The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest, War, Famine, and Death - have ridden roughshod over Cambodia.
During the 1970s this country used to sufferred from the twin horrors of war and famine – which made the Vietnamese neighbour call it “ a land of blood and tears, hell on earth”.
So it’s really a wonder meeting with the friendliest people of Indochina who have the widest smiles here nowadays. Their willingness to start anew speaks volumes for the resilience of the human spirit. Here’s a country starting from scratch, rebuilding its traditions, culture, laws, government and economy. The gruesome past is still around – after Khmer Rouge time, thousands people have still been maimed by landmines. As a symbol of reconstruction, the country flies the world’s only flag with a building on it – the triple towers visible from the causeway at Angkor Wat. All political factions, including the Khmer Rouge, have depicted Angkor Wat on their Cambodia flag. The Cambodian government officially claim all the foreigners’ use of “Angkor” as their product brandnames as an “illegal and unfriendly act”. The Foreign Affairs ministry argued that Angkor Wat is the symbol of Khmer national identity. And so it is : Angkor is the cornerstone or Khmer culture, symbol of national pride and past greatness, and inspiration for painting, sculpture, and woodcarving.
Angkor is also a symbol for hope, because it is Angkor that draws tourists, and foreign exchange generated from tourism can help rebuild the economy. Angkor casts its spell over all who visit. Despite the risks of travel - or perhaps because of them, Cambodia is an extraordinary adventure.
A SHORT PROFILE
Country: Nearly untouched by tourists, except for Angkor
Cities: Phnompenh, the capital city, and Siem Reap, 7km from the wonder of Angkor, are the two largest political, cultural and economic centres.
Population: Population : Estimated at 12 million. The Khmer constitute 90% of the population. The remainder is composed of hill tribe groups, Cham, Vietnamese (1%), Chinese (4%), and Thais. The biggest population concentrates in Phnom Penh, with more than one million people.
Area: 181,035 square km, roughly a half of Italy or Vietnam.
Land Borders: North borders Laos, all the East to Vietnam, and shares a long part of North and Northwest borders with the land of Thailand. .
Sea Borders: Southwest, to the Gulf of Thailand.
Climate: The average precipitation is highest in southern Laos, where the Annamite mountains receive over 3000 mm annually. In Vientiane rainfall is about 1500-2000 mm, and in the northern provinces only 1000-1500 mm.
Generally, tourists are recommended to visit Laos during the months of November to March because these are cool months and rainfall is lower than other periods.
Climate: tropical monsoon, with two periods of rainfall. The sequence of the seasons is hot, very hot, light rain, and heavy rain. High humidity is throughout and sometime up to 90%. April, then March and May are the hottest months. Early June to early October have heavy rains and himidity due to the southwest monsoon arises over the Indian Ocean. The wettest months are August and September. November to March is cool and dry, the best time for your visits.
Language: Khmer, the official language, is a non-tonal language of the Mon – Khmer family, enriched by Pali and Sanskrit. English is the second major language, closely followed by French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, are also spoken in Cambodia. Literacy rate is 60%, a legacy of the Pol Pot years.
Religion: Religious people accounts for 95% of the population. Theravada Buddhism was almost annihilated under the 1975 – 1979 reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, but it has since been reinstated as the national religion of Cambodia. Minority groups adhere to other religion such as Catholicism (mainly Vietnamese) and Sunni Muslim (Cham).
Government: Government: Constitutional Monarchy. UN-supervised elections in 1993 resulted in a coalition government composed of FUNCINPEC (United Front of an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) and CPP (Cambodian People Party). The Prime Minister is Hun Sen. King Norodom Sihanouk is the Head of the State.
National flag: White triple towers of Angkor set on a red background, edged with blue trim, the symbol of the Khmer culture.
Economy: Economy: Agriculture employs about 75% of the workforce. Top exports are timber, rubber, cane furniture and garments.
Festival and official Holidays: The biggest festival is Cambodian New Year in mid-April, similar to Laos and Thai celebrations. In November there are boat races to celebrate the reversing current of the Tonle Sap River.
