of hills and wats I’d found in an old archaeological survey of the area done some years ago, and when none of these seemed to be familiar, reverted to my backup plan and asked about killing fields.
Furrowing their brows, the swarthy shopkeeping couple conversed in gravely staccato and made spasmodic gesticulations before sending us on our way to the lakeside road in town, past Ta Mok’s old house, to the dry, dusty little path leading north of the town, to the site of a KR era mass grave at a temple called Wat Puthai.
Over a little bridge, the path veered off in all directions, like white ribbons of baked soil, and curled through parched fields dotted with palm trees. Asking the way from locals, we managed to locate the shabby old wat and park in the centre of its weedy grounds. There was no one around, and so we walked around back of the temple, to the edge of a marsh, until a ragged band of temple boys began following us at a safe distance.
My plump Khmer ex, with her infinite resources of charisma, coaxed them over and began to translate my questions. They were shy and quiet, following us as we rounded the temple, and not the ones who would remember anything of the KR days. Seeing as there was no one else around, though, we hoped they might have heard some stories from their elders about the old days in Takeo.
Soon, they showed us to a tree beside the wat. It was a big, old, gnarled tree. The thick branches were broken off, and it looked like it might dry out, crack, crumble, and turn to dust any day now. Its trunk was full of iron spikes, and the boys said that the KR used to chop the heads off their victims and hang them from those spikes.
All the skulls and bones were gone now. They’d been dug up long ago and reburied in the wat itself. Inside, the wat was dark and gloomy, with murals of fantastic mythological scenes in fading colours, and dusty old silk streamers hanging from the ceiling. Two old men slept on the floor, bags of bones and wrinkled skin, with just kromah wrapped around their loins.
The bones from the old days, as far as we could make out from the boys and the old men, were actually buried in two places. One was at the centre of the wat, under a sitting Buddha surrounded by pots with incense sticks, and the other was out in the main courtyard, where a there was a shrine in a shape much like that of the more famous killing fields of Chhoeung Ek, except smaller, and without the bones behind glass, for the tourists to see.