Thursday, May 23, 2019

Heqing Remake


                                           by Jim Goodman

downtown in new Heqing
       Heqing has never garnered much traveler attention.  The county lies between Dali and Lijiang, northeast of Erhai Lake and the city is closer to Lijiang (43 km) than it is to Dali (145 km).  Both a good highway and a train line run through Heqing County to connect Dali with Lijiang, but the scenery, while pleasant, is not particularly stunning until the traveler crosses the high mountains at the northern end of the county and heads towards the snow mountain backdrop of Lijiang. 
lake in northern Heqing County
       The airport servicing Lijiang is actually just inside Heqing County, but passengers inevitably head for Lijiang and give Heqing a miss.  It’s close enough to Lijiang that day trips are easy, but visitors to Lijiang become so involved with sights there, even when they recognize the artificiality of so much of what they see, that they don’t consider excursions anywhere else.  Meet Bai people?  They can do that in Dali.
       Most of Heqing County’s people are Bai, especially in the plains and towns, but they dress differently and practice some different customs than the Bai around Dali.  The women favor more subdued colors and Heqing hosts no Third Month Fair nor any Torch Festival action.  They celebrate other festivals, yet live in houses similar to those in Dali, follow Bai traditions in general and cultivate.
Bai women returning from the fields
       Heqing city lies on a long plain backed by mountains to the east and west and higher ones to the north.  According to local mythology, the plain used to be covered in water until a monk subdued the dragons causing the flood and enabled human settlement.  Over a thousand years ago, at the beginning of the Dali Kingdom Era, settlers founded the city.  When they erected the first pillars, pairs of cranes alighted on them and congratulated the people for their victory over the dragons.  So they named their city Heqing—“he” for cranes and “qing” for congratulations.
taking home the hay
       The Mongols conquered Dali in the nid-13th century, though that probably did not affect Bai life in Heqing.  When the Ming Dynasty ousted the Mongols’ Yuan Dynasty in 1366, Yunnan became the last Mongol stronghold.  But in 1381 the Ming general Ma Ying defeated the Mongols near Songgui, south of Heqing city and drove their forces out of the province altogether.  The Bai of Songgui commemorate this with a Horse and Mule Fair the 22nd day of the 6th lunar month.
       Throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties many Bai from Heqing sought work in Lijiang city, whose Naxi residents hired them for manual labor considered beneath them, mainly as porters and house builders.  Village Naxi built their own homes, using stone foundations, wooden beams, tiled roofs and sun-dried, mud-brick walls in a style distinct from that of the Bai.  But urban dwellings aped the Han Chinese style, used more wood, with fancy carved gates and other embellishments.  Not carvers, carpenters or masons themselves, Lijiang residents employed Heqing Bai for this work. 
old-fashioned city restaurant
noodle making in the old town
       Eventually migrant Bai workers also settled in several villages in Jinshan district, east of Lijiang city, on what is considered the best agricultural land on the plain.  Today Jinshan is an Autonomous Bai District, with houses in the Dali-Heqing style, clothing like that worn in Heqing, Bai traditions still followed and a farming output that exceeds that of their Naxi neighbors.
local Bai girls in Heqing
Yi woman from Liuhe in Heqing
       Heqing remained quite peripheral to political developments until the 20th century.  He Long’s Red Army division passed through here in 1935, winning hearts and minds and then went on to Shigu, crossed the River of Golden Sand and continued to Zhongdian to spend the winter.  Until the Communists won the war in 1949, Heqing experienced conflict between government forces and pro-Communist guerillas and the rise of powerful bandit gangs that plagued the last years of Nationalist rule.  Particularly annoying was that led by Lokyun, an ex-army officer who claimed to be a revolutionary ‘third force,’ opposed to both the communists and the government.
White Yi women in Heqing for market day
       His gang seized Yongsheng that year and demanded submission from Heqing and Lijiang.  Heqing’s leaders welcomed Lokyun, whose army then seized all the rich people to hold for ransom and ransacked all of Heqing’s houses.  Lijiang people, suspicious of these ‘revolutionaries’, resisted.  Aided by Tibetan allies, the Naxi thoroughly defeated Lokyun’s attack and killed most of his soldiers.  Lokyun regrouped eventually, but never returned to the Heqing or Lijiang area.
       Nearly five decades later I made my first visit to Heqing.  Having already been everywhere in the Lijiang Plain, I decided on an excursion to the original homeland of the folks I met in Jinshan.  About 25 km south of Lijiang the road crosses into Heqing County and enters the long plain, running between a pair of small lakes halfway between the boundary and the city.  Bai villages stud the area on both sides of the road, but the flanking mountains exhibit so sign of settlements.
shop-house in the old town
       Village houses look somewhat different from those of Naxi villages, though they use the same materials.  They resemble those of rural Dali, minus the marble and with less use of stone, set close to each other, with a high back wall, usually windowless, Dali-style arabesques painted beneath the apex of each roof end and a small lion mounted over the roof’s center.  For wealthier house owners, especially in the Bai neighborhoods of the city, the compound gate will feature carvings under the roofs, sometimes of vegetation or animals.  The entrance door will have an arch above it, perhaps paintings on the wall and banners inscribed with Chinese characters hanging down at each side of the door.
       Heqing then had two distinct sections, old and new.  In between stood the venerable red-walled, three-tiered Yunhe Tower, originally erected during the city’s foundation.  The broad street south of the tower was filled with very ordinary style modern buildings, with the last traditional homes at the far end under process of demolition.  But traditional Bai homes and shop-houses still dominated the two streets north of the tower.  Noodle-makers, potters and carpenters plied their trades outside their houses in the small lanes of the quarter.
Bai merchant weighing her goods
bamboo conical cap stall
       Bai women of all ages dressed in traditional style, basically consisting of a long-sleeved blouse, side-fastened vest, trousers, apron and cap or turban.  The older women favored dark colors, mostly black and maybe a dark blue blouse.  Younger women usually donned white blouses, lighter colored trousers and a red, maroon or black vest.  Gray ‘Mao caps’ with bigger brims were the commonest headgear.
