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Introducing Udong

Udong (the Victorious) served as the capital of Cambodia under several sovereigns between 1618 and 1866, during which time ‘victorious’ was an optimistic epithet, as Cambodia was in terminal decline. A number of kings, including King Norodom, were crowned here. The main attractions today are the twin humps of Phnom Udong, which have several stupas on them. Both ends of the ridge have good views of the Cambodian countryside dotted with innumerable sugar palm trees.

The larger main ridge – the one you’ll hit first if approaching from NH5 – is known as Phnom Preah Reach Throap (Hill of the Royal Fortune). It is so named because a 16th-century Khmer king is said to have hidden the national treasury here during a war with the Thais.

Ascending the main, monkey-lined north stairway from the parking area, the first structure you come to at the top of the ridge is a modern temple containing a relic of the Buddha, believed to be an eyebrow hair and fragments of teeth and bones. The relics were brazenly stolen in late 2013. Follow the path behind this stupa along the ridge and you’ll come to a line of three large stupas. The first (northwesternmost) is Damrei Sam Poan, built by King Chey Chetha II (r 1618–26) for the ashes of his predecessor, King Soriyopor. The second stupa, Ang Doung, is decorated with coloured tiles; it was built in 1891 by King Norodom to house the ashes of his father, King Ang Duong (r 1845–59), but some say King Ang Duong was in fact buried next to the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. The last stupa is Mak Proum, the final resting place of King Monivong (r 1927–41). Decorated with garudas (mythical half-man, half-bird creatures), floral designs and elephants, it has four faces on top.

Continuing along the path beyond Mak Proum, you'll pass a stone vihara with a cement roof and a seated Buddha inside (looking resplendent in a sailor's cap when we dropped in), then arrive at a clearing dotted by a gaggle of structures, including three small vihara and a stupa. The first vihara you come to is Vihear Prak Neak, its cracked walls topped with a tin roof. Inside this vihara is a seated Buddha who is guarded by a naga (prak neak means ‘protected by a naga’). The second structure also has a seated Buddha inside. The third structure is Vihear Preah Keo, a cement-roofed structure that contains a statue of Preah Ko, the sacred bull; the original statue was carried away by the Thais long ago. Beyond this, near the stupa, red and black mountain lions guard the entrance to a modern brick-walled vihara.

Continue southeast along a lotus-flower-lined concrete path to the most impressive structure on Phnom Preah Reach Throap, Vihear Preah Ath Roes. The vihara and an enormous seated Buddha, dedicated in 1911 by King Sisowath, were blown up by the Khmer Rouge in 1977. The vihara, supported by eight enormous columns and topped by a soaring tin roof, was recently rebuilt, as was the 20m high Buddha.

At the base of the main (northern) staircase leading up to Phnom Preah Reach Throap, near the restaurants, is a memorial to the victims of Pol Pot. It contains the bones of some of the people who were buried in approximately 100 mass graves, each containing about a dozen bodies. Instruments of torture were unearthed along with the bones when a number of the pits were disinterred in 1981 and 1982. Just north of the memorial is a pavilion decorated with graphic murals depicting Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Southeast of Phnom Preah Reach Throap, the smaller ridge has two structures and several stupas on top. Ta San Mosque faces westward towards Mecca. Across the plains to the south of the mosque you can see Phnom Vihear Leu, a small hill on which a vihara (temple sanctuary) stands between two white poles. To the right of the vihara is a building used as a prison under Pol Pot’s rule. To the left of the vihara and below it is a pagoda known as Arey Ka Sap.

Phnom Udong really fills up with locals at weekends but is quiet during the week. Admission is free but myriad beggars and vendors will do their best to get money out of you.

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