A short walk from the ferry that brings you to Areiksart from Phnom Penh, is the Queen of Peace Church. It may not be in the same league as the great Cathedrals of Europe but it has a constant flow of visitors. Why?
In this Church resides the statue of Mary, Our Lady of the Mekong River. What makes this unusual in this largely Buddhist country is the story of how it was found. On the 16th of April, 2008, a Muslim Khmer found an iron object trapped in the river bed of the Mekong.
As he could not carry what he'd found, he called other fishermen to help. With 8 Vietnamese companions, he used a cable to haul the object to the boat. They found it was a statue of a woman.
One of the villagers reported to a Catholic woman named Chenda, who after checking it out, recommended they talk to the Queen of Peace Pastoral Council. The Council agreed to give the fishermen 2,000,000 Riel (abut US$500) in exchange for the statue.
The story did not end there. That night, between 8 and 9 in the evening, as the Vietnamese fishermen were asleep in the boat, one of them had a vision of a Lady looking like the one in the Statue flying over them several times. He panicked and told the other fishermen who thought it might be an omen of something bad happening to them and their families.
So, the next morning, they went back to the Church, knelt in front of the Statue and asked for peace and happiness in their lives. They met with the Pastoral Council and returned the money. The Council, however, knowing how poor they are, decided to use the money to supply them regularly with food.
Below is a close up of the statue which since then has been known as Our Lady of the Mekong River.
This is the grotto that houses Our Lady of the Mekong River. Located on the right side of the Queen of Peace Church, people come from all over the country to go up and see the statue as well as pray for peace.
Once again, the story did not end there. A second statue was found in the Mekong river bed and once again, the story is worth telling.
During the night of the 18th of November, 2012, Phang Vaing Hou, a Vietnamese fisherman in Areiksart, had a dream. In his dream, he saw a big figure of a man asking him, "Please lift me out of the water because I am very cold. I have been here in the Mekong for so long. I am not far from where Our Lady was found before. Please help me".
The next day, he went to a coffee shop close by and told the owner, who was Catholic, "today, I am going to take Jesus from the water". So, he brought his two sons and instructed them where to search for the statue.
At 12:38 p.m., of the 19th of November, 2012, the men hauled the statue of Mary carrying the child Jesus, to the river bed. About 50 young men helped carry the statue to the Church. As this is the second time the people here have this experience, everyone rejoiced and gave homage.
That day happened to be the 21st ASEAN Summit so a holiday was declared for security reasons which made the search easy for Mr. Phang and the others. For them, this is a sure sign that Jesus wants to be in their midst.
Mention the words Phnom Penh and History in the same sentence and you've opened a Pandora's box. At one level, you can look back a millenium and catch glimpses of great kings and temples. At a level up, you get the French and Indochine and the remnant buildings of Empire.
As early as 1858, Vietnamese Catholics fleeing persecution by the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc settled in Cambodia. Above this, you have the war in Vietnam and the boat people, some of whom went to America but many came by boat up the river to Cambodia.
Today, a quick ferry ride from the dock at the back of the Himawari Hotel takes you to a living remnant of these Vietnamese. Although the influence of Vietnam can be found everywhere along the Mekong into the heart of Phnom Penh, the most important ghetto is around Arei Ksart.
Below is the boat that goes back and forth to the island.
Another vignette of history found in Areiksart are the two statues of Mary and the Child Jesus found buried in the riverbed by Vietnamese fishermen. These statues must have come from some of the Churches in Phnom Penh when they were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge reign. There used to be a huge Cathedral in Phnom Penh built in 1951. A Phnom Penh Post article details the story of this Cathedral.
Others said that they may have come from the boats of the fleeing Vietnamese Catholics. More interesting is how they found the statues. You can read this on the board in Our Queen of Peace Church in Areiksart.
Here is one of the statues in the Queen of Peace Church.