Chenla (1.5) Kâmpôt and Phnom Bokor

While sitting in a bar in Kâmpôt one evening I overheard a woman at the next table say, “I didn’t even know there was a Cambodian coastline until my second trip here.” Cameron pulled an ironical face at me and suggested aloud that she invest in an atlas or a guidebook before flying halfway round the world. The woman, not hearing him, continued to say the first time that she’d focused on Phnom Pénh and the temples of Angkor and had thought the kingdom was landlocked, imagining that Tonle Sap was the closest thing the country came to a sea. It was only on looking a options for a second trip that she had realized that the country had a port, Sihanoukville, and even some beaches! While her speech did suggest a rather tentative grasp of geography, the Cambodian coastline was shortish and none of its major temple sites were along its Gulf of Siam coast, suggesting that the Khmers had always been more of a riverine than coastal people. Perhaps her misunderstanding was indicative of the way that neither Cambodians or their foreign visitors thought of the land primarily in terms of the its seas.

Kâmpôt was one of the four coastal provinces of Cambodia, but its main town, Kâmpôt , was not set on the sea. Its main business district and tourist precinct was set on the east bank of the Kâmpôt  River, which was located just a few kilometres inland. Its riverside had one of the most picturesque backdrops in all Cambodia, with the sluggish river sliding beneath the old railway bridge from the colonial era and the green peak of Phnom Bokor hoisted like a giant green circus-tent on the horizon. The strip of weathered old shop-houses along the riverfront had, like so many Cambodian towns, been abandoned to the swallows during the years of the mass-killings and it was only in recent years they had sprung to life again. Their new lease of life was in housing restaurants , guesthouses and cafes for the backpackers who had ‘discovered’ Kâmpôt as an alternative to Sihanoukville. As the  waiter at our bar observed, “I’m from Phnom Penh but I love it here in Kâmpôt . It’s so peaceful and relaxing. I tried Sihanoukville but the people there are party animals. Here life is quiet.” For us the town had a mellow atmosphere which won us over entirely. The evenings were given over to a nightly round of Mojitos and Margaritas while watching the sun set over Phnom Bokor. There was then live music in some of the bars but Donal preferred billiards, so we would usually end up in one of the quieter places drinking and shooting pool.

For breakfast we would usually end up at Sisters II Bakery, which was set in a quiet backstreet of Sino-French shop-houses with peeling stucco and wooden shutters. It got hot early in Cambodia and by breakfast time, the bright sun was already at paint-bleaching brightness. It had a small veranda where we could sit just out the sun for our breakfast orders of pastries and coffee. The food was unusually well-suited to the Western palette and numerous backpackers have filled the internet with paeans of praise for its cookies, brownies and pancakes. For those wanting more of a local flavor, the chicken amok also comes recommended. But what was most memorable about the place for us was the stories which the proprietress told us.

She told us that her parents had been killed during the Khmer Rouge period and she had ended up in an institution run by an American missionary. Looking behind her I noticed all the Christian paraphernalia on the walls, such as crucifixes and embroidered scenes from the New Testament. There were also photos of her family in Church. While listening to her speak of her life in an orphanage, I thought, most uncharitably, that missionaries had made full use of the catastrophe to gain fresh converts. But that was perhaps unjustifiably harsh. The woman herself spoke very highly of the American missionary who had raised her and many of her other ‘sisters’. She mentioned that this American had taught her and her ‘sisters’ how to bake and that there were other branches of the ‘Sisters Bakery’ in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. I decided that in spite of my reservations the church had clearly made a tremendous difference in this woman’s life and had probably saved the woman from a life of poverty and hardship. At this point she said, ‘They’re aren’t my real sisters. We were all orphans.” She then paused for a moment and then added, “There are orphans everywhere in Cambodia.”

After breakfast on the second day, we set off on a day trip on the back of the motorbikes we had rented from our hotel. Our ultimate destination was to be the Cave Temples of Kâmpôt, but the first stop on our excursion was to ride up the newly-built Chinese road to the top of Phnom Bokor. From our hotel, we crossed the rattling old railway bridge and then drove due west to the turn out, with Phnom Bokor hulking to our right the whole way. I was seated behind Donal while Cameron rode on ahead. The turn off to Bokor, once known for its French colonial hill station on the peak, was a few kilometres outside town and from there it was said to be another winding forty kilometres to the top.

As we began to climb up from the coastal plain, cool green forest closed on either side. This was, at least in theory, Bokor National Park, home to leopards monkeys and precious mountain forest, but like all of Cambodia’s national parks, it was pretty much up for sale or rent from corrupt officialdom, and in this case the Chinese had been the highest bidder. On the way up the main sign of Chinese commercial interest was the brand-new, sealed road, one of the best on show anywhere in Cambodia. Judging by the rutted, crumbling remnants of the old road which were sometimes still in evidence alongside the new one, this was no bad thing. Coming up here just a few years before would have been a bone-breaking jaunt which only the most hardened of backpackers would have relished.

