Out of Cambodia
As the pastel colours begin reflecting off the pond in front of me I check the settings on the camera and bang off another couple of shots. I’ve been up since 4 AM with the hope of getting into position early enough to get the “sunrise shot” of Angkor Wat. It’s now 5.15 AM and the crowd is beginning to swell in dawn's first light. A good mate, and fellow photographer, told me to get here by 5 otherwise I wouldn’t get a front row spot. He was right. I arrived a few minutes before 5:00 and most of the best positions were already taken. I swooped when a bunch of American pros moved off the embankment and down on to the sand at water level. With my miner's headlamp in place I set up the camera tripod right at the edge of the drop to the water with the front leg leaving barely a 30-centimeter gap to the edge. A narrow enough space to keep out any intruders; or so I thought. Things were going well until a bunch of twittering mainland Chinese ladies decided to squeeze themselves in along that 30-centimeter space between the front tripod leg and edge of the embankment. Five of them wriggled themselves in to position and immediately began tearing open packets of crisps, and talking without interruption, while they banged away on their IPhones at the same time. If this is the future of the human race; we are in trouble. Unfortunately, in the short period of time I’ve been here (2 days) I’ve developed a healthy dislike for mainland Chinese tour groups. One word describes these hordes: loud. I don’t what it is about them but they seem to have a much smaller area of personal space than western people. The average westerner is comfortable with a one-metre distance between him / her and another being. When another being moves within that one metre radius we become less comfortable, even guarded. The mainland Chinese don’t seem to have any comfort zone or, if they do, it’s at an absolute minimum. How else would one explain the fact they can be within 10 centimeters of each other and still be shouting at the top of their lungs in normal conversation? Perhaps many mainland Chinese suffer from acute hearing loss due to being bellowed at constantly by others at a 10-centimeter distance?
As the sun inches towards the horizon the pastel hues of dawn dissipate and the dark shadows give way to a whiter light. The early soft light of the day reveals a crowd which has ballooned to at least three hundred and there are still more arriving to get “the shot.” Unfortunately for them “the shot” has already gone. As yellow rays flash into the skies above I put on my shades and begin packing up the camera gear. There’s a carnival feel to the crowd as people can be seen eating and making merry. On the stretch of land between the pond and Angkor Wat, a group of Japanese is busy organising the latest fad in Japanese action photography. While one guy faces a line-up of friends, with his hands thrust forward supposedly using magical powers to ward them off, the line-up jump in the air, in unison, and touch their toes. It takes a few goes to get it right but eventually the timing is correct as everyone, on the count of three, jumps up and touches their toes simultaneously. According to my tuktuk driver this is actually the low season and the numbers would be even greater in the early months of the year when temperatures are cooler. I don’t think I’d really want to be here in the high season as the crowds at all the sites I’ve visited so far have been a pain to say the least. It’s not so much the individuals or couples one sees about, but more the hordes of mainland Chinese and Koreans. They go to every site en-masse and their modus operandi seems to be “been there, got the photo,” and on to the next spot. They have an infuriating habit of blocking up the access ways and footpaths in pursuit of their “proof that I’ve been there for the folks back home photos.”
I bought a guide book at one of the sites I visited the previous day which mentioned the eastern side of Angkor Wat at first light being a great spot for some wide angle photography. As I make my way over there a bunch of Koreans with umbrellas already up is heading in the same direction and being led by one of those flag-waving tour leaders. I speed up to get past them and as the sun clears the horizon I’m already dripping in perspiration. Whatever you may think or be led to believe about the seasons in Cambodia, I can assure you that the month of May is not the rainy season. It’s the last week in May and to use a bit of good old Aussie lingo, it’s absolutely redders out there mate. The hotel staff informed me that the mercury would be above forty degrees Celsius for this time of the year. I don’t doubt it. I’m still feeling a bit fried after my previous afternoon in the heat at Angkor Thom and the Bayon. I arrive at the eastern side of the site and it’s all good; the troupe of umbrella-wielding Koreans have decided to go in to the temple. I spend an hour moving about getting shots with different lenses and then decide it’s time for some shade and a bit of breakfast. Back on the western side – back behind the pond – there’s a line-up of thatched roofed, roadside noodle restaurants under a swathe of trees. As I sit there enjoying a strong Cambodian coffee and a banana pancake, I consider my next move for the day. I’ve already got two sites – Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – out of the way; the next stop, later in the afternoon, would be Ta Prohm. I was planning to rest up during the heat of the day and conserve a bit of energy for my trip up to the remote temple sites of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea the following day.