       The Bai women of Songgui district, who frequent the city, especially for market day, dressed the same except for the headgear.  Young and old wore a kind of large round black beret, with a jeweled starburst ornament s attached to the left side of the brim. 
copper ware section
       The most colorful people in the city were women of the White Yi minority, from Liuhe Autonomous Yi District in the mountains east of Songgui.  Their distinctive clothing item was a calf-length, long-sleeved tunic, in various shades of blue with contrasting bands on the sleeves.  It split at the waist, with a thin strip hanging down in front and the wider part draped over the back of the hips.  They wore ordinary blouse and trousers underneath and a wide, multi-colored sash belt wrapped several times around the waist.  On their heads they wore a black bonnet that hung over the back of the neck, with colored trimming on the brim.
      They were also the most engaging people in the city.  The Bai were polite and friendly everywhere; the Yi waved hello and approached me to have a conversation.  Their command of Chinese wasn’t much better than mine, so we were able to communicate.  Compared to the shy and skittish Yi around Dali and Ninglang, this sub-group was refreshingly forward.  They were overnight in the city for market day next morning.  More of them came to town on the first buses out of Liuhe next day, all in traditional outfits, but often with non-traditional plastic pack baskets or bright yellow backpacks sporting the Marlboro logo.
       Market day began early and by mid-morning was already crowded.  Bai villagers started arriving shortly after sunrise, some to set up stalls, some to purchase fruits and vegetables at their freshest.  Most wore pack baskets of split bamboo, some with a wooden shoulder board, which was occasionally enhanced with painted designs.
Heqing Bai woman selling garlic
Songgui Bai girl
       Market day stalls, layouts and services spread throughout the old quarter and spilled over into the area around Yunhe Tower.  Sellers set up on both sides of the streets, usually hawking a single item.  It was summer, so lots of fruits—peaches, sour plums, apples, bananas, strawberries, mangoes and pears.  The food market was full of rice, maize, vegetables and meat and, as in Lijiang, women were the butchers.  Various wafers, breadsticks, candies, steamed buns and other snacks were available, though for drinks one had to enter a restaurant.
       Articles of clothing were on sale everywhere.  Some were modern items like trousers, jackets, t-shirts, shoes and baby clothes.  Others were ethnic-oriented—Bai vests, long-sleeved blouses, plain and printed aprons, Bai caps, cloths for the brims and bolts of cotton cloth.  Bai women here are not so jewelry-minded, confining their ornaments mainly to small silver earrings and jade bangles.  Silver clasps and chain necklaces were available at stalls and much fancier stuff at the antiques displays.
spinning board with animal figures
       Besides a range of merchandise, market day also provided services, like shoe repair and sewing machine work near the food market and tooth extraction, blood pressure readings and fortune telling in the new town.  One man managed a stall with a board painted with twelve kinds of various air, land and water creatures (not the ones of the zodiac) in a circle and a movable dragon-headed pointer in the middle.  I didn’t learn whether it was a game board or some sort of fortune telling device.
       Local Bai handicrafts were also part of the market scene; not the embroidered or tie-dyed items common around Dali, but more everyday use goods.  Potters sold everything from teapots, cups and saucers to big storage jars, glazed and painted.  A large section next to the food market displayed copper and brass pots, pans, vases, dippers and utensils.  Bai metalworkers have a regional reputation for their wares and such items are not only part of a Bai household, they are exported up to Lijiang and Shangrila.
       Other crafts were not Bai specialties, in fact common throughout the province, but part of everyday rural usage.  In one of the old town lanes women sold rain capes made of palm bark fiber, quite in demand now that the monsoon had arrived.  Around the corner from the tea market, the street leading east of Yunhe Tower was the basketry section.  Stalls here offered carrying baskets of different types, conical steamer covers, brooms and winnowing trays.  Most trays were ordinary size, but a few were two meters in diameter, mainly used in the fields.  Some of the sellers wove new baskets while they tended their goods.
locally made baskets and winnow trays
       Market activity persisted until late afternoon, when folks running the stalls and layouts finally began packing up to go home.  The basket makers heaped their goods into a tall pile that they carried on their backs.  Other merchants piled their wares in big baskets or rice bags.  Some toted these on their backs, while others put them in a tractor-trailer to return to their villages.
       Combined with strolls in the countryside, where farmers were busy planting rice, witnessing this vibrant market day scene made my Heqing excursion delightful and worthwhile.  The only negative note was the sight of old houses being destroyed and swathes of rubble near Yunhe Tower.  What kind of new construction was due?  Was the remainder of the old town doomed?
       When in Lijiang again a few years later I made a day trip to Heqing to satisfy my curiosity.  The transformation was startling.  The entire downtown area around Yunhe Tower had been completely rebuilt, but not in any boring anonymous modern way.  Even the nondescript buildings of the new town had been replaced.  Now houses lining the main streets were attractive two and three story buildings that showed obvious Dali influence, but in a distinctly different style.
Yunhe Tower in the 90s
modern Bai house in new Heqing
       Except for one street with all gray houses, the new constructions, designed by a Kunming company, featured whitewashed walls liberally embellished with black paintings under the roof apexes and on the walls.  They had angled tiled roofs, sometimes in pairs, and upper story multiple windows with wooden frames.   Arched doorways and other motifs reflected the inspiration of traditional Bai architecture.
       Yunhe Tower had been renovated and the area around it cleared and made into parks.  A classical two-tiered archway stood at the end of the street south of the tower.   And a big new temple was under construction in the northeast quarter.  Altogether, Heqing was a city that looked better than it did before its modern development.  Nowadays, that’s something rare.