Bun Pha Vet It is a temple-centre festival in which the jataka or birth-tale of Prince Vestsantara, the Buddha’s penultimate life, is recited. in temples throughout the country and this is considered a particularly auspicious time for ordination as a monk. Falling on different dates throughout the month - so that people can exchange invitations with friends and families in different villages to join in their celebrations. This is also a favoured time (second to Khao Phansaa) for Lao males to be ordained into the monkhood
Marha Puha (or Makka Bu-sao) Held on the night of the full moon, this festival commemorates a speech given by the buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear him without prior summons. In the talk, the Buddha laid down the first monastic regulations and predicted his own death. Chanting and offerings mark the festival, culminating in the candlelit circumambulation of wats (temples) throughout the country (celebrated most fervently in Vientiane and at the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, near Champasak). The festival is marked by grand parades of candle-bearing worshippers circling their local temples, merit-making, and much religious music and chanting.
Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year Celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet with parties, and hundreds of strings of non-stop firecrackers, merit making with noisy parties and visits to Vietnamese and Chinese temples by the larger Vietnamese and Chinese communities, who close their businesses for several days during this period.
Sikhotabong Festival organized in Khammouan from Feb 5 to Feb 8 this religious festival is held at Sikhottabong stupa, located about 6 km south of Thakhek. Historically, it was built in the 8th and 10th centuries by King Nanthasene. Then the stupa was restored as its original design in the 1950's.
Wat Phu festival organized annually in Champasak from Feb 5 to Feb 8, in the full moon of the 3rd month of lunar calendar,on the grounds of the enchanting pre-Angkorian.Wat Phu remains in Champasak. Festivities are elephants racing, buffaloes fighting,cocks fighting and performances of Lao traditional music and dance.The trade fair showcasing the products from the southern province of Laos,Thailand,Cambodia and Vietnam is also held.
Boun Khoun Khao - A harvest festival celebrated at local temples and wats
Boun Pimai (or Pimai Lao) one of the most important annual festivals, particularly in (Luang Prabang). is to celebrate Lao New Year in the lasting several days in mid-April (13-15), The first month of the Lao New Year is actually December but festivities are delayed until April when days are longer than nights. By April it’s also hotting up, so having hoses leveled at you and buckets of water dumped on you is more pleasurable. Ii is a combination of merriment and meditation. Similar to festivals at this time of year in other Southeast Asian countries - particularly Thailand - Boun Pimai is celebrated with parades, circle dance (ramwong), traditional Lao folk singing (mor lam) and enthusiastic water-throwing. The religious aspects of the festival are most apparent in Luang Prabang, where water pouring ceremonies are used to Buddha statues are worshiped with water pouring ceremonies. Temple compounds are further decorated with small sand Stupas, offered as merit towards good fortune and health.
Pi Mai The lunar new year begins in mid-April and practically the entire country comes to a halt and celebrates. Houses are cleaned, people put on new clothes and Buddha images are washed with lustral water. In the wats, offerings of fruit and flowers are made at various altars and votive mounds of sand or stone are fashioned in the courtyards. Later the citizens take to the streets and douse one another with water, which is an appropriate activity as April is usually the hottest month of the year. This festival is particularly picturesque in Luang Prabang, where it includes elephant processions.
