07/02/17 – Oudong Hill and an Absence of Luggage, Part 2

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The Oudong Memorial Stupa on Oudong Hill – on the site of an older one destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Days 1 and 2 of not having my check-in bag in Cambodia were an optimistic “hey, okay, this is fine – maybe it’ll come tonight and maybe I’ll get everything before Siem Reap. If not, they said they’d transfer it and I’ll buy some temp clothes – they’re cheap here! Yay!”

Well, it’s now Day 5 and Korean Air got an angry earful from someone who’s had to spend upwards of $100 USD ($131 Canadian…and dropping apparently? Thanks Donald!) to replace clothes and toiletries thus far, and has no idea where the hell the years of clothes he’s accumulated are waiting.

And then I found out something really fun this morning – my luggage never even made the transfer! Either the agents at Beijing Airport are finding my situation totally mafan (can’t be asked/annoying) because a lot of their workers are still off for Chinese New Year, or it was never transferred and it’s sitting in a China Southern Airlines baggage warehouse outside of Inchon.

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Which, based on how little of South Korea I saw that day, I’m assuming looks something like this.

I want to give a heartfelt shout-out to the Phnom Penh Airport Lost and Found staff, though. I’ve been something of an impromptu tourguide going round the temples at Angkor for the past two days with my friend Erin and a Romanian couple she met in Hanoi, and while the Romanians can’t say enough how much they distrust the Cambodians they’ve met thus far (mainly due to the Angkor ticket price hike), you see so much kindness when you give their language and culture a solid try. I’ve been on the line with Lost and Found almost every day and they’ve now contacted Beijing and Seoul three times each (twice by phone and once by email). They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, except when they spelled my name wrong on my passport, and the director of Baggage Services gave me his personal cellphone number to check in every day.

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He said call whenever, day or night, rain or shine, excavating an ancient floor or not excavating an ancient floor (photo from Preah Khan of Kompong Svay excavation, January 2016)

If anyone reading this from China wants to kick some ass by my side, their number is +86-4008695539, and press “9” for complaints.

Anyway, enough whining (I’ve been hooked to Worldtracer like it’s an intravenous drug for the past four days) – Cambodia is incredibly sunny and the weather is actually really nice, and with the exception of today where I’m stuck inside angrily shouting at East Asians over the phone the last four days in Cambodia have actually been really nice.

I went with Erin around the normal spots in Phnom Penh after I bought myself a few clothes and some toiletries, during which time she visited the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

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It’s not one of those places you go twice unless you have specific family members to honor (photo from May 2015).

The Royal Palace, Cambodia’s 19th century “well, Bangkok has one” palatial construction, was closed because of a royal military ceremony, but we were greeted with a pair of High School marching bands playing some really odd instruments:

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Closed today for pomp and circumstance.
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A dollar to the person who can name me that instrument…and you could probably lie because I have no idea.

The National Museum, though, was open, and while you can’t take photos of the exhibits, the courtyard of this small museum is really beautiful.

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A more modern and diverse museum of Angkorian art and archaeology can be found in Siem Reap at the Angkor National Museum, 8km directly south of Angkor Wat, but the National Museum is the OG of Southeast Asian galleries and deserves a look.

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It was originally constructed by B.P. Groselier, one of the first Directors of the EFEO, and was meant to compliment the Royal Palace in terms of both shape and quality.

We also had dinner with a member of my SEASSI Khmer class, Angela Cheng, and her husband a few of their mutual friends as well, which was such a nice way to end a really stressful first day in Cambodia – thank you for that :). I’m sorry I don’t have any photos of that, but the conversation and food were too good that I didn’t pull out my cellphone once.

The next day we took a 4×4 out to Oudong Hill, the site of Cambodia’s 17th-19th century capital. It’s approximately 40km outside of Phnom Penh, and while this would usually take a bit less than half an hour, the road was under construction. Anyone who’s ever been/lived/was born in Cambodia knows that when the government decides to pave the road, they pave all of it. At the same time. For stretches of 5-10km. So 40km out of the city took 1 1/2 hours, while into the city again that afternoon took 2 1/2 hours. Total gridlock. Incompetent traffic cops. Gas trucks trying to cut off lumber trucks as four lanes became a one-lane bottleneck, with motorcycles swerving in between. But somehow no one hit anyone and the only issues were when trucks couldn’t move over the drops in the road at such slow momentum. It was just two hours, after having viciously gulped down a can of Coke at the bottom of the steps of Oudong, and that’s not fun.