Yunhe Tower post-renovation

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Refuge in Yunnan: the Tragic History of the Miao


                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Miao in the Laomeng market,Jinping County
       Besides the creation of the universe and origins of the gods, Chinese mythology also narrates battles among the gods themselves over control of heaven and earth.  These culminated in the final victory of the Yellow Emperor over his challenger Chi You, a demon deity with a bovine bronze head, four eyes, six arms and a human body.  The long and tumultuous final battle took place at Zhuolou, near the present provincial border between Hebei and Liaoning.
       Both sides had allies.  The Yellow Emperor’s support came from gods and ghosts, bears, leopards, jackals and tigers.  Chi You had his brothers, demons and devils and the Miao.  The Yellow Emperor prevailed and killed Chi You and most of his army, including the Miao warriors.  It was also a territorial victory, for now the Yellow Emperor’s people, the Han, would occupy the lower Yellow River Plain and make it their heartland, pushing the Miao further south.
Miao girl in Mengzi
older Miao woman in the Mengzi market
       Chinese used the term Miao back then, and for many centuries afterwards, to identify any people who lived south of them who were not Han.  Even today ethnologists and some of the sub-groups themselves dispute the classification as Miao all the different people who have been grouped as such, making the, China’s fifth largest ethnic minority.  Yet Chi You is part of Miao mythology, though as a sagacious king and not, as the Chinese would have it, an oppressive monster.  And he’s still revered as a war god by both Han and Miao.
Miao women at the Duoyi River
     