Angkor Wat from the Eastern side at 7:30 AM.
Sunrise pond at Angkor Wat; blazing sunshine and deserted at 9 AM.
The Bayon in stifling mid-afternoon heat.
Koreans getting their “proof that I’ve been there photos” for the folks at home; Ta Prohm site.
The red stone of Bantaey Srey apparently comes from the Korat Plateau in Thailand.
The hotel I was staying at, the Indochine Pavillon, was one of the closest to the Angkor Archeological Park and as such provided a very quiet night’s sleep due
to the fact that it was a good 15 minutes by tuktuk out of town. The free tuktuk service provided by the hotel also included runs in to the town center. At the end of each day of temple exploring I’d head into town for a decent meal and
a cold Angkor. The town of Siem Reap has developed into the bog standard tourist melee that one sees throughout this part of the world. Think of Patong Beach 20 years ago and you’ll get the general idea. Even though supposedly the low season,
tourist central was still packed with barangs drinking, dining and wandering about in the warm evening weather. Tourist central is actually a couple of blocks at the town center packed with hotels, bars, restaurants, travel agents, massage outlets
and trinket sellers. The majority of the foreigners seen on “Pub Street” tend to fall into two categories; the Barang traveler / backpacker type and / or the Asian package tour type. As I sat there tucking into my delicious street
side barbecue at the Golden Coconuts restaurant I considered something which, prior to arriving in Cambodia, I’d been told of the place and now that I was there, was very much the case. Compared to what one encounters in Thailand, the English
proficiency level of the Cambodians seems to be much better. This is quite surprising considering the economic disparity between the two but not wholly unexpected given the historical background of both countries.
The constant hustle of the tuktuk boys was never far away.
This will probably upset a few of the rose-tinted glasses brigade in Thailand but here we go anyway. It is my experience after being in this region for the past 20 years that regardless of what you may think of it, the main benefit of colonization is an expanded appreciation of a larger world beyond one’s own borders. The Thais regularly boast that they’ve never been colonised but the fact remains, compared to the mindset of the peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia, they are a rather insular and inward looking nation. Being exposed over a long period of time to another culture, language, cuisine will eventually develop an expanded way of thinking amongst the population. A way of understanding there’s a bigger world out there – beyond one’s own borders – with plenty to offer in terms of ideas and ways of doing things which can be beneficial. Okay, I know that Cambodia was colonised by the French but what I’m really getting at is the thought processes involved; the idea of understanding a bigger picture in life. Some may argue that Cambodia has no choice but to collectively embrace the English language; they’re behind the eight ball economically and need to do everything they can to maximise the opportunities afforded to them. This may be so, but the fact remains you can’t force the man on the street do anything against his own free will. For the general populace to embrace English language skills to the level we see in Cambodia, there has to be something else going on there. I see an openness of thinking leading to a willingness to embrace ideas and ways of doing things which emanate from beyond one’s own borders. In Thailand, I'm sorry to say I don’t see the same openness of thinking. For the average Thai person Thailand is the center of the universe and as far as many are concerned, there’s no need to learn English to any reasonable degree. The prevailing attitude seems to emphatically be “Why should we learn English? If foreigners come to Thailand they must learn the Thai language.” And that, as they will eventually find out, is an insular and xenophobic approach that will see their neighbor and rival, Vietnam, zoom right past them.
Something else which over the past two decades has been synonymous with any mention of Cambodia is landmines. A few years ago a lot of the country was unsafe to roam about due to the fact that there was a likelihood of stepping on a land mine. According to the driver, Phan, who took me up to the remote temples site, the majority of the country is now landmine-free and quite safe for travel. During the short time I’d been in country I’d seen a number of limbless victims of the dreaded landmine scourge. It’s quite sobering when one sees these people and the way in which they seem to “take it on the chin” and get on with trying to earn a living. It makes one realise that living a life with all limbs in place is a bonus. The fellow in the picture following was sitting along a dimly-lit side street just away from the main tourist area. He was playing his accordion when I first saw him so I stopped to see what his story was. In the small amount of English he spoke he told me that he was a soldier, and veteran, of the civil war (I didn’t ask him which side he was on). He made it right through the war, unscathed, only to step on a land mine after hostilities had stopped. Talk about bad luck.