Labour Day 1st May - public holiday
Visakha Puja chanting, religious instruction, and candlelit processions highlight this temple festival in celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival) with its origins in pre-Buddhist rain-invoking ceremonies, this festival now coincides with the Lao Visakha Puja celebrations. Large bamboo rockets are built and decorated by monks and carried in procession before being blasted skywards to invite the rains. The higher a rocket goes, the bigger its builder’s ego gets. Designers of failed rockets are thrown in the mud. Parades, songs, dances and partying everywherel. This dramatic festival lasts 2 days and also celebrated in north east Thailand
Children's Day (1st June - public holiday)
Khao Phansao (also Khao Watsa, full moon) - Marking the beginning of the traditional three month "rains retreat" during which Buddhist monks are expected to station themselves in a single monastery. At other times of year they are allowed to travel from wat to wat or simply to wander in the countryside, but during the rainy season they forego the wandering so as not to damage fields of rice or other crops. It commences at the full moon in July and continues until the full moon in October and all ends with the Kathin ceremony in October when monks receive gifts.. These are the most usual months for ordination and for men to enter the monkhood for short periods before they marry and is marked by numerous ordination ceremonies
Haw Khao Padap Din devoted to remembering and paying respect to the dead, it is marked by the macabre ceremony of exhuming previously buried bodies, cleaning the remains, and then cremating them on the night of the full moon. Relatives then present gifts to the monks who have chanted on behalf of those who have passed away.
Boat Racing festival organized in Luang Prabang from Aug 17 to Aug 18 This festival includes boat racing on the NamKhane River and a trade fair in Luangprabang city. At the Khao Salak ceremony day, people visit local temples to make offering to the dead as well to share merits making.
Boun Ok Phansa This is the end of Buddhist Lent and the faithful take offerings to the temple. It is month number 9 in Luang Prabang and month number 11 in Vientiane, and marks the end of the rainy season. Boat races take place on the Mekong River with crews of 50 or more men and women. On the night before the race small decorated rafts are set afloat on the river. (FP)
Boat Racing festival organized in Sept 2 in Khammouan Boat Racing is held in Sebangfai river. At the same occasion a trade fair of agricultural products, local handicrafts, traditional Lao music and dance performance; at the same time, citizens donate the offering to the dead in to share merits.
Awk Phansao (Awk Watsa) This celebrates the end of the three-month rains retreat on the day of the full moon. Monks are at last permitted to leave the temple and are presented with robes, alms bowls and other requisites of the renunciative life. One particularly beautiful aspect is Lai Hua Fai. On the eve of Awk Phansaa people gather at the nearest body of water to release dozens of small banana-leaf boats decorated with candles, incense and small flowers, in a celebration similar to the Thai Loy Krathong.
Bun Nam (water festival) A second festival held in association with Awk Phansaa is Bun Nam (water festival) in riverside towns such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet, the highly competitive Bun Nam boat races (suang heua) are held during the same time as Awk Phansaa. Smaller communities sometimes hold these races on National Day on 2nd December so that residents aren’t saddled with two costly festivals in two months.
Boat Racing festival organized in Oct 2 to Oct 3 in Vientiane. The water festival held during k Pansa is spectacular; on the first day at dawn, donations and offerings are made at temples around the city; in the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples and hundred of colorful flosta decoated with flower; incense and candle are set adrift down the Mekong river in thanksgiving to the river spirit; the next day, a popular and exciting boat racing competition is held on the Mekong.
Boun That Luang - Though celebrated at many temples and stupas ( thats in laos ) around the country, this festival is traditionally centred and most enthusiastically and colourfully at That Luang in Vientiane. Fairs, beauty contests, music and fireworks take place throughout the week of the full moon, and end with a candlelight procession (wien thien) around the temple of That Luang.
That Luang Festival ( full moon) This takes place at That Luang in Vientiane. Hundreds of monks assemble to receive alms and floral votives early in the morning on the first day of the festival. There is a colourful procession between Wat Si Muang and Pha That Luang. The celebration lasts a week and includes fireworks and music, culminating in a candlelit curcumabulation (wien thien) of That Luang. (LP).
Lao Naitional Day This celebrates the 1975 victory of the proletariat over the monarchy with parades, speeches, etc.Streets strewn with national flags and banners, processions, parades. Celebration is mandatory, hence poorer communities postpone some of the traditional Awk Phansaa activities–usually practised roughly a month earlier--until National Day, thus saving themselves considerable expense (much to the detraction of Awk Phansaa)
That Inhang Festival organized in Oct 2 to Oct 3 in Savannakhet. This festival will ce held on the grounds of the splendid That Inhang stupa, located just outside the city of Savannkakhet; an international trade fair will include exhibitions of tourism products from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and performance of traditional Lao, Thai and Vietnamese music and dance; the fair will also include a sports competition, complete with foorball, boxing and tennis matchs and local traditions like a drumming competition.