Nevertheless, the myth establishes that animosity between Han and Miao dates back to ancient times.  Under successive dynasties the Han continued to expand south, constantly confronting indigenous Miao and other peoples in the way of new settlements.  Because they consistently clung to their own culture and traditions and did not adopt Chinese ways, the Chinese considered them uncivilized barbarians and felt no compunction about evicting them.
       Throughout the Song and Ming Dynasties the same scenario played out repeatedly in the central provinces of Henan, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.  Han migrants would encroach on Miao land.  The Miao would drive them out and repulse local military attacks.  But then the Han government would send in a much bigger force that eventually defeated the Miao and forced them to abandon the area.  Some moved out of the region entirely, all the way to western Sichuan and northern Guangxi.
Miao girl embroidering at Haizibian, Wenshan
Miao woman gathering edibles in Haizibian Lake
       The Miao were never a nation, nor ever tried to become one.  Authority lay with each clan chief, not with an overall sovereign.  Yet out of the dreary pattern of encroachment, revolt, repression and expulsion, a new Miao myth developed—the Miao King.  Heaven would send him and he would be recognized by certain signs and powers, unite all the Miao clans around, drive out the Han and reestablish the old order.
Miao house in Haizibian, with the loom on the upper floor
       This pattern continued under the Qing Dynasty, especially in Guizhou in the 18th century.   Always successful initially, for the Miao were defending their own territory, not seeking to expand it, in the end they always lost.  In this period, some migrated out of the region altogether, to northern Vietnam and Laos or faraway Yunnan.
       While they were no longer subject to periodic Han land grabs, the Miao experience in Yunnan varied depending upon where they settled.  Northeast Yunnan is heavily Han-dominated, though the Han government turned over administration of the hill areas, and tax collection, to nobles of the Yi ethnic minority.  The Miao of Zhaotong Prefecture suffered more under the Yi than they had under Han officials in Guizhou or Hunan.  Besides taxes and forced labor, they were also conscripted to serve as soldiers in the Yi nobles’ incessant feuds with each other.
Miao woman prepares herself for market day in Tongchang
Miao woman on the way to Tongchang
       By the late 19th century they were on the verge of revolt, only awaiting the emergence of a charismatic figure to proclaim he was the new Miao King.  But the situation was different this time, for the Qing Dynasty was in terminal decline, forced into granting concessions to Western powers, one of which was the right of foreign missionaries to proselytize in the country.  Among its many assignments, the China Inland Mission dispatched Samuel Pollard and James R. Adam to Zhaotong, who concentrated their preaching among the downtrodden Miao.  Pollard even devised a script for the Miao language.
Miao village near Tongchang, Jinping County
       The Miao took special interest in the story of Christ, identifying emotionally with the tortures of the crucifixion, so like those inflicted on them by the landlords and bureaucrats.  Attendance at the sermons mushroomed.  Mass conversions soon followed as whole villages enlisted in the new religion.  At the same time they awaited the Miao King, so obviously predicted in the missionaries' story of the Second Coming.  Some even conjectured that Pollard himself was the Miao King. 
       Meanwhile the Miao coming into town in such massive numbers aroused the suspicions of both Yi and Han. A campaign of repression of the Christian Miao commenced, burning villages, seizing property, beating, torturing and imprisoning them.  Yet the more severe the persecution the more the Christian movement spread.  It was not long before virtually all the Miao of Zhaotong Prefecture had embraced Christianity.  The movement even spread to the Miao in Wuding and Luquan Counties, north of Kunming, under the stewardship of Arthur Nichols of China Inland Mission.
Miao women in Mrngla for market day
Miao in Mrngla, Jinping County
       Just as the situation reached the boiling point in late 1904, Pollard intervened.  He persuaded the magistrates to issue proclamations protecting the Christians. Things simmered down for a while but the landlords launched a fresh campaign in 1906-7.  Again the missionaries obtained proclamations from the magistrates, this time sent directly to the Yi lords.  Pollard and Adam themselves visited the lords to urge their compliance.
twisting hemp thread while in the market
       Han officials resented the foreigners' interference and talked openly of expelling them.  When Pollard found out he threatened them with reports to their superiors, a threat that implied their dismissal.  The local officials at once backed down and even promised to take no action against the Christians.  Hostilities continued off-and-on for the next several years.  But gradually some of the Yi also became Christians, while the millenarian aspects of Miao Christianity faded, as did expectations of the Miao King's imminence.  Yet the missionaries' prestige was so high the Miao remained faithful adherents of the new religion.
       Elsewhere in Yunnan, migrant Miao met with a different experience.  Most moved into Honghe and Wenshan Prefectures, in counties where the Han were not so numerous, which were already densely settled by other ethnic minorities like the Hani, Yao, Dai, Buyi, Zhuang and other Yi.  Neither the Han nor any single ethnic minority dominated the area as in the northeast.  Miao culture was not under stress and missionaries had little or no impact.
Miao on the road to Laomeng
selling firewood in Jinshuihe, Jinping County
       Much of this part of Yunnan had been occupied for many centuries before the Miao arrived.  For the most part they had to make do with the narrowest valleys and stony soil--lands nobody else wanted.  A diligent, practical and adaptable people, they managed to eke out a living in such environments, raising corn, millet, sugarcane, vegetables and hemp.  And where they could settle on more fertile lands they became expert agro-engineers, creating extensive terracing for growing rice, as in Pingbian and Jinping Counties in Yunnan and around Sapa in northern Vietnam.
       With a history of resisting or fleeing forced assimilation, the Miao were shyer and more reclusive then their neighbors, rarely marrying out of their own sub-groups, and tenacious about preserving their culture and identity.  Though in recent decades they have become more involved with the society around them, and no longer face aggressive designs on their lands, this remains a chief Miao characteristic, exemplified by the almost universal preference of the women for their traditional clothing.
Miao leg wrappers
     
