CAMBODIA TALES 1999
A tour of Phnom Penh's Wats and beyond
My second day in Phnom Penh began with Choy, my motodub, ferrying me over the Japanese Bridge and onto one of my favourite spots, the Chrouy Changva Peninsula. The road alongside the Tonle Sap river was bumpy and busy with locals going about their business and schoolchildren filing towards home. Our first stop was at Wat Botiyarap, where a friendly young monk invited us into the temple to inspect the colourful wall murals showing popular versions of the Buddha's life. As I removed my shoes, he opened some of the side doors to let in the sunlight and explained in broken English about the early life of the Buddha, who was known as Siddhartha Gautama before he gained enlightenment. It was about now that I silently scolded myself for forgetting to bring my copy of Ray Zepp's excellent guidebook on Phnom Penh's wats, 'A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas'.
After taking a few photographs, I thanked the monk for his time, gave him a small donation and moved onto the largest wat on the peninsular, Wat Prachum Sakor. The houses either side of the track leading to the temple were surrounded by water following recent rains, as we drove into the temple's extensive grounds. Two giant Banyan trees occupy a prominent place upon entry and amongst their branches, a group of monkeys keenly watched our every move. In the shadow of the trees, two long wooden boats used in the recent water festival races on the nearby Tonle Sap, were housed in a covered shed and nearby, were a series of colourful but unusual statues, one of which depicted the young Buddha riding in his chariot (left). The pagoda itself was founded as long ago as 1880, although the paintings inside the darkened vihara are much more recent. A collection of quality paintings lining the walls of the monk's quarters were however, much more visible.
At the end of the riverside track, the temple built in the shape of a boat was padlocked shut and devoid of any sign of life. We continued our journey along the quieter Mekong side of the peninsular, stopping to watch a few small boats struggling against the strong current, driving past a deserted Cham mosque and a couple of factories from where the heavy duty lorries have cut up the track badly. Making our way back onto the main highway, Route 6, we turned right past the numerous popular Khmer restaurants at Prek Leap and onto the colourful temple at Khien Klaing (right), after a quick diversion to the VVAF (Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation) rehabilitation centre for disabled landmine victims. The vital work of the VVAF deserves closer inspection, which I plan to do on my next visit to Cambodia.
We returned to town for lunch and to retrieve Ray Zepp's guidebook from my hotel room, in preparation for an afternoon of wat-watching. I'd visited quite a few of the capital's wats on previous trips, so this was an opportunity to see a few of the less popular ones. Our first port of call was Wat Srachak, a pagoda built in the early 1990s, with a series of statues outside and a set of elaborate and unusual wall paintings inside the vihara. Next were two temples close together, Wat Putgosachar and Wat Piphoat Rangsey, located near the Japanese Bridge. In the first, an elderly monk proudly showed us the pagoda's murals, still looking as fresh as the day they were painted, whilst Piphoat Rangsey is a temple dating from the 1870s and has a series of older and more recent paintings side by side. Heading out along the airport road, we turned right and crossed the main railway lines towards the far side of Boeung Kak lake. The area was pretty run-down, the road was extremely bumpy and the locals seemed a little surprised to see me when we arrived at the gates of the pagoda of Wat Neak Kawann. This temple stands very tall but a brief encounter with some belligerent teenagers sitting on the steps leading to the entrance and indulging in what has become an increasing problem amongst the city's youths of glue-sniffing, meant I only had time to quickly scan the series of wall paintings that are dedicated to the life of Buddha and to other legends and morality tales. As we exited the temple, a group of younger children restored my good humour and delighted in my gifts of balloons and other knick-knacks (above right). Choy, my motodub, was keen to show me the next temple on our itinerary, as it was his local wat and featured a fascinating collection of wall murals, both inside and outside the vihara, as well as a series of colourful statues. He called it Wat Twai Donkum but its also known as Wat Monkolwan. However, we didn't stay long and moved quickly on towards the Olympic Stadium area of the city.