Siem reap is the small gateway town to ruins of Angkor, located 250 northwest of Phnom Penh and 15 km north of Tonle Sap. Running through the centre of town is the polluted Siem Reap river. Traces of French presence have survived in a small quarter of colonial buildings
to the southwest side the rest of Siem Reap was badly damaged by bombing and civil war. In the early 1979-0, during the Pol Pot era, people were fed to the crocodiles in Siem Reap. There is a “killing fields” memorial to victims of Khmer Rouge to the northwest of the town. In 1979the province was the scene of heavy fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army. Since 1990 the Khmer Rouge have staged sporadic attacks on the civilian population and Cambodian troops around Seam Reap. In 1993 they massacred Vietnamese fishing families at Lake Tonle Sap, precipitating an exodus of the Vietnamese to the Mekong Delta. To safeguard Angkor, the government has stationed troops, ringing the entire zone of ruins.
Peace has not been easy to come to Seam Reap, but there is normal life around Angkor: farmers transporting goods in oxcarts, village women clad in sarongs cycling to market, Buddhist monks in the flowing orange robe out morning strolls, kids lolling about on the backs of water buffalo in green fields. For tourists this is a chance to see rural life. For local, tourist itself, however small in scale, is seen as return to normalcy after years of savage war and upheaval. A number of new hotels, guesthouses and restaurants have appeared in Seam Reap in the 1990s, catering first to visiting UNTAC troops and later to the Angkor bound tourists who arrived in the wake.
Anything moveable at Angkor has disappeared. Even the heads of the larger stone statues have been hacked off by treasure hunters. To guard against art theft, virtually all smaller Angkor statuary, wood items, and artifacts have been removed to museums, particularly to the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Thousands of pieces rest at the Angkor Conservancy, located several km to the north of Seam Reap, and you will need special permission from the Ministry of Culture in Phnom Penh to visit. The Angkor Wat Conservancy was established by French in 1907 when Seam Reap province was restored to Cambodia by the Thais. From 1953 to 1970 the Angkor Conservancy was jointly operated by the French and Cambodian governments. With the exception of period during WW II, the French at Angkor worked steadily, at times directing more than a thousand employees. In 1972 the civil war forced the French to leave.
Angkor Conservancy is a warehouse for some 7,000 sculpture fragments and artifacts from the Angkor region. Fresh concrete heads are stocked here, destined to replace ones removed from the Angkor area by bandits or Khmer Rouge. Museum staffs also removed heads before bandits can get to them. There are two floors of statuary at Angkor Conservancy. On the ground floor are the larger Buddhas, Vishnus, and lintels; the upper floor houses smaller Buddhas, hand fragments, stone animals and large wooden Buddhas. Unfortunately, the pieces are not safe even here the place has been broken into several times.
Angkor in detail
TIME OUT IN SIEM REAP
If you spend a week or so in Angkor, it’s best to pace yourself: one day at the ruins, one day off. Otherwise you’ll suffer from cultural overload and become “temple out”. Seam Reap presents a great opportunity to get out into the Cambodian countryside. You can witness facets of rural life unchanged from those depicted on the temple walls at the Angkor Wat 800 years ago. Roads are rough in these area, some time just dirt tracks. Taking a tourguide along is highly recommended, he can show you around the villages and show you how palm sugar and palm wine are brewed.
THE WEST BARAY
To reach the West Baray, head northwest from Siem Reap along Route 6. Pass the airport road and take the next turnoff to the right; this leads to a parking area at a dam at the south side of the West Barray. The West Barray reservoir was part of the elaborate Angkorian irrigation system, although researchers are not sure of its exact function. Originally, the West Barray and East Barray were two gargantuan artificial lakes. The West Barray is a two by eight km rectangle enclosed by an earth dike. Though it may have been used for irrigation, recent evidence indicates it was more likely a mooring place for royal barges, a fish-breeding site, or simply a place for bathing.