Note: A big pat on the back to the Australian government who, according to Phan, were the largest contributors in terms of funding, personnel and training in the effort to rid the country of land mines.
A fifty year old war veteran doing what he can to earn a living.
After 5 days / 4 nights in Siem Reap it was time to move on to Phnom Penh. I’d covered all the main sites and also done a one day trip to the remote temple sites of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. A few observations for those planning a trip to Siem Reap:
There’s an entry fee for Angkor Archeological Park. It’s USD 20 for one day or USD 40 for three days. The 3-day option is obviously the best if you want to have a good look around.
I visited in what was apparently the low season – May – and even though it was as hot as Hades, there were still plenty of people about. According to most of the locals I spoke with the cooler moths of December, January, and February see a significant increase in the numbers of sightseers; beware the dreaded Korean and Chinese tour groups.
If you are after a dawn photo; get there early – before 5 AM. The eastern side, just after sunrise, is also a great spot for some wide angle photography. In the upper levels of Angkor Wat you are required to wear a shirt which covers the shoulders. Singlets and tank tops aren’t permissible.
Late afternoon farewell to Angkor Wat.
ANGKOR THOM AND THE BAYON:
This is the largest site so allow at least 3 – 4 hours for a decent look around. Start early (8 AM) at the Preah Pilaly end then work your way back along the Terrace of Elephants to finish at the Bayon. A lot of the structures, particularly the Bayon, have no trees providing shade so the afternoons can be stifling as well as crowded.
The Terrace of Elephants
This site is one of the most interesting due to the entangled tree growth amongst the ruins. It’s also a bit further away than Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and, as such, tends to be a spot which is popular in the late afternoons. Buck the trend and go first thing in the morning to avoid the package group hordes.
A small site with ornate red coloured stone work. This site is 37 kilometres from Siem Reap Township. If you travel out in a tuktuk be prepared for a run time of an hour each way. Due to the distance this also tends to be an afternoon site so, once again, buck the trend and go early in the morning.
PHNOM BAKENG (SUNSET HILL):
A good spot for some sunset pics but get there early as the place is packed by 5.30 PM. Be in position by 5 PM otherwise you may need to wait on numbers to leave before being allowed up on to the temple at the top. Apparently it’s 300 maximum allowed up on the structure at any one time.
Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakeng.
THE REMOTE SITES OF KOH KER AND BENG MEALEA
These two sites are on the same route with Koh Ker being the most distant (130 km) from Siem Reap. Visit Koh ker in the morning and Beng Mealea in the afternoon, on the way back. Allow a full day; car hire with a driver was USD 70 for the day. For those who are interested; follow this link to my travel blog.
The view from the top of Koh Ker pyramid (prang)
My original plan for traveling down to Phnom Penh was to take a 6-hour cruise down the Tonle-Sap. Within a few hours of being in Siem Reap I learned this option wasn’t possible; apparently there were no ferries running due to the low water levels for that time of year. My next option was to use a taxi but, after getting some helpful info from a fellow traveler, I canned that idea as well. Apparently there was a stretch of road works just north of the capital causing lengthy delays in negotiating this final 30-kilometre stretch into the nation’s largest city. In the end I opted for the short, but relatively expensive, flight with Cambodian Airlines. The timing of my arrival in Phnom Penh couldn’t have been worse; 5.30 PM on a Friday afternoon. I had a room booked at a hotel – The Lux – along the riverfront; needless to say it was a 1-hour patience test as the taxi weaved its way through the peak hour traffic jam.
The Lux Hotel sits just off the river front road on what is, effectively, the most economically developed swathe of tourist infrastructure in Cambodia. There is a wide, paved, tree lined walk way / concourse which hugs the river’s edge for approximately one kilometre; end to end. This is tourist central for Phnom Penh with a hodge-podge of hotels, eateries and bars crammed in along the roadside. The river front road in many ways is like a façade with air-conditioned restaurants and bars masking the grime and poverty a few blocks inland. No doubt with the continuing influx of tourist dollars and foreign investment, things are improving rapidly but as one wends your way through the melee of tuktuks, noodle stands and street crowds, behind the façade the combination of heat, dust and refuse stench is a bit over powering sometimes.
