Oudong - City of Past King
By: Staff Writer. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter. ( April, 2002 Volume 2 No.4 )

About 40 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh along National Route 5, a mountain topped with the spires of stupas rears from the plain like a fairytale castle. This is Phnom Oudong, at one time an ancient capital, bombed and desecrated by the Americans and then the Khmer Rouge, but still possessing an eerie beauty that no war has been able to steal from it. As the capital, it was called Oudong Meanchey Oudong means noble or excellent, and Meanchey means victory. From 1618 until 1866 it was home to a succession of kings, deposed from the former capital of Longvek by the invading Thais. The mountain itself runs from southeast to northeast, with a low saddle in the middle. Khmers say it has the shape of a Naga the magical multi-headed serpents that guard the Buddha. Along Route 5, signs point the way to silversmithing villages, a legacy of the past when kings and nobility used to come to the Tonle Sap to bathe and the people would offer them delicate gifts fashioned from the precious metal. Turn left at the large billboard, and at the very base of the mountain is a flurry of picnic huts. On weekends, hoards of people descend on the area from Phnom Penh to eat roast chicken, fish and palm fruit in the cool of the thick forest. At the base of the mountain near the path, a memorial containing bones of some of the hundreds of bodies exhumed from a large Khmer Rouge killing field here has been built testament to the area's bloody past. Stairs to the left lead to a huge, shattered statue of Buddha, the feet almost the only part still intact. On the path up the mountain to the right, the stairs climb steeply and a large structure rises on the left. Inside, huge pillars stand underneath sky, and in between their bullet-strafed skeletons, a statue of Buddha sits, only his right arm and shoulder still intact from the ravages of aerial bombings and shelling that shook Oudong from 1970 onwards. The Khmer Rouge finished the job in 1977, setting explosives inside the temple. This is Arthross Temple (Temple of Eight Points), and legend has it that the Buddha here, facing north instead of the traditional direction of east, is a testimony to the strength and power of the ancient Cambodian kingdom.

In the 18th century, locals say, a Chinese king sent his people out across Asia to identify potential threats. When they came to Oudong, they saw the mountain shaped like a naga, a cavern on top of the Arthross end, and observed the wealth and power of Khmer society. They went home and told their king that the Khmers were already a powerful race, and should a naga appear through the cavern of Arthross, they would be strong enough to rule the world. The Chinese king did not want this, nor did he want a war. Instead, he asked the Khmer king if he could build a temple above the cavern, with Buddha's face towards China in order to protect his kingdom. This was named Arthaross temple (Arthaross means 18 corners) because there are 18 points, or corners, built into the structure of the temple. This temple also once stood 18 hats high a Khmer measurement the length of an arm from elbow to fingertips. One hat is about half a meter. Behind Arthross is Chker Amao stupa. Chker Amao was the dog of the head monk of Preah Sokhun Mean Bon. He was reportedly so remarkably clever that the monk could send him shopping with a list tied to his collar and the faithful dog would walk from market stall to market stall, collect the shopping, then bring it home. When he died he was reincarnated as the son of a Chinese king. The young prince began to get terrible headaches, and the court astrologer diagnosed the problem as the roots of the bamboo growing across the dog Amao's head in his Oudong grave.The king sent his people to Cambodia to cut the roots of the bamboo and build the temple that became Chkeri Amao Temple to consecrate the spot.As the ridge meanders northeast, three small viharas Vihear Preah Ko (Sacred Cow), Vihear Preah Keo (Sacred Precious Stone) and Vihear Prak Neak (The Buddha Protected by a Naga) have been restored and feature a statue of the sacred cow, glittering golden Buddhas and vibrant murals. The invading Thais took the original Preah Ko and Preah Keo when Longvek fell in 1594.These statues were said to have held golden books full of all the knowledge in the world in their bellies, and legend says that when they were lost to the Khmers marks when the Kingdom of Cambodia fell behind her neighbors. As the head of the naga comes into sight, three large stupas mark the resting place of kings.The first stupa, Chetdei Mouk Pruhm, is where the remains of King Monivong lie. He died in 1941. The middle stupa, with its four bayon faces looking out over Kandal in all directions, is Trai Traing, built by King Norodom for his father, King Ang Duong, in 1891.The last is called Damrei Sam Poan and was built in the 17th century for King Soriyopor. At the very point of the mountain, a huge stupa is just in the final stages of construction. This is probably where the Buddha relics that were once housed in the vihara outside the train station in Phnom Penh will be placed.
Across on the smaller ridge, Ta Sann Mosque is a testament to King Ang Duong's broadminded intellectualism. Grandfather Sann was born in Champa, the former Islamic empire that once shared Indochina with the Khmers, and was an Iman at Phnom Chumreay. He and the king became firm friends during long discussions about the dharma of both religions, and the king offered him a 50 square meter area on any mountain he chose to build a mosque, which he snappily accepted. But Oudong has not always witnessed such magnanimous tolerance. The alternative stairway that tumbles down the mountainside near the stupas of past kings passes murals depicting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. No one here has forgotten that past, and the bullet-riddled temples are an everyday testament to what this fairytale city of the dead has suffered in the recent past.