The East Barray is now dry. The West Barray, first constructed in the 11th century, was partially restored in the 1950s with foreign-aid funds. Today is about two-thirds full. The West Barray is fed by the Tonle Sap River; a small dam has enlarge the rice-growing potential of the area with water carried through a network of irrigation canal. The West Barray is also used for fish breeding. You can go for a swim along southern section. Situated in the West Barray is a small island you can hire a boat and row out to a sanctuary called the West Mebon. Much of the stonework has collapsed, though several towers on the east entrance to the temple have survived. It was here that a large bronze statue of Vishnu was discovered in 1936. It now sits in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
The ruins of Rolous are 13 km east of Siem Reap along Route 6. The ruins are of mild interest compared with the splendors of central Angkor, but the trip to Rolous gives you a chance to experience village life. Stop at the central market, a short distance east of Siem Reap, on the way out or back. The market is always engrossing, a great place for watching people. Cambodian women are partial to sarongs with blinding colors and patterns, which makes the place quite right. This is the most likely a reaction to the Pol Pot years, when everyone was forced to wear black. Upcountry a common form of transportation is the cycle-hauled wooden chariot. This workhorse can carry several passengers, a few hand of bananas, a score of chickens, or a mountain of vegetables-sometime all at once.
The Rolous ruins are among the oldest Khmer monuments in the Angkor area, dating to 9th century reign of Indravarman I. Two key temple sites remain, Bakong and Preah Ko. The latter consists of six bricks towers or prasats, arranged in two rows; the site is bounded by walls, with sandstone lintel decoration. Bakong is a five-step brick pyramid with a sandstone doorways. At the corners of the first three levels stand elephants hewn from single blocks of stone. Next to the ruin is an active Buddhist monastery. From here, you can continue south to the village of Rolous, which lent its name to the ruins.
Head south on Route 29, following the river by motor or rent bicycle. Just south of the town on the left is a crocodile farm. About 12km from Siem Reap is Phrom Krom, a hill with an 11th century temple. From the ruins are expensive views over Lake Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. A glance with the map will show how it came by this name - it’s an enormous fresh water sea.
Lake Tonle Sap fills with water during the monsoon season, but by February it shrinks to a fraction of its former size, becoming one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, yielding as much as 10 tons of fish per square km. The main fishing season is February to May. When the water recede, fish are preventing from escaping with nets and bamboo traps. Some are caught in the branches of trees, or in the mud, and simply picked up. Fishing families live in temporary huts that can be dismantled and moved forward as the water recedes. When the fishing season is over, fishing families return to their villages.
The flooding of the Tonle Sap covers the area with a rich mud ideal for growing rice. Farmers have developed unique deepwater rice strains the grow with the rising lake to keep the grain above the water. Under Pol Pot, large part of the flooded forest around Tonle Sap were sacrificed to expand the area for rice fields. During the war much of the rice seed stock was lost, and deepwater rice cultivation declined.
Coming from Siem Reap you reach a boat deck on the shores of Lake Tonle Sap. It’s a scummy area, with boats loading and unloading goods, fish drying in the sun, and assorted video cafes. The lake itself is peaceful and uneventful, but hidden dramas abound, if you hire a boat for an hour, or row out yourself, you can reach a floating house suspended overhung bamboo-fishing holding pens. Families have fatten up the fish in the pens; some house are rigged with trapdoors that open so feed can be dropped. A fish pens may be three meters deep and hold thousands of fish. You don’t realise how many fish there are until feeding time when you see them thrashing around in the water. This kind of “fish farming” is also practiced in Vietnam’s Mekong delta.
