Broken Buddha statues cover a Makor hole among the ruins and roof columns of Atharus Temple on Oudong Mountain.
As modern Cambodia reaches out to China for help, a legendary 13th century power
struggle played out at Oudong between imperial China and the Angkorian empire is
particularly poignant. Bou Saroeun tells the story.
Historical records say that Chinese imperial envoys - most notably Chou Ta Kuan,
whose Customs of Cambodia is the only surviving first hand written account of the
Angkorian empire at its zenith - were sent to Cambodia to study the ways of regional
rivals and their potential for "integration" into the Chinese empire.
According to Khmer legend, reports that these Chinese envoys sent back home described
Angkorian society as progressive, but hampered by habits such as the lack of the
use of proper footwear and eating utensils by the people.
Those envoys warned, however, that Angkor posed a potential danger to Chinese regional
dominance due to the strong elements of positive feng shui or Chinese geomancy embodied
by Preah Reacheatrop Mountain, the former name of today's Oudong Mountain.
According to one envoy's feng shui calculations, Preah Reacheatrop resembled a Makor,
a mythical sea monster. Through some arcane divination the envoy further determined
that a secret tunnel running from the center of the earth through the center of the
mountain was a pathway for the emergence of real, breathing Makor.
When that happened, the envoy feared, Cambodia's power and sophistication would surpass
all others and directly threaten the Middle Kingdom and its emperor.
The Chinese emperor pondered his envoys' warnings and instead of following their
advice to attack and destroy Cambodia while China maintained superior status, he
opted to forestall the threat by ensuring that the Makor never emerged from its mountain
To this end, the emperor ordered that China fund the construction of a huge Buddhist
statue on Oudong, ostensibly as a friendly overture to Khmer Buddhism. In fact, the
Buddha was designed to be built over the mouth of the mountain's tunnel in order
to block the Makor's escape route.
For modern Cambodians with a superstitious bent, the end result of this is plainly
seen: Angkor has long crumbled and Cambodia is leaning on China as a donor of much
needed aid funds.
Of the original temple only the broken walls and columns remain. China's legendary
gift - the huge Buddha statue - has likewise weathered the centuries poorly, headless
and less than half of its torso surviving the ravages of civil war and the Khmer
Hing Thon, a 61-year-old temple laymen who manages the site, told the Post that initial
damage by Lon Nol forces seeking to re-wrest the mountain from the control of the
Khmer Rouge in late 1973 and early 1974 was completed by the victorious Khmer Rouge
after April 17, 1975.
According to Thon, prisoners quartered at the temple during the Pol Pot regime were
ordered by their guards to smash the Buddha statues that survived the Lon Nol forces
attempts to keep the hill.
Remnants of the ravages of war that swept the site in the 70s are everywhere,
with bullet and shrapnel holes pocketing all surviving walls and structures.
In front of the broken Buddha statue a blue pastiche shelter has been erected
with a pair of smaller, more modest Buddhas.
Thon says that even though the original Buddha statue has been destroyed, its
power lingers, bestowing on believers who make offerings success in endeavors ranging
from job searches to the acquisition of visas to enter the United States.
The mountain also boasts a second formerly secret tunnel which was reputedly used
by powerful Buddhist hermits seeking refuge from persecution by French Protectorate-era
Chres Yoeung, who is the guardian of the secret tunnel entrance, says that it remains
a source of power, even though it was blocked with rock by French authorities to
forestall its suspected use as a meeting place for insurrectionists.
"I see those people [dead Buddhist hermits] and their voices coming from the
tunnel sometimes," Yoeung said.
Meanwhile, a huge new stupa on the summit of Oudong is under construction and is
expected to be finished earlier next year.
The new temple, along with an April 20 government decision to protect the site and
its surroundings for its cultural heritage value, will ensure the Makor sleeps soundly
into the next century.