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Published: September 19th 2011
After much of my time here spent being ill, I relished the opportunity to escape the confines of Phnom Penh and embrace the visit to the Udong mountains and celebrate the festival of the dead (Pchum Ben) with Khmers from all over Cambodia. They are called the Udong mountains but this is only in contrast to the utter flatness of the landscape surrounding them. In reality they are hills. They look pretty big from a distance too but probably no bigger than the hill I would walk up to work (Barrack Hill). Maybe a little bigger.
Regardless of the size, the first thing you notice upon arriving at Udong is the sign which reads "Foreigner $1". Everyone else gets in for free. I know it is 70 pence, but I resent the decision to charge me for my skin colour. You would never get away with it in England......Nor would you get away with 12 people squeezed in to a 5 man, four door saloon, and yes two were sitting in the drivers seat. It became a game to see which car, bus, taxi or tuk tuk was the most over crowded.
We approached the glorious site with the crowds of
provincial Khmers amid the intimidating pagodas and huge statues dancing in the water. Rich golds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues reflected off the paintwork and sparkled in the already over hot sun. A true testiment to faith or a nation impoverished for an ideal? It reminded me of the inconsistencies within the Vatican church and the Sistine chapel. Beautiful, historic and magnificent, but at what price?
Armed with crates of rice, curry, vegetables, we marched in to the central Pagoda only to reveal a sea of white surrounded by safron. The nuns (in white) crowded in the centre of the room kneeling towards the alter which was decorated bazaarly in flashing flourescent lights, and grotesque buddhas. Unlike anything I had seen in Thailand. It was all a bit Las Vegas. The monks (in saffron) seated around the outside of the room stared longingly at the food in front of them. Some of them so thin, they looked like they had not eaten for months. Freshly shaved heads (men and women) bobbed about in prayer, discussion or the nodding of thanks to a Khmer offering them food. A few nuns came and spoke to us white foreigners without realising we
had an army of Khmers with us from our work who had invited us along. But they all spoke wonderful English.
We Knelt down in front of three monks with heavily lined leathery faces which betrayed an otherwise peaceful expression. Each line with a story to tell. The monks blessed the food and blessed us then we carried the mass of food, weaving in and out of the shaven heads careful not to spill it or trip up.
A polestyrene bowl full of rice was placed in to my hands and I was instructed to empty the contents bit by tiny bit in to twelve black larger bowls lined up in a row. The idea is that when evenly distributed, there is equality. I do not understand this practice fully but enjoyed the challenge of measuring my bowl of rice out equally.
After, we trapsed to the front in single file, again avoiding the holy heads eagerly waiting for their food, we took three lit incense sticks and placed them steadily between out hands which were in a prayer position; flat and together. Our hands raised to our foreheads, a mark of the highest respect, reserved for Monks and
Buddha, before moving them back and forth three times. Once this was done, you made a wish and placed the unlit end of the burning sticks into a vat of liquid wax where they would eventually burn out and the wish complete.
Moments later, the hungry monks pounced on the rich smelling plates of food in front of them before devouring them fevourishly.
We left the monks to their banquet and embraced the next ceremony. Again, I do not know it's name but it was one which asked for forgiveness for sins or troubles. There were five mounds of heaped sand, one in the centre, arranged like a dice. Bowls full of money, inscence sticks and flags adorned these little mountains. I went from each offering 100 riel (a matter of pence, if that), one of my five insence sticks and my apologies for sins I have committed. The last mound to tackle was the central one. Here I placed my money in the bowl, my insence stick in to the mound, my apologies and a fist full of sand sprinkled on top. All was going well until the entire thing collapsed under the weight of a few grains
of sand. An old monk with heavy wrinkles grinned at me, revealing two gold teeth.
The site held a few pagodas and buildings. It was a huge community of monks and nuns, all living there in this holy community amongst the grand architecture. In one smaller building, a large number of Cambodians climbed up and down a short flight of stairs, following them revealed a dead monk. I seem to have an ability to seek them out in the middle of nowhere. The dead monks I meet tend to have dedicated their self-mummified bodies to their temples and they practice withdrawing from food and water towards the end of their life in order to enter a state of mummification and this preserves their leathery bodies for longer. This guy however was much younger and was not ready to enter that state. He had been shot. Obviously he had ruffled a few feathers in the government or at the monastry. His body had started to decompose at a much quicker rate, his eyes had sunken, his veins bulged awkwardly and the skin of his toes shrivelled around the bones. I didn't stick around for long.
We climbed to the
top of the Udong mountain range (two hills), where the bones of Buddha and the remains of kings are laid to rest in bell shaped concrete blocks, similar to the idea of the pyramids. It was hot and I was still not good after having been ill again. I struggled up the 400 and something steps, all the while being followd by a young boy armed with a huge fan that he flapped in front of me and behind me. He marched with me all the way to the top. Aware this was a ploy to be paid, he battled on and ignored my "Lee-hi's" Good byes. At the top he stood with me as I shook from lack of food and dehydration and he continued to wave the fan to cool me down. I was thankful for this little soldier, so i bought him a can of drink and gave him $0.50. Moments later, sweating, and looking pretty much like an ogre, a Khmer couple approached me and asked to have their photo taken with me. I stood awkwardly whilst the lady put her arm around me and smiled at the thought of her trophy photo. I imagined her
waving a photo of her with a huge blonde foreigner towering over her at her friends. After, I put my palm out and said "One dolla". They laughed, I felt violated.
The walk down, we encountered wild monkeys arguing with those struggling past them up the steps, fighting for food and attention. The heat unbearable, stomach playing up, I was desperate for home. Desperate for a fan, shade, cold. Freezing cold. As the days go by, I dream of staying in an air conditioned room and just sitting their freezing whilst watching crazy Korean pop videos. This has been discussed with a fellow housemate, Jen as a serious possibility.
Back in the city of Phnom Penh, I heard KFC call my name. I gave in. It wasnt hard though. The idea of more rice and more upset stomachs was enough to put me off.
Relfecting upon the day, I feel blessed to have been able to experience such a beautiful ceremony. A ceremony where families celebrate the dead on one day together. The juxtoposition of the wealth in religion and impoverished lifestyles led by monks, the pungent smells of assorted dishes, the mountains of rice, the sea
of shaved heads clothed in white or saffron robes, the eye watering insence sticks, the Las Vegas style Buddhas. An enriching and eye opening memory. One I will never forget and one I am thankful for being apart of.
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