Because the lake keeps shrinking and expanding, a species of fish has evolved here that can survive several hours out of water, flopping overland in search of deeper pools. This species , known as hock yue, or elephant fish, is considered a delicacy in Asia. Another highly prized delicacy is the sand goby, or soon hock, a greenish-gray trout-like specimen. One company ships the fish live to Phnom Penh, where they held in tanks. For transportation to restaurants in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the first are placed in tanks filled with ice and mild sedative. In a semi-inert state they’re air freighted in plastic bas pumped with oxygen. They must reach their destination within 16 hours. In Singapore restaurant, a single sand goby, cooked with ginger, chili, tomato, and mushrooms, is worth $40 - $60, depending on its size.
Phnom Penh does have an eccentric charm. Seen from the river, palm trees and the pagoda-like spires of Khmer royal buildings rise over French-era shophouses and villas. In the 1950s and 1960s this was one of the finest cities in Southeast Asia. The riverine city’s yellow-ocher buildings, squares and cafes, and frangipani-lined boulevards give it the atmosphere of a French provincial town. The city is located at what the French called Les Quatre Bras (the Four Arms), where two arms of the Mekong meet the Bassac and Tonle Sap tributaries. The city’s original name, Chaktomuk, means Four Rivers.
Phnom Penh has witnessed rapid and bizarre changes of fortune. After Angkor fell to the Siamese in the 15th century, Cambodian King Ponhea Yat founded a new capital at Chaktomuk. This city was soon abandoned as well, and from the mid –17th to mid-19th centuries the Cambodian capital to Phnom Penh in 1866. The city is largely a French colonial era, and Phnom Penh quickly became an important commercial centre. The city was and still is the only major port on the Mekong above the delta; it is navigable by ships of 7,000 tons. From Phnom Penh, smaller vessels can navigate upriver to Siem Reap or Kratie.
In the late 1960s prosperous Phnom Penh had a population of perhaps 600,000. Almost two-thirds of the population consisted of Vietnamese and Chinese merchants and workers. The Chinese, Vietnamese, and Khmer ethnic groups occupied their own distinct neighborhoods. Business and trade congregated in basket making or silver smithing. By 1975, swollen with refugees from civil war, the city had a population of over two million.
On the 17 April 1975, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, emptied out by the Khmer Rouge within 48 hours. During the 1975 –1979 reign of terror, the city’s inhabitants were mostly solders and prisoners. By 1978 there were only 15,000 – 30.000 people in the city. The Khmer Rouge painted over all signs in Phnom Penh – traffic signs, advertising signs, markers of any signs. Wrecked cars lay where they were abandoned in 1975. All shops and hotels were closed. A number of buildings were blown up or demolished, including the Catholic Cathedral and the National Bank. Up to two-thirds of the city’s houses were damaged. The plumbing system was destroyed.
Traces of the city’s former splendor are visible at the Royal Palace, enclosing the Silver Pagoda. The National Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer artifacts. The proud achievements of the Khmer culture are offset by the horrors of the Tuol Sleng Holocaust Museum.
The Royal City
The southern sector of Phnom Penh close to the Tonle Sap River exudes a strong royal Khmer presence, with a wealth of Cambodian traditional architecture. The city was once rich in temples; many were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, but some are being reconstructed. This tour starts at Wat Ounalom, opposite the Phnom Penh Tourism Office.
Wat Ounalom is a Mahanikai Buddhist temple and highly respected institute of learning, with 50 monks in residence; before 1975 there were 500 monks here. This is the residence of the supreme Patriarch of the Mahanikai sect. The temple was founded in the 15th century; a large number of its buildings were destroyed under Pol Pot, including the library. The temple has since been partially restored. The compound contains two residences and a three-floor building which functions as a temple; the interior are stark and bare. On the ground of floor is a marble Buddha from Burma – smashed by the Khmer Rouge, but pieced together again in 1979. On the second floor is a brass statue of the patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, Somdech Huot Tat, who was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The statue, made in 1971, was flung into the river, but retrieved in 1979. On the third floor the walls depict scenes from the Jataka Tales.