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Oudong Hill from the gas station 30 minutes away. You don’t get much of an idea of anything more than that because there is a giant fence in front of the vantage point at the gas station. So I probably shouldn’t have relied on a gas station to provide a good view…or a clean bathroom…or something not totally overpriced…yeah, I’m out.
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I’ve now been to two Cambodian hill-monasteries: Phnom Kulen and Oudong. This one I prefer much more despite having a way steeper staircase and more monkeys.

Oudong, meanwhile, was absolutely gorgeous. There’s not much left of the old Khmer capital besides for a stone-built necropolis on top of a hill full of stupas to ancient kings, because like at Angkor Thom only the substructures of post-13th century buildings were constructed in non-perishable materials. The physical area of Oudong, the capital of the period known as the Dark Age of Cambodia, is therefore no longer identifiable without LiDar (and I think the Greater Angkor Project just finished a LiDar flyover of Oudong last year but don’t quote me on that). To get to the stupas is a tough climb up a steep flight of steps, and because it’s a modern monastery as well as an ancient one you get your fair share of both street children, beggars, the physically and mentally disabled, and monkeys begging for food.

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It’s sad to say, but I’ve been acclimatized to children trying to sell me things. What’s worse is when tourists come and happily buy what they’re selling. The best thing you can do is say no.
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Same thing with the monkeys…no bananas, no monkeys.

The Dark Age of Cambodia marks the period between 1594-1863 CE when the Kingdom of Cambodia, the successor kingdom of the Khmer Empire but regretfully living in the shadow of its former glory, was dominated by other regional powers – Laos, Vietnam, and Siam (Thailand) – to the point where it was a kingdom with no geopolitical influence whatsoever. Cambodian kings ruled gently from Oudong during this time period, and abandoned the capital following the establishment of Phnom Penh in 1866 – the French Protectorate was arguably the reason Cambodia wasn’t divided up by its neighbours for good during the 1860s. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of the stupas on Oudong, meanwhile, during their rule, but some have survived and have been either replaced or repainted with white plaster.

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Oudong doesn’t get many tourists, although cyclists frequent it because you get to ride along really nice dirt roads out of Phnom Penh. We didn’t see another foreigner up here for an hour, though – most of them stopped to see the white pagoda and moved on.
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One of the survivors of Pol Pot’s regime, still with some of the original raised decoration.
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The head-on-stupa tradition is probably one that originates at Angkor with Jayavarman VII
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A wild Erin appears!
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17th century skyscrapers.

I also found what might’ve been an old post-Angkorian Buddhist Terrace/ordination hall on top of the hill based on the placement of the sima stones, so as Erin will attest I got super excited about that.

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This I’ve never seen: sima stones, but they have stones with slots to place them in! At Angkor they’re all falling willy-nilly all over the place. But they do have rectangular bits that would slot into something like this.
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It’s not much but there’s two tiers of stones here. It was enough to get a little happy about.

But then I found this further down:

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Either the stupa was built on the site of an older ordination hall or the modern monastic community found the sima stones in the woods somewhere and decided that this specific stupa was holier than the others. But it really threw me off – THERE’S NO CONTINUITY ANYWHEEEERE!!!!!!!

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And then you come across this in the woods up the dark staircase that got you here: Evil Dead meets Sakyamuni

Oudong is a great half-day trip from Phnom Penh…when the traffic isn’t miles long…and was the highlight of a few not-so-easy days, with amazing views and colourful scenery. I’ve also been fighting off a respiratory infection I think I picked up when I had hypothermia and I’m currently on Day 2/5 of a dose of antibiotics. So, yeah, umm…Asia, cut me some slack here!

On the plus side I took my GPS out for a spin in the woods at Angkor Thom yesterday, and I’ve only got a 3 meter error under jungle cover! WOOOOOO! But more about traveling in Angkor in the next entry – I’ll leave some pictures of some epic views off the top of Oudong Hill to close off.

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Andrew Harris

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