The crowds out for an early evening walk, in cooler temperatures, along the riverfront in Phnom Penh.
The same stretch, at about 9 AM, with very few about in the high humidity.
The ornate Khmer designs of the National Palace and associated buildings along the river front.
Day time temperatures in Phnom Penh weren’t much different to what I encountered in Siem Reap; the only saving grace being the rains had begun to cloud in the sky. The humidity was still thick in the atmosphere during the day and it was hardly surprising there were significantly more people out on the riverfront once the sun had set. In fact the first part of the day – up until midday at least – seemed completely uncrowded compared to the latter hours. The river front is also the location of some ornately decorated Khmer styled buildings with the National Palace, and its associated buildings / wats being the stand out towards the Eastern end of the concourse. As already mentioned, when the sun dips below the horizon that’s when the locals can be seen out in force along the river front. On my second night in Phnom Penh I took a leisurely stroll down towards the National Palace and came upon a frenzy of activity taking place in and around two small shrines / temples almost directly across the road from the grounds of the National Palace. There were what seemed like hundreds of locals – mainly woman – all trying to get their turn at being blessed inside one of these small buildings. It was a cacophony of noise as a bunch of traditional musicians, on a raised platform directly in front of one of the shrines, banged drums and tapped away, uninterrupted, on those wooden xylophones as dozens burned incense and joined the line into the shrine / temple. There was no indication the festivities had anything to do with Buddhism. A closer look into the building revealed no images of Buddha; just three strange looking male effigies with Zapata style moustaches as the couples worked their way inside with handfuls of lotus flowers. I found out later that these two small temples were dedicated to fertility rites; one was for woman and the other for men.
Burning incense and waiting her turn for the fertility rites.
The crowd gathers on a Saturday night around one of the fertility rites temples on the river front.
It would be easy to dismiss these festivities as an example of paganism, or the older folk religions of the region but the fact is when one does a small amount of research, you can see that celebrations such as these fertility rites are part of the original Brahmanical belief system of the Khmer / Angkorian civilization. This was a belief system / religion which predates the influence of Buddhism in the region and can still be seen in many of the ceremonies conducted not only in Cambodia but also in Thailand. In ceremonies performed to ensure a good harvest, to restore health, or to celebrate rites of passage (puberty, marriage, death), non-Buddhist formulae are used and beliefs are expressed that stem from the popular forms of Brahmanical religion known to have been practiced in Angkorian days. This was made abundantly clear to me during my trip up to the remote temple sites outside Siem Reap. I was fortunate enough to have a driver, Phan, who spoke good English and, during the 2-hour journey to the first site, we discussed a number of subjects regarding Cambodia’s troubled history; including the Preah Vihear situation.
“Well, everyone knows that Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple. You can see that if you visit there. It is Khmer design and part of our Angkorian Civilization,” said Phan assuredly.
“Yes, but it’s now on Thai territory,” I said as a counter.
“It was Cambodian land before. It’s a difficult situation but I think the Thai have too much pride. They know deep down in their heart who was the first civilization, the mother culture, but they don’t want to admit it. If you look at Thai language it has many letters the same as Cambodian language. In fact, we can read Thai but they cannot read Cambodian. Also, about Thai dancing; that is just a copy of Apsara dancing from Khmer. One thousand years ago the Angkorian Empire included all of what is now Siam or Thailand. The Khmer culture has influenced the region very much about religion, art and local beliefs.”
From what I’d seen during my relatively short stay in Cambodia, I think Phan had a point. Like most other parts of the world the story of historical evolvement of newer civilizations is simply about borrowing portions from older neighboring ones, and then adapting them to conform to one’s own requirements. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that, as Phan had stated, the Angkorian Civilization of the tenth century completely encompassed the land area which would later be known as Siam / Thailand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Empire This, of course, tends to make a mockery of Thai claims that they’ve never been colonized; they were colonized well before they became an official entity. There’s no doubt the influence of being vassalized, and subjugated, for three to four centuries had an effect in terms of cultural development; most of what is Thai was originally Khmer / Angkorian.
