Sunday, February 8, 2009

Are you ok?

Mum and dad arrived in Phnom Penh bright and early friday morning. I took them to the museum and out to lunch at Cafe 33. Later that evening we picked up J and had a Khmer dinner by the river.

The next day we got back into the car and drove northwest to Oudong (or Udong), the 'old capital' about 40km out of town. Oudong has had a checkered history. Ransacked by the Thais, bombed by the Americans and blown up by the Khmer Rouge it is also a place of celebration. King Ang Dung, the great grandfather of the present king, King Sihanouk, was crowned there. As the capital,called Oudong Meanchey (Oudong meaning noble or excellent and Meanchey meaning victory)it was home to a succession of Kampuchea's Kings and Royal families.

The largest hill called Phnom Preach Reach Throap, the Hill of the Royal Fortune, is claimed to have hidden treasure secreted away during the war with Thailand in the 16th century.

Built on top of Phnom Oudong, with the most incredible view of the otherwise flat landscape, is a large relatively new temple, Wat Oudong, home to a Buddha relic (a bit of bone and a tooth) and a room of Buddha statues. Surrounding stupas in differing states of repair gives it a fairytale like appearance from the Buddhist temple below.

To get there one must climb 500/509/490 steps (depending on who you talk to) past the outstretched bowls of numerous elderly and disabled beggars who have positioned themselves at various intervals hoping to encourage you to part with the bundle you have been offered (for a price of course) at the base of the climb.

Barefoot children latch themselves onto people as they make their assent.

'Where you from?'

'Are you ok?'

'How long you been Cambodia?'

'Are you ok?'

'This your mother/husband/boy/friend?'

'Are you ok?'

And then, inevitably, it comes. A rote learned speel that varies only slightly from child to child, destination to destination....

'I go to school in morning 8-11/afternoon 2-6. Khmer school free. I go to english school not free. 10 dollar month. My father dead/sick/no father, my mother sick/very poor. You pay me go to learn English.'

It is not a question.

The sad part is they probably don't go to school. They are far more valuable to their families relieving tourists of their cash during school hours to be allowed to sit in a classroom somewhere, especially in a class that is going to cost them money. If they manage to 'earn' even one dollar a day they are making more than many working adults in Cambodia, a dollar a tourist really begins to add up. It's a real dilemma. Who do you give to in a country where everyone seems to have their hands out? Do you give at all? What about the elderly? Many elderly, like the kids, are not alone in the world. They have been given the job of roadside begging by their families too. Some, of course, have no families and since the government has no interest could do with a bit of riel but how do you know who they are? Likewise the disabled. To give to those who have to pass the money on only perpetuates the cycle they are in and in the case of the children often puts them in potential harms way as the longer they are exposed on the streets the more chance there is that they end up working in one of Cambodias notorious brothels or panhandling the mean streets of Bangkok at the mercy of an unscrupulous, often barely older than they are, pimp.

Anyway that is another post.

The new stupa at the top of Phnom Oudong is concrete coloured and ornately carved with reproduced Angkorian decoration.

A group of monks had followed us up. They knelt on the hot tile in rows and began to chant in unison in front of one of the doors.

Somewhere near the top there is a path that takes you across the naga shaped ridge past the older stupas to a different descent but it wasnt immediately obvious. We asked our family driver who came with us but he was unsure and unenthusiastic about the prospect of more walking in the heat so we retired to the buddha filled room beneath. I am usually more prepared for excursions and having now done some more reading around the area will be better prepared next time.
There are two ways up which our driver had informed us at the bottom of the hill were 'the same'.
Not so. Had we taken the 'back' staircase we would have been able to follow the ridge past the bullet riddled remains of Arthross Temple and its war shattered buddha statue a victim of American aerial bombings of the area in the 70's. Further along the path are more stupas marking the resting place of ancient kings and three small restored viharas, resting places for travelling monks.
As the popular Cambodian saying goes, 'same same but different'.
I guess a return visit is definately on the cards!

We did, however, find the steps leading to the room beneath the stupa on Phnom Oudong. Just visable through the smoke of burning incense were rows and rows of small buddha statues and a few intermittent collection bowls for any remaining 100 riel notes you hadnt yet been relieved of.

We stopped to put our shoes back on....

.....before making our way back down the steps to the leafy carpark below.


Simple Answer said...

Glad you are enjoying your visitors.

I never know how I'll respond to the beggars. Some days my heart aches - others I'm annoyed. tough, tough, tough.

Connie said...

Awesome pictures! Glad you could share your 'home' with your parents - how fun. I too have a problem with the beggars. I know most have genuine need - but which are abused to be more 'pathetic'? Impossible to tell, so I give to none. Only charity organizations.

Sabra said...

Great pictures! Thanks so much for sharing.

We have a gazillion beggars here. And I choose not to give to any of them. Visit any Middle Eastern country and you will be overwhelmed with how many are begging. Egypt was bad - Jordan was worse - but Saudi wins the prize. [I don't recall many beggars in Dubai; and I have only seen a few in Bahrain.]