For most Miao sub-groups in Honghe or Wenshan the most striking component is the bulky, pleated, indigo batik skirt, appliquéd with lavish embroidery.  The colors and batik patterns may differ from one sub-group to another, and one group wears plain pleated white skirts, but the shape is the same and no other ethnic group wears a similar skirt.  Some don a plain black jacket, but for most the rest of the outfit is also heavily embroidered and includes leg-wrappers, a wide belt, apron, jacket and some kind of headgear. 
       Perhaps one reason Miao women are so attached to their traditional costumes is the great amount of time and effort expended to produce them.  The process begins with the cultivation of the hemp plant, the dried stalks of which can be turned into thread, but only after a long, laborious process.  The women strip off the skins of the stalks and tear them into thin strips.  Then they bundle and beat them until all foreign matter is removed and start twining them into something resembling thread, a common spare time activity at home, walking to the fields or sitting around a market stall.  That done, the next step is to wind them onto the spinning wheel and further twist the threads.
       Following that, loops of spun thread get bleached by repeatedly boiling in water and lime.   Then women mount the thread on a large winding frame to prepare the warp threads to put on the loom.  Now it’s ready to be woven into a strip of cloth, usually 30-40 cm wide.  After that they lay out the cloth on a table to begin the batik process, a form of resist dyeing, by applying beeswax in complicated patterns, dyeing with indigo and removing the wax.  The patterns appear in white.  The final step is to cut the cloth into appropriate lengths for a skirt, stitch narrow folds together while it is wet and after it is dry, remove the stitches for permanent pleats.
festival dance for Trekking the FloweryMountain
       It’s still not ready to wear.  Women add narrow bands of heavily embroidered cloth to the sides and hems of the skirt, obliterating much of the batik designs.  They also add these bands to the jacket, belt, apron, cap and leg-wrappers.  Drawing on a vast repertoire of traditional cross-stitch patterns they may also create new ones, for it is in these details that individualism comes into play.  Young women spend much time improving their embroidering skills, for they are highly regarded in Miao society.  Cultivation of this art requires certain character traits—diligence, a sense of beauty, attention to detail, skill with the hands—that are desirable in a prospective wife and mother.
       Traditionally Miao youth were free to socialize and engage in romance, though parents arranged their weddings.  Should romance blossom into love the couple sought parental approval, but if they didn’t get it they might take the option of elopement and make a new home for themselves somewhere far away, alone or joining another couple or two who also eloped.
       Courtship was usually a group affair in the beginning stage, especially at big public events, though it could also occur spontaneously in the fields or at a rest stop on the way back from a market.  Antiphonal singing was a favorite method, groups responding to the songs of each other.  It was common at the festivals, particularly the event called Trekking the Flowery Mountain, celebrated by several villages together, held in southern Yunnan the 3rd to 5th days of the first lunar month, honoring a pair of mythical lovers.
the Flower Pole for the festival
Miao girl dressed up for the festival
       For this event villagers select the bravest boy and most beautiful girl and erect a tall Flower Pole at the festival site. The girl presents the boy with a ball of red silk and a reed pipe.  He must climb the pole and deposit them at the top.  After descending to the ground he returns to inform the girl of his success, holding a flowery umbrella.  The crowd encourages them to get closer until in the end he retreats with her behind the umbrella.  The crowd cheers, hoping that true love sprouts behind that umbrella.  If the couple does fall in love and wed, that will be a happy marriage and bring good luck to the village.  On selecting the couple in the first place the villagers collectively play the role of matchmaking parents.  So if love indeed is the result of their selection, it is seen as a tribute to their collective wisdom.
       Besides various rituals performed by the elders, the festival features song and dance shows, the music of lutes, flutes and reed pipes and antiphonal singing.  Girls begin with a common folk song.  Boys respond with the next stanza.  Eventually they will invent new stanzas expressing their feelings and compete to come up with imaginative lyrics.  The older folks improvise lyrics within a set rhyme scheme and sing about nature, agriculture, Miao history and legends, also in a call-and-response style, which becomes a test of traditional knowledge.
       Many romances might result from this.  But more important to the participants, the festival is a celebration of being Miao, of being a people whose traditions and culture have persisted, despite tragedies and displacements, ever since the time of the Yellow Emperor.