Best known as the headquarters of Preah Maha Ghosananda and his Dhammayietra peace marches, Wat Sampeou Meas was padlocked shut and no-one could find the key, so we moved swiftly onto the other side of the Olympic market and the temple at Wat Preah Put. This has a newly-built vihara with brilliantly-coloured paintings inside but it was the school in the temple grounds that caught our attention. As we arrived, the children were at play and once they'd spotted me, I was literally mobbed and playfully forced into a game of football with the boys and skipping with the girls. At one stage, surrounded by dozens of cheering children, the noise was deafening and trying to take a few pictures was near impossible, but it was great fun (left). The school bell restored some order as the youngsters filed back into their classes and we took our leave, heading for the landmine and polio disabled workshops of Wat Than on Norodom Boulevard.
Wat Than is home to a successful vocational training program, assisted by the Catholic Maryknoll Mission, aimed at helping to reintegrate disabled Cambodians back into their society in a dignified way. I met Hay Kim Tha, the workshop and showroom co-ordinator, and he accompanied me around the separate silk weaving, tailoring, carpentry and computer workshops. Since the program began in 1991, the core skills that the students learn are supplemented by basic business skills, English language tuition and health education, whilst the furniture, clothing and handicrafts they produce are sold through the on-site showroom and other outlets, including Baray Tukvill in Siem Reap. Tha has also established export opportunities in a number of countries, usually through contact with visiting tourists impressed by the high standard of workmanship they've encountered and I recommend that any visitor to Phnom Penh takes time out to stop at Wat Than and support this very worthy cause.
As we approached late afternoon, Choy suggested a visit to a pagoda with a gigantic concrete Buddha under construction, a few kilometres over the Chbam Pao bridge and along the road leading to Vietnam. I'd stopped briefly at the temple - the name of which escapes me - back in March 1998 and was keen to see what progress had been made since. As it turned out, the Buddha was still obscured by scaffolding poles and the main vihara was shut but the children's library below was open and I introduced myself to a group in their late teens, who were idling away their time at an old, battered piano. As is the pattern of these encounters, I was asked all the usual questions, ie. name, age, job, marital status, family, length of stay, and so on before we played a game of barefoot shuttlecock inside the library. Then Chay, the quietest of the group, picked up his flute and played a lovely melodic tune that everyone responded to with raptuous applause. His beaming smile said it all. My new acquaintances then lined up for a group photograph (above left) and we said our goodbyes, sorry to leave such a friendly bunch of individuals. On our return to Phnom Penh, we stopped briefly at Chbam Pao market for a quick look around and to allow Choy to bargain hard for the cheapest possible share-taxi ride to his home village the following week. He intended to visit his parents for the first time since moving to the city over a year before. It was dark by the time we arrived back at the Walkabout Hotel (right) and I settled for an early night, after a bite to eat at the hotel's busy bar, with an early start scheduled for the following morning.
I could barely keep my eyes open after a restless night's sleep when Choy appeared, bright eyed and beaming, in the hotel lobby at 7am. A brief stop near the Central Market for petrol and to check the times of the Ho Wah Genting bus to Kompong Cham, and we were then on our way out of the city, through Takhmau for a return visit to Tonle Bati and Phnom Chisor. Noticeable as we passed through Takhmau were the long queues of men and women waiting outside the garment and cement factories, hoping to be selected for work that day. National Highway 2 was in fairly good condition and we made good time but it was Choy's first trip out of the city, and despite my assurances that I knew the way, he kept stopping to ask directions from farmers tending their cattle or catching fish and crabs in the small pools of water that lined the side of the road. We reached the Tonle Bati turn off, about 35 kilometres along Route 2, after just over an hour and turning into the well-kept park containing the two twelfth century Angkorean temples, paid the 'ticket of constribution for foreign guest', which had increased to $2. On my last visit, in March 1998, the entrance fee was just $1 and the site was still as neat and tidy as I remembered it and just as deserted, apart from a few children playing by the entrance to the main temple, Ta Prohm.