From Wat Ounalom you can skirt round past the National Museum. The Museum is notable not only for its outstanding exhibits but also for its superb traditional-style architecture. To do justice to the place, you really need several hours. In this area is the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) where students often work on reproductions of famous Khmer artifacts. The souvenir and gift shops in the surround blocks are especially good for paintings, wood sculptures, and crafts. The school of Fine Arts has its own retail outlet.
Back on Samdech Sothearos Boulevard you can cruise past Chan Chaya Pavilion, which doubles as a front gate to the Royal Palace and a public events podium. Above the pavilion is a huge portrait of King Sihanouk. At the southern end of the palace grounds, you can drop in and visit the Silver Pagoda. Skirt the walls of the palace and head south to Wat Botum.
Wat Botum is known as the ‘ Temple of the Lotus Blossoms” the original site was a small island surrounded by a lotus-filled pond. This temple is the centre of the Thammayut (royalist) sect of Buddhism in Cambodia. The royalist sect has been revived since the return of Sihanouk; about 85 monks now reside at Wat Botum. In July 1992, more than 150 bonzes (monks) were ordained here. At the front of the temple is an unusual cluster of stupas with Bayon-style four headed tops; the ceremonial stupas hold the ashes of members of the royal family.
Opposite Wat Botum in a park is the Liberation Monument, carved from Angkor marble by the staff of the School of Fine Arts in 1989 to commemorate the 1979 liberation of Phnom Penh by Vietnamese troops. Process south and turn onto Preah Sihanouk Boulevard to see some of the best-preserved colonial mansions and manicured gardens in Phnom Penh. Over the boulevard to the west is the Independence Monument, looming like a kind of Cambodian Arc de Triomphe. Also called the Victory Monument, this Khmer-style prasat (tower) was built in 1958 to commemorate independence from France, but has since assumed the role of a war memorial. Wreath-laying ceremonies honor the dead. Like the towers of Angkor Wat and the four-headed spires of the Bayon, the monument is a national logo.
From the Independence Monument you can detour about 300 meters south to the Prayuvong Buddha factory. In the grounds of Wat Prayuvong, a neighborhood of workshops produces statuary and “spare parts” used in repairing temples smashed by the Khmer Rouge. The workshops turn out stupas and Buddhist artifacts, including gaudy cement Buddhas, Bayon heads, nagas, and mythological figures. You can walk around the various workshops and watch the artisans at work.
Back on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard, head east past the naga fountain and along Samdech Scothearos Boulevard to the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana. The Cambodiana is a peculiar structure: it looks like the architect decided at the last minute to cap a European building with a pseudo-Khmer tile roof. Drop into the foyer to see the huge wooden model of the Bayon. A small gift shop sells books on Cambodia. High tea at the Cambodiana is held between 14.00 and 17.00 -stuff yourself with sandwiches, pastries, fruit, and drinks for around $7-10 live classical music will ease your digestion. A plunge into the swimming pool will set you back $5. Khmer-style roofing also caps the nearby Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which looks like a converted Wat, and Chaktomuk Theater.
The locals turn out for a stroll at the day past the tiny slope-roofed pavilion fronting the Tonle Sap River, opposite the Royal Palace Gates. At sunset impromptu picnickers frequent the place; police pursue food vendors up and down Sisowath Quay. Cyclo drivers arrive for river baths, and roving photographers work the crowds. This is an excellent place to mingle. There are two shrines for offerings of garlands of jasmine and coconuts spiked with incense sticks and lotus buds. North of the pavilion are many sidewalk vendors. For drinks, try a beer stall on the banks of the Tonle Sap. For a more refined drink, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (FCCC) top-floor bar is a colonial-era throwback, with swishing fans and elegant furnishings. The bar affords great views over the river.
EXCURSION FROM PHNOM PENH
Around Phnom Penh are a number of destinations within day trip range – nothing too special but a chance to get into the countryside and receive a blast of oxygen after the fetid air of Phnom Penh. With the exception of Choeung Ek, the sites described here are picnicking destinations, popular with the weekend escape crowd.
