Freewheeling in Phnom Penh

Sunrise over the Tonle Sap river and early morning fishermen at work.I was up early at 6am to view the spectacular sunrise over the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers from a spot directly in front of the Royal Palace. Turning around, the yellow brick of the Chan Chaya Pavilion shone brightly, two elephants and their handlers moved languidly amongst the early morning traffic and a group of bleary-eyed cyclo drivers used the waters of the Tonle Sap for their ablutions. Wat Ounalom was my first port of call and although the main vihara was locked shut, I paused to admire the skill of three stonemasons at work on a statue in the temple grounds. Around the corner, Wat Saravoan resembled a construction site and was in the throes of a complete overhaul so I moved onto the Foreign Correspondents Club, back along the riverfront, for some breakfast.

Early morning elephants and the Chan Chaya Pavilion.At 8am, I was the first customer of the day at the National Museum, located to one side of the Royal Palace compound, with the sun enhancing its rust-coloured, traditionally styled exterior (below). Entry cost $2 and I walked through the massive double doors of the entrance, past the front desk with its reproductions and postcards and handed over my camera as photography was prohibited inside. The museum is built around an interior courtyard and four ornamental lotus ponds with four surrounding ground-floor galleries containing well in excess of 5,000 bronze, stone, ceramic and wooden exhibits. I was aware that sixty-six of the museum's best pieces weren't on show. Alongwith another fifty items from the renowned Musee Guimet in Paris, they were taking the cream of Khmer art and sculpture to the masses on an exhibition tour of France, the USA and Japan. Amongst the most famous sculptures missing were the Harihara from Prasat Andet, a carved pediment and a Shiva & Uma couplet from Banteay Srei, a reclining bronze Vishnu found at the West Mebon and perhaps the most famous, an exquisitely sculptured head of Jayavarman VII from Preah Khan. All of these had been on view on my previous visits to the museum, but at least it gave the chance for other pieces to share the limelight for a change.

The entrance to the National Museum, Phnom Penh.The first gallery housed a series of smaller objects, mostly bronzes, in glass display cases, with the remaining galleries containing larger sandstone exhibits in chronological order from the sixth to the 13th century. Also on display were pottery pieces, a royal barge and palanquin, dance costumes and exhibits illustrating both military and court life. Despite the lack of important pieces, there was still a wealth of quality carvings including two Jayavarman VII heads, large free-standing Vishnu sculptures and a collection of lintels, pediments and frontons. Much in evidence on the floor and on some of the exhibits was the calling card of the museum's other inhabitants, droppings from thousands of freetail bats that live in the roof space. Despite an artificial ceiling installed with aid from the Australian government, the corrosive guano and high-pitched squeal of the bats at rest were a constant companion throughout my visit. In the quieter inner courtyard, the original Leper King statue, removed from the terrace of the same name at Angkor Thom for safekeeping, stands in splendid isolation.

A section of the colourful but damaged mural at the Silver Pagoda.Schoolboys were playing football, bare-foot, in the park in front of the museum, as I walked along Samdech Sothearos Boulevard, past the imposing Chan Chaya Pavilion, still bathed in glorious sunlight and up to the entrance of the Silver Pagoda. Situated directly opposite the entrance of my own hotel, the Renakse, the Silver Pagoda is the only accessible area of the Royal Palace complex for most of the year. On special occasions, the Throne Hall, Royal Treasury, Banquet Hall and French Pavilion are opened up to the public and I was privileged to visit these sumptuous royal residences on my last trip twelve months earlier. However, on this occasion, they were off-limits. Entry into the Silver Pagoda compound, with my camera, cost $5. Along the inside of the 600-metre external wall is a colourful mural (left) depicting scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, which has recently been partially restored to its former glories. The rest of the compound is a collection of royal stupas, pavilions and the jewel in the crown, the Silver Pagoda, also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokat.

Wat Preah Keo Morokat, also known as the Silver Pagoda.Wat Preah Keo Morokat (right) houses an accumulation of thousands of gold, silver and marble Buddha statues of varying shapes and sizes. Two in particular are priceless. The 17th century Emerald Buddha is made of baccarat crystal and sits atop a high pedestal and another, weighing 90kg, made of pure gold and encrusted with 9,584 diamonds, is nearby. The floor of the Silver Pagoda is covered with 5,329 solid silver tiles, hence its name. Photography and shoes were not allowed inside and electric fans offered some relief from the intense humidity as I viewed the contents of the glass display cabinets, containing gifts to the Khmer monarchy from foreign dignitaries. Outside, stupas containing the ashes of former kings, a library and two pavilions housing large footprints of the Buddha lead onto an annexe. As well as a souvenir shop, the Palace workshops and an Elephant Pavilion displaying coronation items, a small group of young female dancers and musicians from the School of Fine Arts performed a truncated version of a classical Khmer dance, full of graceful movement and sequined costumes.

The friendly young monk at Wat Moha Montrei.I briefly returned to my hotel room across the street for a cold shower, where one of the all-too-frequent powercuts was taking place and then lunched at the FCC, looking out across the Tonle Sap river and the Chrouy Changva Peninsular in the distance. At 2pm, Onphum, my regular motodub, collected me from the hotel, a two-minute walk from the FCC, and we set off for a whistle-stop tour of some of the capital's major wats and a visit to the office of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an academic research institute. Wat Botum is a large pagoda complex, with many ornate stupas and structures, located next to the park housing the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. It's a favoured wat of royalty, although the main vihara was closed when we stopped by. In close proximity to the Independence Monument, Wat Langka is one of the capital's five original monasteries founded in 1422. The main temple contained colourful paintings of the Buddha's life on two floors and was a hive of activity with monks, novices and laypeople going about their daily business. Onphum suggested a visit to Wat Moha Montrei, near the Olympic Stadium before our 3pm appointment at the DC-Cam Centre. A friendly monk (left) explained as best he could in broken English, the meaning of the large life-of-Buddha paintings although the vihara was very dark and the paintings were well above eye level. I had to decline his offer of tea in the monks' quarters to return to Sihanouk Boulevard in time for my scheduled appointment at the DC-Cam Centre.

Playful kids at Wat Than.Located in a nondescript house, the DC-Cam was originally a field office for Yale University's Cambodian Genocide Program, looking into the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79. Run by Cambodians, the well-organised DC-Cam office has a wealth of information, both computerised and in paper form, on the activities of the Khmer Rouge regime, including details of all known prisons, mass grave sites and memorials criss-crossing the country. After a chat with its director, Youk Chhang, I rejoined Onphum for our final wat stop of the afternoon, at Wat Than on Norodom Boulevard. Renowned for its workshops and skills training program for landmine and polio handicapped, a shop selling the fruits of their labours is on site. I toured the production workshops, where eager students are taught carpentry, tailoring and weaving and visited the typing centre before returning to the showroom to purchase some gifts for my family back home. Outside the main vihara, a group of youngsters welcomed me into their flip-flop throwing game, called 'kop sbek cheung' in Khmer, and I thanked them with a handful of balloons before leaving to make our way back to the hotel for a deserved rest as dusk settled on another eventful day.

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