The path through the outer laterite wall to the main sanctuary of Ta Prohm was bordered by colourful plants and flowers and spoke volumes for a site lovingly maintained by elderly laymen and nuns. Decoratively carved lintels were placed on the ground at intervals around the whole complex while the five chambers of the central temple had statuary and lingas inside, with apsaras, unique lintels, frontons and other carvings on the outside walls. I enquired about the damaged statue of Preah Norey that I'd seen on my previous visit and one of the widows offering incense sticks in front of a large Buddha statue explained, via Choy, that the carving had been seconded by the National Museum in the capital for restoration work to be carried out. The smaller ancient temple of Yeay Peau, 150 metres north of Ta Prohm and nestled adjacent to Wat Tonle Bati, was our next stop. Treading carefully through the building work in the grounds of the pagoda, there were a couple of lintels still in place on Yeay Peau but the modern temple next door had more to offer with its colourful wall murals, gaudy statues and a trio of high-spirited children. We finished off our stop with a quick tour of the lakeside beachfront, which housed an increased number of picnic shelters and brightly-coloured umbrellas.
Another twenty kilometres along Route 2 lay the prominent hill of Phnom Chisor and its Angkorean temple. Choy was keen to see it for the first time - I'd previously visited in March 1998 - and he was a little confused when I tapped him on the shoulder and told him to pull over into the grounds of Prasat Neang Khmau, a few kilometres short of our destination. An open-sided prayer hall was packed with worshippers and monks, with the head monk chanting repetitively into a microphone that drowned out my explanation that next to the nearby modern wat were two crumbling tenth century brick towers. Inside the left-hand tower, nuns were praying to the spirit of the 'Black Lady' (Neang Khmau) and children crowded the entrance to both towers and the adjacent pagoda as word of the foreigner's arrival spread. We were soon on our way along the dusty four kilometre track that ended at the foot of the 348 steps leading to the top of Phnom Chisor. Accompanied by Noy, a young girl from the family stall next to the nearby school, as we climbed the steep staircase she gave us a running commentary, which included "same same Angkor Wat", a comment often used by locals to indicate the approximate age of ancient temples throughout the country.
At the summit, I met the smiling but toothless temple caretaker, who shook my hand with gusto as we soaked up the gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside, where Phnom Da and Angkor Borei appeared as a small outcrop amidst a sea of water in the far distance. Resuming her role as our unofficial guide, Noy pointed out the ruined 11th century temples' best features as the sun reached its highest point and I searched for the shadier areas as we wound our way slowly through the hill-top compound. I gave Noy a few gifts as a thank you for her efforts as we sat under the shade of her stall at the foot of the stairway and gulped down some refreshing coconut milk. Soon we were on the road again and by early afternoon, I was back in Phnom Penh and sat in the Foreign Correspondents Club tucking into my lunch, thankful for the comfortable seat after more than six hours and 100 kilometres on the back of Choy's moto. An hour later, I walked around the corner and into the National Museum to view the exhibits that had been missing on my previous visit. They were all back in their positions of prominence within the museum, including the reclining bronze Vishnu from the West Mebon, the Shiva & Uma couplet from Banteay Srei and the exquisite Jayavarman VII head from Preah Khan, amongst many others. On the spot restoration work was being carried out by Khmer and French restorers, while some of the more fragile items had been encased in glass. I rounded off the day with a delicious evening meal at the Special Rice Crust restaurant a little way out of the centre of town with some friends and retired to bed early to catch up on my sleep ready for my trip to Kompong Cham the next day.
Cambodia Tales : Messageboard : Next : E-mail
The contents of this website cannot be reproduced or copied without permission of the site author. © Andy Brouwer 2005