Over the years of living in Thailand one hears a lot of stories regarding what Cambodia was, is, or might be. A recurring theme is it’s a bit of lawless place; that it’s still the Wild West and very importantly, for many, it’s still cheap compared with Thailand. Within a few hours of being in Phnom Penh it’s very noticeable that poverty abounds and after a couple of days of the constant stream of limbless beggars, grimy looking mothers with infants, young book sellers, and tuktuk drivers, it becomes wearisome. So much so that relief is found by taking a coffee or a meal in one of the air-conditioned eateries along the river front; in effect, cutting yourself off from the miserable situation of some of the poor souls scrambling for an existence out on the curbside.
More of the limbless brigade on the curbside.
No doubt some foreigners revel in this situation due to the increased leverage to be found by things being cheaper. But, what is so often the case, cheap doesn’t necessarily translate into quality; most of the time it’s the reverse scenario. There is a bar scene with ladies available in two main areas in Phnom Penh. Street 136 has a strip of beer bars near to the river front road (opposite the LUX hotel). There’s also a night entertainment area along street 51 with beer bars and night clubs offering a choice of freelance and barfineable ladies. I’ve never really been a fan of beer bars. Probably because I’m not much of a drinker and, in most cases, the ladies on offer are usually of the older genre; often looking worn and world weary. And so the Walkabout proved to be the case. One word would describe this bar and the ladies on offer in the premises; rough. Think of a down-market version of the Biergarten in Bangkok and you’ll get the general idea. It may be cheap but as I’ve already stated, that doesn’t necessarily translate into good. No doubt there will be a few who think otherwise about the Walkabout. To each their own I say and if this “last chance saloon” environment floats your boat then fair enough; perhaps it’s not so much about the ladies but more the fact the bar is open 24 hours a day that many find appealing. Needless to say I had one beer and departed alone. I dropped into another bar further up the road; a bar which was quieter and being ran by an American lady in her late 30s. The place was in a state of disrepair and as she poured my beer I could only wonder what a single, western female would be doing in a place such as this. A Brit entered the bar and started talking with the American and they both did their best to make me understand I was in a travelers / backpackers bar; the inference being this bar was a better standard than the trashy, girly bars down the road.
Most of what was being said between them was the same type of conversation I’d overheard many times over between foreigners scrambling to eke out an existence in tourist areas in this part of the world. I’d heard the same lines of dialogue in Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok and there was a boring repetitiveness to it all; new ideas to generate more cash flow, what the competition was up to, the latest scams by the local constabulary, and the next visa run, etc., etc. It’s seems for expats Cambodia is no different to Thailand in this regard; it’s just there’s less money about.
There is a P4P scene in Phnom Penh but it’s nothing like you encounter in Thailand. There are no gogo bars to be seen. In keeping with their deeply held Buddhist beliefs, public displays of nudity are not allowed. Perhaps it’s still too early in their tourist economic development phase and as the money rolls through in increasing amounts, local attitudes towards Thai style chrome pole palaces may change as they clamber for a bigger slice of the pie? For now though they remain, compared to their Thai cousins, still a bit naïve; even the “working girls” have a refreshingly nice manner about them compared to their hardened sisters in Bangkok and Pattaya. Unfortunately niceness doesn’t necessarily translate into great service. I picked up a charming, leggy freelancer at the Pontoon nightclub only to find that she was rather clueless when it came to her bedroom duties. At USD 50 for the night it was a lot less than I would pay in Bangkok but, as I’ve stated already, you generally get what you pay for; I’ve never had an issue with paying premium prices for a hardcore professional that provides great service.
Paying respects to the monks on the river front road.
A couple of non “working” Cambodian beauties at Wat Phnom Park.
An unusual attraction; the large rattan cobra at Wat Phnom Park.
