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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