festival participants, Trekking the Flowery Mountain
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for more on the Miao, see my e-book The Terrace Builders


Delta Tours Vietnam organizes trips through Miao territory in Honghe Prefecture.  See the itinerary at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/honghe-prefecture

Monday, April 15, 2019

Phnom Penh—the Last Capital of Cambodia


                                   by Jim Goodman

park in front of Phnom Penh's Royal Palace
       The story of Phnom Penh begins in 1372, when a wealthy widow named Daun (Grandmother) Penh was walking along the Tonle Sap River and noticed a tree trunk washed up on the riverbank.  Inspecting it, she discovered five Buddha images, four of bronze and one of stone, inside the trunk.  She then arranged the building of a sanctuary on top of a mound near her home to house the images.  The mound was later enlarged to a height of 27 meters to become the only hill (phnom) in the area and the village was thereafter known as Phnom Penh (Penh’s Hill).
view of the Tonle Sap River from its western bank
       Sited at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, it was primarily a fishing village and part of the Khmer Empire of Angkor.  But this was an empire very much in decline.  At its peak at the beginning of the 13th century under Jayavarman VII, it ruled over all of present-day Cambodia, the southern third of Vietnam, most of Laos and eastern and central Thailand.  By the time of Daun Penh’s discovery it had lost most of its western provinces to independent Thai states, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which expanded their territory at the expense of the Angkor Empire.
       By 1400 Ayutthaya had absorbed Sukhothai and turned its attention east.  In 1431 its army invaded Angkor and captured and sacked the capital Angkor Thom.   Though Ayutthaya forces did not remain in possession, after their retreat the city was half in ruins.  Moreover, the complex irrigation system, crucially important to a state based on agrarian income, had collapsed.  The cost and required work to repair the irrigation system and the damaged city buildings seemed to be so great that King Ponhea Yat decided to move the capital downriver to Phnom Penh, further away from the Thai enemy.
image of Daun Penh at Wat Phnom
the chedi at Wat Phnom
       Most of the buildings in Angkor Thom were temples or religious monuments, reflecting how enmeshed religion was in the organization of the state.  King Ponhea Yat set out to endow Phnom Penh with the same level of religious identity.   He raised Daun Penh’s mound to a proper hill and built a temple on top.  Unlike the great monuments of Angkor Thom, this was a modest structure, probably very similar to what has replaced it since then.  And unlike Angkor Thom temples, dedicated to Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist deities, Wat Phnom was the first Theravada Buddhist temple in the country.
Angkor-style bronze frieze on the Wat Phnom stairway
       It’s not clear how, or how long it took, but the Theravada form of Buddhism became the popular religion, replacing the rather mild form of Hinduism in the Empire’s heyday.  Kings identified themselves as incarnations of Shiva or, if a Mahayana Buddhist like Jayavarman VII, as the savior Boddhisattva.  With the collapse of the empire such beliefs no longer resonated with the general populace.  Post-Angkor kings laid no claim to divinity.
       They could still be religious patrons, though, and King Ponhea Yat established four other temples in his new capital that are still in use today, though nothing of their 15th century foundations remain.  Still, because of their ancient prestige, they are outstanding compounds and among the city’s tourist attractions today.
Wat Phnom
       The most popular, naturally, is Wat Phnom.  Entry is via a stairway lined on each side with bronze plaques with bas-relief reproductions of Angkor scenes.  Within the temple viharn, besides the main Buddha image, are wall murals depicting scenes from the Jataka Tales.  Behind the viharn is a shrine to Daun Penh and a large white chedi containing Ponhea Yat’s ashes.  Below the hill is a garden clock, installed during colonial days.
       Khmer locals come to the viharn to have their fortune told.  They hold a palm-leaf book above their heads and without looking insert a page marker.  Then a pandit reads what it is written on the page. If they don’t like the result they can try again and again, but have to accept the third result.
river boat on the Mekong at Phnom Penh