My final full day in Cambodia’s capital was going to a busy one with a trip to the killing fields in the morning followed by a drive, 37 kilometres to the north of the city to the well regarded temple complex of Oudong. I woke early and by 9 AM I was getting an up close look at the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh from the tuktuk I’d hired for the round trip. As I’ve already mentioned, the river front tourist area is a façade. A couple of hundred meters back into the chaotic streets and one can easily see the place is very much third world. As the driver weaved his way through the traffic mayhem the thought crossed my mind that a tuktuk may not have been the best option health wise. At times the exhaust fumes, and dust, were choking. The number of new SUVs on the road indicated there is wealth in Cambodia but as a number of people pointed out to me, most of it ends up with the small minority at the top of the pyramid. Apparently Cambodia (along with Burma) is the country with the greatest economic disparity in the ASEAN region. While a very small fraction of the population become ultra-rich, the majority are doing it tough. Which, in a way, is history just repeating itself all over again? The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule have been well documented and no justification could ever be found for their reign of terror and murder. However, as with all “people's” revolutions there are initiating, or motivating, factors which allow despots such as Pol Pot, and their associated Politik, to rise to prominence and, dare we say it, popularity. As it was in Russia, and China, one of the prime motivating factors of these “people’s parties” was the idea that the ruling elite, or the wealthy classes, were living a life of decadence completely out of touch with the hungry masses. Simply put; one extreme begets another.
Treated like cattle but still able to smile
In some ways this is an example of a life principle that many Asian folks hold dear to their hearts; Karma. The KR wiped out the ruling elite of the country but the vacuum is quickly being filled by a rush of mainland Chinese keen to profit where opportunity exists. But the fact is that the average Cambodian doesn’t seem to mind that much or, if they do, they just don’t show it. They seem like a very patient lot. Patience, perhaps, resulting from the horrors of their recent tragic past; as if they’ve seen the worst of mankind and nothing else really surprises them. They have an ability to cope like no population I’ve encountered before. Some of the poorest street beggars look pitiful but they still seem upbeat; even though their situation maybe dire and they’re treated like cattle by their masters.
There’s no doubt that many visitors to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center would be appalled by the descriptions of the site's past inhumanities as they wander about listening to the tape they’re provided with. While it may be shocking, the sheer ruthlessness is hardly surprising. Barbarism on this scale is a collective or group thing. People get caught up in it and before they know it they’re just following orders and killing, raping and pillaging, with the best of them in the name of the cause. We’ve seen it in China, Russia and Germany in the past. What also isn’t surprising is that, with the exception of “Duch,” no one has actually admitted to any wrongdoing. But once you’ve lived in this part of the world for a number of years, one understands that the maintenance of “face” takes precedence over any admission of wrongdoing. And that, unfortunately, must impact to some degree on the moral base of the thought processes of the population.
“The horror, the horror”
The fact that many who killed with impunity have simply returned to their homes must leave a population in a lingering, unresolved mindset. Perhaps not but if there is a hangover from the past it may help explain why Cambodia seems to be a place where the rule of law is some way down the scale of life’s considerations. The pervading feeling as one moves about in the chaos is that life is pretty cheap here; it’s Rafferty’s rules and each to their own in the daily scramble to eke out an existence on the mean streets.
I was completely unaware that the civil war which ravaged this country for twenty eight years is still an unresolved issue. According to Phan, my driver for the trip up to Koh ker and Beng Mealea, nobody actually won; the whole thing just petered out after a long and ineffective series of negotiations between the nationalist forces and the Khmer Rouge.
“Sihonouk came back in 1992 and he kept telling the people they must stop fighting and go back to their homes and villages. To continue fighting would be very bad for our country. Six years later, in 1998, the fighting finally finished. It was mainly because of the king that it finished but the leaders of the Khmer Rouge continued hiding out in the jungle because they knew they would be accountable for their crimes against the Cambodian people. In the end all the Khmer Rouge leaders died; Pol Pot, Ta Mok and the others.”
“And no one else was held accountable?”
“No, they just went back to their homes and carried on with their lives.”
Perhaps, in the end, that was the best way. After 28 years of misery and suffering enough was enough and even though there may be forgiveness, you can be certain they’ll never forget.