There are killing fields all over Cambodia, skull and bone cairns that stand as stark memorials to Khmer Rouge atrocities. At Choeung Ek, 15 km to the southwest of Phnom Penh, an estimated 17,000 people ware killed, most clubbed to death to save ammunition. Many were taken from the interrogation centre at Tuol Sleng. There are over 120 mass graves in the area. Half have been disinterred. A stupa like tower of glass panels was erected in 1988 to house the gristly remains, with shelf after shelf of skulls . . .
Koki Beach, about 12 km east of Phnom Penh on the Saigon route, is a popular weekend and public holiday destination. Residents of Phnom Penh decamp to river and rent huts raised on stilts for a day of picnicking, tacking, or romance. Cafes here sell grilled fish and chicken. Most of visitors rent a tilt hut to take a nap, ward off the heat or counter the floodwaters of the monsoon season. You can hire a boat to tour the lake, water borne vendors come alongside to sell food. Crowded on weekends, with lots of food vendors, but nothing much happening during the week.
The trip called Mekong island is actually Oknhateyn island about one hour by boat from Phnom Penh. The island is a theme park with Cambodian culture sample - village, handicraft production, zoo, traditional dance and music ensembles, and restaurant. Another, longer trip organized by Phnom Penh tourism is to Koh Dach, a silk weaving village northeast of Phnom Penh, a boat ride up the Mekong to Koh Dach take three hours round trip. You can also visit the fishing villages and see river life along the way.
Udong, 40 km northwest of the capital along Route 5, is the site of an ancient capital, in a cluster of king’s tombs. This is another popular picnic site, affording great views of surrounding area. Udong was the seat of Cambodian kings from 1618 to 1866. Almost all the buildings of the former royal city was razed when Lon Nol launched air strikes against Khmer Rouge hideouts in the 1970s; another sites were later blown up by the Khmer Rouge. A Khmer Rouge prison was located here. A memorial to the Victims was erected in 1982, with torture devices and bones from mass graves on display, as well as murals depicting Khmer Rouge atrocities.
About 33 km south of Phnom Penh on Route 2 is a turnoff that leads several km to Tonle Bati.
This is popular picnic spot, with a lake and two temples, Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau. On weekends the place is full of footstalls and picnic guests.
12th-century Ta Prohm Temple looks similar to Angkor temple. Some attribute the handiwork to king Jayavarman VII, who ruled in Angkor from 1181. According to legend, the temple was built by Ta Prohm. While traveling through Tonle Bati, an Angkor king fell in love with Yeay Peau, the beautiful daughter of a fisherman. The king passed three months with her and she became pregnant. Upon leaving, the king gave her a ring with instruction to send the child she bore to Angkor. When her son, Prohm, duly presented the ring at Angkor, he was welcome at his father’s palace and given an education the king later sent him back to govern Takeo province. Prohm built a temple similar to those he’d seen at Angkor, and named it after himself. For his mother, he built Yeay Peau temple.
Some 20km south of Tonle Bati is a hilltop ruin dating from Angkor period. The turnoff to Phnom Chisor is 55km south of Phnom Penh; temple is about 4 km from Route 2. The main sanctuary what’s left of it is an 11th century structure dedicated to Brahma. This spot is quite isolated, so do not go alone. The temple is reached by a staircase on the northern side of the hill. From the top are expansive views over the countryside you can see 2 other temples ruins to the east. Leave the hilltop by the southern staircase.
The town of Takeo is 75 km south of Phnom Penh on Route 2. It can also be reached by Route 3; the trip is 87 km from Phnom Penh, but the road is in better shape. This is stretching the limits of a day trips from the capital because the travel time alone is six hours round trip by taxi. About 20km east of Takeo is the modern village of Angkor Borei, which is thought to have been the site of Vyadhapura, the latest capital of Funan Kingdom. South of town is a hill called Phnom Da by French archaeologists, which are displayed at Phnom Penh’s National Museum. The Phnom Da style was identified as the first stage of pre-Angkorian art. On top of Phnom Da is a small building made from heavy basalt blocks.