My Cambodian family, as I now think of them, called early Friday morning to suggest a trip to Oudong “mountain,” a 38-km (23.6-mile) drive from the center of Phnom Penh.
The drive turned out to be excruciatingly slow and dusty, thanks to road construction and a relatively minor national holiday. A half-hour journey became one lasting more than one and a half hours. Thankfully, the car was air-conditioned.
The holiday, Meak Bochea Day, is an annual celebration meant to remind followers of Buddha and his teachings. If you aware of the theft of relics of the Buddha and the subsequent arrest of an alleged and unlikely thief, Oudong is where the burglary occurred.
Because of Oudong’s religious significance and the broad expanse of accessible parkland, rare in Phnom Penh, Cambodians flock there on the holiday.
By the time we arrived, long after any ceremonies, the base of the hill was thronged with Cambodians and their vehicles, plus food and other concessions, restaurants in long roofed sheds, and activities that ranged from waiting to use one of two old-fashioned toilets (if you get my drift) to shopping and feasting.
The scene was more like a carnival sans fun rides than a religious observance. The atmosphere was entertaining, enthusiastic and charged with energy. Nice!
The restaurants with rude roofs and open sides are something else. They consist of wooden pallets on which Cambodians are comfortable squatting, not me, plus hammocks slung among them for resting after the climb.
I chose to dangle my legs over the edge while eating half of a sumptuous barbecued chicken, the rest of it having been relegated to chicken soup. Of course, there was rice. Rice, always rice, which I’ve come expect like a native. Soup is served almost as often, the weather notwithstanding.
The food in the restaurants defines “cooked to order.” We ordered the food, picking out the precisely best chicken, before heading up those stairs, which I managed without embarrassing myself.
As for the climb itself, I was hardly the oldest to hike up the stairs. There were elderly men and women assisted by children and grandchildren as they hauled themselves up and then down steps that sometimes were perilously steep with uneven surfaces. I don’t know how they managed the ascent. Faith can be a powerful motivator, I assume.
We were accompanied the whole way by a kid who insisted on fanning us in the hope, eventually realized, of payment. We also passed a disconcerting number of beggars and also witnessed monkeys that were as comfortable with us as we were with each other.
(Remembering an unpleasant experience with monkeys in India, I held tight to my camera.)
At the summit and in areas not far below, we came upon a number of stupas and small temples. Some of them seemed to be ancient, one of the most memorable having a base encircled by a protective band of carved elephants. (At the very top was a gleaming white edifice that I neglected to photograph, not realizing that we had more to see. I wish we hadn’t hurried along, though my stomach was starting to growl impatiently.)
Our five-hour outing was more than a little diverting, an unexpected pleasure — despite the clouds of dust and slow bus we were unable to pass — and another glimpse into a life that has been, until now, quite foreign to me.