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, thirty seven kilometers to the west of the city, to the well regarded temple complex of Oudong. I woke early and by nine am I was getting an up close look at the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh from the tuk-tuk 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 tuk-tuk may not have been the best option health wise. At times the exhaust fumes, and dust, was choking. The number of new SUV’s 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 “peoples” 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.
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 sites 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 wrong doing. 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 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 twenty eight 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 thirty seven kilometers to the west of Phnom Penh. The hotel organized an SUV, and driver, for me and at bang on three 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.”
Oudong is not, strictly speaking, really off the beaten track. It is, however, a site which seems to be rarely visited by foreign sightseers; case in point being that I was the only “Barang” to be seen about during my two and a half hours there.
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, organized for a tour of the complex. It was just after four 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 – twenty meter – 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.
At a couple of minutes past five 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. I was breathing hard by the time I arrived at the top of the long flight of stairs and stepped onto the wide tiled surface of the lower level. In respect of the local cultural nuances, I removed my shoes before making my way across the clean tiled floor. The stupa sat on the level above and as I work my way up the next flight of stairs towards it, I could see 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 five 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.
Staging/starting point: Phnom Phen, Cambodia
Distance from Phnom Phen to Oudong Temple: Approximately 37 kilometers
Time to complete the outing: 4 – 5 hours comfortably
Transportation: A private taxi or arranged tour. A motor bike is also a good option as the road is sealed, and in good condition all the way to Oudong Temple
Approximate cost for private taxi: USD 40 – 50 per day
Entrance fee for Oudong Temple: Nil