Well it’s been a busy week here in Phnom Penh! I finally got a permission letter to begin research at the Royal University of Fine Arts (although the dean is out of town so I’ll be meeting with him on Monday to get started). On Wednesday I gave a short lecture to a middle-school English class at the Lycee Francais. The students were extremely bright but didn’t have much of a background in archaeology or early Cambodian history so I fear I overwhelmed them. However, a friend lent me some pottery to bring and show them, which really got them excited at the end. Then on Friday I gave a lecture to some Khmer faculty and researchers at the Center for Khmer Studies office in Phnom Penh which was on my research more specifically. Because I don’t have much to show for my research at the moment I talked more about my methodology and future research questions. Again, the group members were not native English speakers and I fear I lost a few of them but afterwards I spoke with a couple of people and they seemed interested in enthusiastic. I’m looking forward to working with these folks in the future.
This Saturday, an archaeologist friend of mine who teaches at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh invited me to come on a small field trip with a few students from his ecotourism class back to Oudong. The students, one man and two women, were all getting their BA in Hospitality and Tourism and (as is required to take classes at Pannasastra and work in hospitality) had excellent English. I was still able to have a bit of a chat in Khmer with them though and they helped me with some vocabulary which I’ve promptly forgotten. As this was an ecotourism class, the drive out was spent discussing the landscape and ecology on the way up to Oudong and we made a few stops along the way up and back. Highlights when you click “Keep reading.”
Phnom Oudong in the distance from National Route 5
One of the (many) problems with Cambodia’s economy is that they import almost everything. Even some things grown in Cambodia, like cashews, are sent out of the country to be processed and then re-imported. With the extremely high price of gas (now almost $4.50 gallon) this means that things here are a lot more expensive than they used to be. Well one thing that is made locally are bricks! There are many brick factories on the road up to Oudong. They dig up dirt from the along the river banks and use that to make bricks for construction.
Above: Dirt and bricks!
Obviously you need to bake bricks, which requires wood for the fire. We passed by several places that had heaps of wood sitting outside for this purpose. Although I’m still unsure about where the wood is coming from.
While we were traveling, we also stopped at a road side stand and got some lotus seeds (another locally grown product). I’ve seen people eating these many times but had never tried it myself. The seeds themselves are pretty plain with a hint of sweetness and bitterness.
These are also popular at temples and such to give as an offering to the Buddha.
Once arriving at Oudong we stopped and had lunch at one of the many little food stalls. Basically, you park your car and then have lunch sitting at a table with hammocks nearby (you must eat where you park). They made traditional Khmer food. I’ll be brutally honest here, I do not like Khmer food because it is not vegetarian-friendly. The meat dishes looked great though. After lunch the students and I walked up the hill. They had an assignment for their class and had some things of their own to think about. Coincidentally, one of the students I had met before because she was a tour guide at the Royal Palace when I was there! Small world. She has also given tours at Oudong in the past so I asked her to tell me a bit about it and here are some of the things she told me.
This is Wat Oudong, built in 1997 or 1998. It houses a relic of the Buddha that had previously been in a small stupa outside the railroad station in Phnom Penh
Above: This pretty tile covered stupa is called Tray Troeng, built by King Norodom in 1891 to house the ashes of King Ang Duong who died in 1859.
Above: Chet Day Mak Proum, which houses the ashes of King Monivong who died in 1941.
Above: If you squint at the middle of this photograph you’ll see a little golden dot, which is the new giant Buddha statue being constructed at Oudong (I saw it on my last visit). A better photo is below:
As I mentioned before, this temple was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, by the Khmer Rouge themselves, but as my new friend told me perhaps also by American bombs. The columns above are original and being encased in cement. My friend also told me two stories about this mountain and the Buddha statues.
The first: Apparently the Chinese believe that there is a dragon that lived in this mountain (Oudong) and if disturbed it would awaken and Cambodia would become a great power. Not wanting to deal with such a powerful force, the Chinese had this temple and giant Buddha constructed over the opening in the mountain so that the dragon would not escape. The Buddha faces to the North, towards China.
Another story deals with a dog who belonged to a monk (who lived in/on/near Oudong I believe?) The dog was very clever and in the morning the monk would hang a bag around its neck with money and a shopping list. The dog would go to the market where the sellers would retrieve the list and the money and send the dog back home to the monk with goods from the market. When the dog died, it was buried in Oudong. But because the dog was so good it was reincarnated as a prince in the Chinese court. The prince was very good but suffered from terrible headaches. His parents took him to a fortune tell her who told him of his past life as a dog, and that his headaches were caused by a root of a bamboo tree growing through the skull of the dog in Oudong mountain.
[On a somewhat related note, I came across a different story about a Buddhist temple that involved a Khmer boy ending up in a Chinese royal court in this month’s issue of Bayon Pearnik magazine. The story begins on page 4 at this link. ]
As we got to the bottom of the mountain we walked by a few abandoned, crumbling, temples and stupas.
Lonely Planet describes a mural of Khmer Rouge atrocities and a memorial to victims of the Khmer Rouge held somewhere at the base of Phnom Oudong, however I have not seen it. The Khmer students said that the locals stayed away from places like this temple because of the bad Khmer Rouge mojo. I agree, it looks pretty creepy.
After this long day we finally hopped in the car and headed back towards PP. Although we made one last quick stop to see a fishing village (Vietnamese?)
The water is quite low now, but during the rainy season it comes all the way up near the top of the stilts on these houses.
All in all, another fun day at Oudong and I was glad to meet such bright and enthusiastic students and they work hard to get their degrees. Tour guides often have to do their own research to prepare for the tours, so if you are in Cambodia and happen upon a great tour guide please tip them well!