While in Phnom Penh why not visit Cambodia’s former capital of Oudong. This ancient site is within striking distance of Phnom Penh being only 40 kilometres northwest of the capital and close to the western bank of the Tonle Sap River. It is also straightforward to get to and easy to find as the mountain, topped with stupas, juts out from the surrounding plain like a fairy-tale castle.
Oudong |Cambodia’s Former Capital
Oudong used to be the royal capital from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The meaning of Oudong is “victorious”; however, during its time as Cambodia’s capital under several rulers “victorious” was a euphemism, as Cambodia was in perilous decline.
The main attractions today are the twin mountains of Phnom Oudong, which are connected by a ridge and dotted with stupas and shrines dedicated to former kings. One temple, Chedi Mouk Pruhm, is the burial site of King Monivong. One of the ruins, Arthross Temple, houses a large golden Buddha. Several kings, including King Norodom Sihanouk, were crowned here. Phnom Oudong is also a tranquil place of worship for Cambodians.
How to get to Oudong
To get to Oudong is a straightforward trek along National Highway 5. One way to get there is by Tuk Tuk. Depending on the season it can be a dusty ride or a wet one and can take up to two hours, which is a long time considering the short distance. But, for $15 to $20 round trip it’s a good deal. Or, you could hire a car and driver for $40 to $45 return. An interesting way to get there is by shared taxi from Sorya Bus terminal. These taxis only leave when full, and full means cramming 12 people into a four-door Toyota. Then there is the northbound bus. You’ll get dropped off at Oudong town, which is still some distance from Phnom Oudong and requires another motorcycle or Tuk Tuk ride, and once there you will have to find a way back.
Also, along route 5 there are silversmithing villages; relics from the days when kings and nobility used to come to the Tonle Sap river to bathe and subjects would offer them gifts fashioned from the precious metal.
Admission to the mountain is free and is best visited during the week as Phnom Oudong gets crowded with locals at weekends, who descend on the mountain to eat roast chicken, fish and palm fruit in the cool of the surrounding forest. However, you’ll find that foreign tourists are few and far between at any time.
You’ll be dropped off at a stairway at the base of the hill, where there is a memorial to local victims of the Khmer Rouge. It contains bones from almost a hundred mass graves in the Oudong area. A neighbouring pavilion has murals painted on the walls depicting Khmer Rouge atrocities.
From here, there is a climb up 500 steps. Watch out for kids who pester visitors to hire them as tour guides.
The mountain itself runs from southeast to northeast with a low dip in the middle. Khmers believe it has the shape of a Naga. Both ends of the ridge have stunning vistas of the Cambodian countryside, which is dotted with lots of sugar-palm trees, rice paddies and the odd temple. To the west of the hill, there is the huge modern Kandal pagoda. The interior of which is a good example of a present-day Cambodian Theravada Buddhist prayer hall.
The stupas and shrines dotting the ridge are dedicated to former kings, so the former capital is a kind of necropolis. One shrine, Chedi Mouk Pruhm, is the burial site of King Monivong. One of the ruins, Arthross Temple, houses a large golden Buddha. The pagodas are quite stunning with intricate carvings displaying a cross-section of Buddhist and Hindu motifs.
The larger main ridge is known as Phnom Preah Reach Throap, or Hill of the Royal Fortune. The name comes from the belief that a 16th-century Khmer king hid the national treasury here during a war with the Thais.
The city was established in 1601 by King Srei Soryopor, who is also known as Barom Reachea IV, after Thais had attacked the former capital Lovek. In 1618, the city formally became the capital, and it was officially called Oudong Meanchey. Many Cambodian kings during the next two-and-a-half centuries were crowned in Oudong; the last one was King Norodom.
18th Century Oudong
In the eighteenth century, locals say a Chinese king sent his people across Asia to identify potential threats. When they came to Oudong, they discovered a Naga-shaped mountain, a cavern on top of the Arthross end, and observed the wealth and power of Khmers. Upon their return, they told their king that the Khmers were a powerful race, and should a Naga appear through the cavern of Arthross, they would be strong enough to rule the world.
Oudong’s 18 corners
The Chinese king was alarmed at this revelation but didn’t want a war. Instead, he asked the Khmer king if he could build a temple above the cavern with the Buddha facing towards China to protect the kingdom. It was named Arthaross temple, or 18 corners as there are 18 points, or corners, built into the structure. This temple also stood 18 hats high, a Khmer measurement for the length of an arm from elbow to fingertips. One hat is about half a meter.
Arthross temple contains the remnants of a large Buddha statue that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and is now a few hats less. The statue is unique because the Buddha faces north instead of the traditional east and is said to depict the power of the Khmer Empire at the time.
Behind Arthross is Chker Amao stupa. Chker Amao was the dog of the head monk of Preah Sokhun Mean Bon. He was apparently so clever that the monk could send him shopping with a list tied to his collar and the 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.
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, once housed in the vihara outside Phnom Penh train station, will be placed.
Across on the smaller ridge is Ta Sann Mosque.
What to do after Oudong
After visiting the Phnom Oudong, you will be hungry, especially after the climb up and down the stairs. Go to one of the local restaurants at the bottom of the hill. There you will find local eateries with lots of traditional Cambodian food at local prices.
Ash of the Buddha
Oudong remains a sacred place for Cambodians, where a huge stupa has recently been built to store and conserve the relic of Preah Serei Roek Theat, the Ash of the Buddha.