On the Road to Oudong

Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia a couple of centuries ago, was my destination for a half-day excursion, north of the present day capital, Phnom Penh. Arming myself with water bottles, bags of sweets, sunscreen, camera and a cap, Sothy, my guide and Serey, our driver, arrived on time for our 7.30am departure. Along Sisowath Quay, under the Japanese Friendship bridge and out through Phnom Penh's northern suburbs, we joined Route 5 for the forty kilometre trek. Either side of the road were recently-built mosques serving the Cham-Muslim minority presence in the area and on our right-hand side, our constant companion, the Tonle Sap River, ran parallel to the road.

Wat Prak Tatean under constructionAs we swapped the frenzied activity of the capital for the slower pace of life in the countryside, the main activity appeared to be temple building! I counted no less than six pagodas at varying stages of construction along the roadside between Phnom Penh and Oudong and we stopped briefly at a couple to review progress. Wat Prak Tatean was a colourful modern wat, almost obscured by a forest of rickety and fragile bamboo poles (right), while Wat Sery Sophan was in its early stages and was merely a shell. A stone's throw away from the river, it was to replace a distinctive, but dilapidated five-towered pagoda in greyish sandstone next door. At the Prek Kdam ferry point, a small queue of lorries were waiting patiently to cross the river on their way to destinations in the country's north-east and at this point we veered inland. Ninety minutes into our journey, we touched the outskirts of Oudong town straddled across both sides of Route 5 and took a left turn towards an outcrop of hills looming large over the flat plains.

The rutted gravel track gave out after a couple of kilometres as we arrived at the foot of Phnom Oudong and came to a halt next to a small wooden building in poor repair. The open-sided memorial housed the remains of victims found in a series of mass graves at the site after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979. Our arrival hadn't gone unnoticed by a group of uniformed soldiers, who stirred themselves from their shaded bench, slung their rifles over their shoulders and followed Sothy and myself as we began our ascent of the first ridge, known by local legend as Phnom Preah Reach Throap or the 'Hill of Royal Fortune'. With the day hotting up, I was relieved to shelter from the sun at the crest of the ridge in a building known as Preah Ath Roes. Now in ruins, it previously housed a 30 foot high seated Buddha but only the remains of his right side and arm are visible now, alongwith fragments of ceramic decoration on the base of eight massive columns and a collection of small shrines. Both Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol forces each had a hand in the destruction of this important vihara during the 1970's. The view from the ridge was particularly good, providing a panorama of the flat landscape for miles in all directions and is a favourite spot for locals to enjoy picnics at weekends.

Large stupas mark the summit of the Oudong hillsA few steps took us onto a higher ridge and a collection of three smaller structures used for worship, containing in ascending order, a sacred bull, a seated Buddha and a naga-protected Buddha. At this point, our five uniformed companions disappeared after deciding that the Japanese tour bus that had just arrived and dispatched twenty or so passengers, would provide richer pickings than a lone English traveller, disinterested in their 'protection' scheme. Above us and straddling the top of the hill were three very large stupas containing the ashes of former Cambodian kings (left). The first, painted yellow and made of cement, was topped by four Bayon-style faces and housed the remains of King Monivong. The middle stupa, decorated with brightly coloured tiles, was built to inter the ashes of King Ang Duong, while the third one had partially destroyed elephant carvings at its base and housed the remains of King Soriyopor. At the crest of the hill, I was suprised to see a gang of workmen busy constructing a new pagoda to house a bone of Buddha at the behest of the present-day King, Norodom Sihanouk, who had halted building on the Wat Phnom site in Phnom Penh and switched his attention here instead.

The simple home of Chey Lon. Descending the hill, I spotted a newly painted modern pagoda across the track and went over to investigate. Unfortunately, no-one was around to unlock the doors so I settled on an exchange of balloons for a photograph of three dark-skinned youngsters who were fishing in a pond in the temple grounds. Back in the car, we retraced our steps along the dusty track. Driving through a small hamlet, with houses standing high on stilts, we stopped for a few photographs near the village water pump. With Sothy translating, Chey Lon, bare-chested and heavily tattooed, was filling a couple of buckets with water and washing himself and his two young boys at the same time. He explained that the pump, a present from a foreign charity, serviced nearly 300 people in the immediate vicinity and provided clean water, continuously, throughout the year. As we rejoined Route 5, Serey turned left and headed for the site of the ancient capital, now located in the grounds of a modern wat nearby. The only remains of the wooden palace that seated the royal court from 1618 to 1866 were a few timber posts sticking out of a ceremonial pond and a row of six iron cannon embedded in the soil.

Our return journey to Phnom Penh was broken up by a couple of brief stops on the banks of the Tonle Sap to watch the Vietnamese fishermen at work tending their fish farms near the shore. We also detoured to the home of a silversmith in the village of Tul Mau, to see a whole family beavering away under the raised floor of their bamboo house, fashioning small silver jewellery boxes for the tourist trade. Our last, unscheduled, diversion before reaching the capital was a brief visit to an area called Svay Pak. Sothy explained that this particular place came alive at night as it's home to a considerable number of brothels and serves as Phnom Penh's out-of-town red-light district. The sound of our car in the middle of the day aroused sufficient interest for groups of girls to beckon us in for business, but we declined and returned to the capital in time for lunch.

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