Bangkok, 5 December 2014
I’ve just come back from a trip to Phnom Penh. My wife accompanied me, so for a couple of days, while I was doing the official rounds and meeting the official people, she was nosing around the city enjoying herself. She regaled me every evening with her discoveries, making me green with jealousy. But we had decided that I would take a day off at the end of my official rounds and spend a long weekend together being tourists, so I told myself to be patient and bide my time. On Friday, Andy (not his real name, but tour guides in this part of the world will often adopt a Western name to make it easier for us dumb Westerners), Andy as I say, was waiting for for us at the door of the hotel with his tuk-tuk
in which he swept us off (well, “swept off” may be exaggerated, given the venerable speed at which tuk-tuks go) for a visit to Oudong, Cambodia’s capital prior to Phnom Penh. After puttering across the flat plain surrounding Phnom Penh for a while, we finally sighted in the distance the phnom (“hill” in Khmer) which had been the centre of Oudong.
After some more puttering, we arrived at the base of this hill, and were immediately surrounded by a cloud of boys shouting greetings, asking us where we came from, and directing us to the loo (after nearly two hours of puttering, we were both more than ready to answer calls of nature).
Following this pit stop, we made for the steps which would carry us to the top of the phnom. We huffed and we puffed slowly up the steps – all 509 of them
accompanied by a charming little boy, one of the cloud, who went by the name of Monette. His English was approximate, but he used it bravely to explain to us the sights we passed, the first of which was some exceedingly cheeky monkeys who hung around the steps like a pack of bad boys, ready to snatch lotus flowers from the unwary passer-by and snack on their stamens (or do I mean their pistils?)
One did just that to a group of young women in front of us, who came running back down the stairs screaming and clutching at each other. I moved forward bravely towards the insolent monkey as he sat on the steps munching the stamens (or do I mean pistils?). He looked me in the eye, and calmly walked off into the surrounding bushes holding his booty and showing me his bum. I mustered as much of my dignity as I could and Carried On.
With one final heaving huff and one further ragged puff, we staggered to the top. With the excuse of admiring the view
After walking around it, we wended our way along the crest, from one stupa to the next, with Monette scampering along and giving us fractured, splintered explanations, until we got to the last, a stupa with four faces.
Well! This was a pleasant discovery! Those four faces staring benevolently out to the four cardinal points were intriguing indeed.
I must confess, my first – wholly irreverent – thought was that they reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine of my youth.
But then another memory floated to the surface, from several years ago when my wife and I visited Angkor Wat, several hundred kilometers upriver from where we were currently standing, on the edges of Tonle Sap lake: Prasat Bayon, the shrine to Mahayana Buddhism, the temple of the 200 faces of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Yes, this must have been the model of the stupa before me.
Ah, what a lovely, lovely temple is Prasat Bayon! The bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas smiling at you wherever you stand, wherever you look. A thousand rays of compassion sweeping us visitors and what had been the surrounding city.
But King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple and who replaced the Khmers’ state religion of Hinduism with Mahayana Buddhism (and whose face, many think, was the model of the bodhisattvas at Prasat Bayon)
merely copied from a previous model for his design, that of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Brahma is very often represented with four heads, each reading one of the four Vedas. Temples dedicated to him are rare, but there was one close to Angkor Wat, on Phnom Bok. The quadruple-headed bust below, from that temple, is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, no doubt “taken in for its protection” (or do I mean filched?) by the-then French colonial masters.
There is also a regionally famous Brahma-derived statue here in Bangkok, down the road (as it were) from where we live: Phra Phrom (a Thai rendition of Brahma).
He is considered the deity of good fortune and protection. Since he has a solid following among the Chinese of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and knowing the proclivity of the Chinese to gamble, I rather suspect that Brahma has gone from being the god of creation to the god of gamblers. How the mighty have fallen …
And on this melancholy note, it was time to leave my reveries and move on. My wife and I made our way back down the hill, at the bottom of which we gave Monette 10 dollars for his services, enjoining him to use it for his schooling (he had informed us that he was going to a paying school) but fearing that it might end up instead in the pockets of his “minders”. We picked our way past the rubbish left by previous visitors and a monkey snacking on the boiled rice thrown away by one of them, we climbed into Andy’s tuk-tuk, and we puttered our way back to Phnom Penh.
Andy’ tuk-tuk: https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh/photos/pcb.290625764427281/290625417760649/?type=1&theater (in https://www.facebook.com/AndyFriendlyTukTukPhnomPenh)
Oudong from a distance: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/32298005.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/32298005)
Stairs at Oudong: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2825/10724616273_e3e9cf04b7_z.jpg (in http://iwandered.net/2013/11/07/day-trip-to-oudong-cambodia/)
Monkey: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7420/8993459951_7619376cd4_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/kamimura4401/8993459951/)
View from the top: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Yk57J-xzt4Y/UFLx1bIbIrI/AAAAAAAABPA/Mdq0Z5_DBuM/s1600/Oudong6.png (in http://www.camtravel.info/2012/09/oudong-mountain-cambodia.html#.VIB9hGIaySM)
First stupa: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Sanchak_Mony_Chedei.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oudong)
Stupa with faces: https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3018/3087092115_26ee767788_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/zapata_k/3087092115/)
Stupa with faces – close up: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-aAJEmmCf6h8/Um5lWw9rdxI/AAAAAAAAxbg/FBPq3MXQ0_U/s1600/23+Close+Up+of+Four-faced+Top+Cambodia+Oudong+Temple+Cycling-358.jpg (in http://jotarofootsteps.blogspot.com/2013/10/sites-oudong-temple-cambodia.html)
Thomas the tank engine: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-KiFNIBZmqPI/TxKoxis-FrI/AAAAAAAAAJY/sVCzG4VTLd0/s1600/ThomastheTankEngine.jpg (in http://latestnewsfromtpandt.blogspot.com/2012/01/thomas-tank-engine-review.html)
Bayon temple-1: http://www.rickmann-uk.com/wp-content/uploads/Bayon-three-faces.jpg (in http://www.rickmann-uk.com/index.php/2007/06/05/angkor-temples-cambodia/)
Bayon temple-2: http://jcinnamonphotography.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/bayon-temple-faces-2.jpg (in http://jcinnamonphotography.wordpress.com)
Bayon temple-3: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:Das_Lächeln_von_Angkor.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
King Jayavarman VII: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon#/image/File:JayavarmanVII.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon)
Brahma: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Brahma_Musée_Guimet_1197_1.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)
Phra Phrom: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#/image/File:Thai_4_Buddies.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahma#Temples)