       Phnom Penh’s new status only lasted until the early years of the 16th century.  King An Chan moved the court up the Tonle Sap River to Lovek.  The realm was safe for a while, for Ayutthaya was involved with battling the Burmese.  Western missionaries, traders and adventurers arrived and both Lovek and Phnom Penh grew into important trading ports.   But towards the end of the century, temporarily freed of the Burmese threat, Ayutthaya invaded Cambodia and in 1594 sacked Lovek.  The Khmer court subsequently relocated to Oudong, next to hills a little to the south.
colonial era building, now a government office
       Cambodia fared better the following century, repelling another Thai invasion in the early years and enjoying peace on the western frontier for a long time.  But by mid=17th century the royal family had split into antagonistic factions.  Brothers fought over the royal succession and since neither had enough support to vanquish the other, contenders enlisted the aid of their Thai or Vietnamese neighbors.  Winners rewarded their allies by ceding faraway provinces, thus further shrinking the country’s size.
       The civil wars continued through the 18th century.  In 1770 Thai forces burned down Phnom Penh.  The city recovered enough that in 1812 King Chan moved the state’s capital to Phnom Penh.  In the early 19th century the Court occasionally returned to Oudong for a while, but most of the time resided in Phnom Penh.  When Cambodia became their protectorate in 1868, the French recognized Phnom Penh as the capital and it has remained so ever since.
French villa from colonial times
sunset at Wat Botum
       At the time the city more resembled a large fishing village, consisting mostly of thatched hits along a single main track and scores of houseboats along the riverbanks.  The population was about 25,000.  The French eventually installed administrators in the capital and all the provinces, but didn’t do much to develop Phnom Penh.  Having also taken control of southern Vietnam by then, they were more concerned about urban transformation in Saigon.
knotted gun at the north end of Monivong Boulevard
       That changed with the appointment of Hyun de Vernville in 1889 to govern the protectorate.  Wanting Phnom Penh to be a worthy French administrative center, the ”Pearl of the Orient”, he sponsored a network of roads along a wide boulevard running from Wat Phnom to the southern end of the city.  A French quarter grew up north of Wat Phnom, characterized by opulent villas for French officials and businessmen, while new government buildings were designed along French architectural lines.
       After World War I the pace of development accelerated.  The city government filled in drainage canals to expand the road network, created parks and dredged the Mekong to allow for the entry of bigger ships.  River trade increased and in 1932 a railway station opened, with a line to Battambang in the west.  While certainly the French lived in a grander style, prosperity also spread to the native Khmers. 
tourists riding Sam Bo the elephant at Wat Phnom
       In World War II the Japanese took charge in name, but allowed the French officials to continue running affairs.  Afterwards, responding to the post-war anti-colonial sentiments in Southeast Asia, marked in Cambodia by a radical armed insurgency that soon controlled half of the country, the French gave ground.   They permitted elections to a National Assembly, granted partial independence in 1949 and finally, plagued by worse problems in Vietnam, granted Cambodia full independence in 1953.
       Now a new Khmer elite governed the city and the country, rooted in an educated middle class.  Motorbikes and automobiles began using the streets.  Theaters, cinemas and coffee culture thrived.  Temples were renovated and enlarged.  It was a calm and optimistic period, but would not long persist.  There were still class divisions between the educated elite and the masses of impoverished workers, farmers and fishermen.  And Cambodia would not be able to stay aloof from the wars engulfing their neighbors.
old mural at Wat Lanka
       Conflict in Vietnam sent refugees from the border areas streaming into Phnom Penh.  This influx increased significantly in the early 70s, when civil war erupted in the country.  Phnom Penh was the last holdout against the Khmer Rouge, its population many times swollen by refugees for whom it had scarcely any resources to accommodate.  The Khmer Rouge conquered the city in April 1975 and promptly ordered the entire population out, old residents and new refugees alike. 
       Until the beginning of 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh was like a ghost city.  Former residents and new settlers now started trickling in, taking up residence in vacated and bomb-ravaged buildings.  Khmer officials took over the old colonial administrative offices, but neither they nor the Vietnamese, preoccupied with eradicating the Khmer Rouge in the countryside, did much to reconstruct Phnom Penh.