My final place of visitation before flying out seemed appropriate enough; a large temple complex 37 kilometres to the west of Phnom Penh. The hotel organized an SUV and driver for me and at bang on 3 PM we were on our way to the impressive site of Oudong. Most, once you’ve lived in this region for any length of time, tend to get a bit jaded, even cynical, when the idea of visiting a temple is bandied about. “Seen one, seen em’ all”, is something I can relate to but sometimes even the most cynical, me included, will have pause for thought when we experience a truly unique site / structure. About an hour west of Phnom Penh, and just off national route #5, lay the hills of the abandoned royal city of Oudong. The surrounding countryside is entirely flat so as we cleared the city limits the peaks of the Oudong site became clearly visible in the distance. The following is taken from a local visitors guide and is a brief description regarding the history of the site:
“Oudong was the capital of Cambodia from the early 17th century until 1866 when the capital was officially moved to Phnom Penh. Several temples, stupas and other structures cover the hills. The highest peak is crowned with stupas containing the remains of several Cambodian Kings including King Monivong (1927 – 1941) and King Ang Duong (1845 – 1859). The earliest structure is from the 13th century. These hills were also the site of some of the Khmer Rouge’s most prolonged resistance against the encroaching Vietnamese army in 1979.”
One of the new temple buildings in the foreground with the original stupas on the hills behind
At just over an hour, after departing from the hotel, we were pulling off the main highway and heading down a small country road towards the tree covered peaks of Oudong. The driver, knowing I was keen on getting a few good shots, suggested going to the new temple first. Located at the base of the hills, and just to the west, the new temple site is an ornate, gold coloured complex with the central feature being a large windowless building. The driver parked under the welcome shade of a stand of trees as I got myself, and the camera gear, organised for a tour of the complex. It was just after 4 PM; the light was good but it was also scorching as I moved around working the camera and the angles. The main temple looked quite bizarre to say the least. It had unusually high – 20-metre – walls which were completely devoid of windows. After getting some good external shots I made my towards one of the doorways of the main temple and, after kicking off the shoes, stepped inside to find an amazingly beautiful interior. The reason there were no windows was due to the fact that the entire internal spaces were covered in paintings depicting the history of Buddhism in Cambodia. All the way up the sides of the building, and across the ceiling, was some of the most colourful artwork I’d ever witnessed in a temple. It was quite remarkable and the thought came to mind that it was the Buddhist version of the Cisteen Chappell. At the western end sat an ornately painted large green Buddha statue with artwork branching out on the wall behind. As I worked the camera a couple of monks busied themselves with their afternoon cleaning duties. The following is a series of shots of the temple interior and exterior.
The exterior of the new Oudong temple.
The beautiful interior of the new Oudong temple.
Monks busying themselves with cleaning duties with the impressive Buddha statue beyond.
The vibrant colours on the ceiling of the new temple.
At a couple of minutes past 5 PM I was back at the car and ready to get on with my primary objective for coming to Oudong; getting some great sunset shots from the peak. As the driver worked his way back along the road to the grounds of the old temple site I could see there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get the sunset shots I was looking for; to the west, ominous black clouds were building up in the high heat and humidity of the day. As I made my way up the long flight of stairs, to the stupas at the top, things were looking even less optimistic as light rain began falling. By the time I arrived at the stupa the horizon to the west was dark and thick with rain. As the threatening mass moved ever closer the wind picked up and heavy thunder rumbled across the plain. As I moved around getting a few shots a team of local ladies arrived and began cleaning the tile work around the stupa. We exchanged pleasantries while they made themselves comfortable, on the tiled floor, for a tea break. It was after 5 PM, the horizon was thick with cloud and there was very little chance of getting a sunset shot. As the wind intensified even more, with the approaching rain, I resigned myself to the fact I was probably just a couple of days too late in the season; it was the beginning of June and the rains had arrived. As the lightening flashed in the distance I put the camera away and settled in to enjoy the panoramic vistas and the power of nature as the storm rolled across the horizon beyond. It had been a great few days in Cambodia and this seemed a fitting end. The poverty and grime of urban areas has never been something I’ve been all that comfortable with. Sure, it makes for some powerful images but the fact is I’ve always been a fan of the wide open spaces and the natural world. In the distance the rain moved steadily across the landscape bringing cooling temperatures and adding freshness to the atmosphere.
The long flight of stairs to the top.
The main stupa at the top of the hill in the fading afternoon light.
The cleaning crew being buffeted by the cooling winds of the approaching thunder storm.
The late afternoon thunder storm moves in from the west to refresh the landscape
A final word for those who consider there’s leverage where there’s poverty:
“But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”
Wonderful trip report, and one which makes me want to go and experience those places again!