museum piece--Angkor stone sculpture of dancing apsaras
       Vietnam never intended to stay in Cambodia longer than necessary. Satisfied their Khmer clients could continue without them, and with the Khmer Rouge all but eliminated as a major threat, the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989.  Three years later UN troops arrived as peacekeepers and soon Phnom Penh’s economy, though with erratic electricity and water supplies and an infrastructure still in a state of disrepair, boomed with new hotels, restaurants, bars and brothels catering to the well-paid UN personnel.
       The city had a lawless reputation throughout the 90s, more famous for its proliferation of guns than its tourist attractions.  Aware of this, the government in 1999 seized all the guns it could locate, crushed them and melted them down to make a unique sculpture of a handgun with a knotted barrel.  With the turn of the century and some improvements in the infrastructure, the city began promoting its tourist attractions.
National Museum of Cambodia, from inside the courtyard
       These included the temples established in the mid-15th century by King Ponhea Yat during Phnom Penh’s first turn as national capital.   They had been rebuilt in the 20th century and renovated after the Khmer Rouge left, but still enjoyed considerable prestige and importance.  The concrete chedi at Wat Ounalom supposedly contains a hair from the Buddha’s eyebrow.  The grounds of Wat Botum hold many elaborate chedis with the ashes of important monks and politicians.  Wat Lanka, named for its original connection with Theravada Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka, featured old wall murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and offered twice weekly meditation courses.  And at Wat Phnom visitors could also have a ride around the front courtyard at the base of the hill on a genial old elephant named Sam Bo.
Reclining Vishnu in stone, National Museum
       To appreciate the past, visitors explored the galleries and courtyards of the National Museum of Cambodia.  The dark red sandstone building, designed by the French archaeologist George Groslier in traditional Khmer style and opened in 1918, is one of the most beautiful in Phnom Penh.  Consisting of four linked galleries in a rectangle around a shady courtyard flanked by gardens, the museum contains relics, artifacts and sculptures from pre-historic to modern times.
       The best, naturally, are those from the Angkor era, mostly of Hindu deities.  These include stone sculptures of Yama, the Lord of Death, Reclining Vishnu, Garuda--Vishnu’s mount, the elephant-headed Ganesh--Shiva’s son, Indra, King of the Gods, atop a three-headed elephant and a wonderful frieze of dancing apsaras.  There are also fine bronze pieces--one of Nandin the bull--Shiva’s mount, and a large Reclining Vishnu—and a life-size stone sculpture of a meditating Jayavarman VII, who ruled the empire at its peak in the late 12th century.
Psar Thmei market building
       For a look at the dark side of Cambodia’s history one could go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  This was formerly the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 prison and interrogation center.  Here are the cells and torture chambers and instruments used, as well as photographs of thousands of victims, most of them Khmer Rouge cadres who fell afoul of the paranoid leadership for one reason or another.
       Out of the past and into contemporary times, visitors could enjoy the markets and the attractive riverfronts.  At the Russian Market south of Tuol Sleng, so named because when it opened in the 80s all its goods came from Russia, one could buy antiques and artifacts and even a fur coat if returning to a cold climate.  The new Psar Orussey offered goods from all over Cambodia, while Psar Thmei was worth a visit just for its unusual art-deco building.
riverside park near the Silver Pagoda
       The riverfront afforded quiet views of various boats passing by and the most popular area, for both foreigners and city dwellers, was just below the National Museum.  Here stands the Royal Palace and next to it the Silver Pagoda, named after its 5329 silver floor tiles, each 20 cm square and weighing one kilogram.  It houses a 50 cm high green crystal image known as the Emerald Buddha, surrounded by bigger Buddha images of silver, bronze and one of solid gold, covered with 2086 diamonds and precious stones.
       The riverside park in front of these buildings is a popular and attractive place to rest, relax and watch the sunset.  And as darkness approaches, it’s only a few blocks walk to the restaurants and bars of the entertainment district that complete the list of things to enjoy in modern Phnom Penh.

the Silver Pagoda
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