But the nastiest side of the development was only in evidence once we reached the plateau atop Phnom Bokor. Here was an exhibition centre which revealed plans to build a whole ‘new city’ on the plateau- all of this within the confines of a national park. There was already a cement factory which had been built nearby to aid in the goal of smothering the entire area in concrete. Cement mixers were already lined up at the sight, carrying off their next load to their respective construction sights. It was almost impossible to imagine how much devastation was about to be visited on this once-pristine environment.

Worst of all lay ahead: the Chinese-built casino which was the centrepiece of the entire project. It lay at the top of a slight slope in all its monstrous ugliness, seemingly without any windows. The multi-story building was incongruously yellow and looked like any other anonymous building on the outskirts of a major Asian city. There was no sight yet of the golf course or fun parks which were promised, but there was already a large car-park for the Cambodian elite to park their vehicles. True, there had been a French-era casino up here, which had become a ghostly ruin after Khmer Rouge guerrillas had overrun the national park at the start of the 197os, but this had been an elegant structure which had never dominated the environment. This thing promised to turn Cambodia’s best-known mountain into a theme park.

Just a few kilometres up the road, we arrived at the remnants of the old Bogor hill station. There were just a few structures and some broken walls left of the old settlement and the heath vegetation which grew all around them. The former Catholic Church was perhaps the most atmospheric of the remaining structures. We parked the bikes and walked up to it. While the outer walls still stood, the pews had been ripped out during the Khmer Rouge period and ominous charcoal graffiti covered the walls. It still had the abandoned ghostly feel which had attracted adventurers up here in years past; we were relieved the Chinese developers hadn’t tried to turn it into a real estate agency or a souvenir shop yet. For this really was the fate which had befell the old French casino. While it hadn’t been demolished, the ongoing renovations were completely ham-fisted and it seemed have been concrete rendered. This was no longer the elegant ruin we had seen in all the travel literature on Bokor. True, the views from the area were still magnificent. Right behind the former French casino was a precipitously steep decline, which fell a thousand metres down to the coastal plain. Thick jungle clad the slopes of the mountain, the Gulf of Siam was beautifully blue and you could see all the way to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnamese waters, but it was difficult to feel any pleasure at what we had found atop Phnom Bokor.

Bokor's French-era church
Bokor’s French-era church

Funan (1.4) Was Funan Indianized?

Culturally, Funan and Chenla are continuous. Their artists produced some of the world’s greatest stone sculptures, most of which are large, freestanding icons, carved in sandstone. Intended to be installed in brick-built shrines, none of which survive, they usually represent the two major deities of Hinduism, Shiva and Vishnu.

This statement comes from the Britannica entry on the art of Funan and Chenla and contains much that is contentious. There is at least one highly controversial assertion here, namely that, “Culturally, Funan and Chenla are continuous”, which is linked to the equally controversial claim that Funan was Hindu. There is a third point which is just completely wrong: in point, the assertion that no “brick-built shrines…survive” from these kingdoms. We have already encountered one on top of Phnom Da and dozens more await us along the Stung Sten River. But the entry does raise an interesting question that is worth exploring before we move on. Was Funan Indianized?

A wonderful sculpture of Vishnu from Phnom Da

Above is a beautiful image of Vishnu the Preserver, the most important of the Hindu trimurkti (Trinity) of Gods in early Southeast Asia. Though it is inspired by Indian models, it already has the Asianized, almond-shaped eyes that are one of the hallmarks of Mon-Khmer art. It is also has the tall, cylindrical kiritamukata hair-cover which is associated with Khmer statuary and is, I suspect, one of the main reasons that many Westerners are reminded of ancient Egypt when they come across a collection of Khmer art. Looking at a Khmer sculpture, the Western tourist is likely to think of Queen Nefertiti!

This is one of a small school of images known as the Phnom Da style, because they were all found on or within the vicinity of the sacred hillock. This particular image hails from just across the border in Vietnam and was uncovered when a water reservoir was being dug in 1963. Sadly, it has since fallen into private hands and exists in a collection in- of all places- Switzerland.

In the history of Khmer sculpture, The Phnom Da style is the earliest phase and so its dating is very important. It can help us to locate the moment when the Khmers started producing the kinds of temples and statuary we associate with their ‘classic period’ and it also establishes when the art of Cambodia first became highly Indianized. As with many debates about these early kingdoms, George Coedes was the source of many controversies. The great Orientalist had argued that the Phnom Da sculptures dated from the sixth century and were hence associated with the court of the final king of Funan, known by Coedes as Rudravarman. It is easy to see why this idea appealed to him. Linking these Hindu sculptures to the earliest great kingdom of the region, he could confirm his existing bias that India and China had exerted a great civilizing influence over the backwoods of Southeast Asia. The first great Cambodian kingdom was the first one to assimilate the high civilization of India.

Yet in recent years Professor Dowling from the University of Hawaii, who spent months excavating Angkor Borei during the second half of the 1990s, has argued that these Phnom Da statues belong to the seventh not the sixth century and are thus the handiwork of Chenla, who had subjugated Funan through military conquest around this time. She persuasively argues that only around the middle of the seventh century, after Chenla had conquered Funan, “does the artistic evidence suggest that local rulers seriously began to adopt Indian practices and beliefs that were to characterize Southeast Asia for the next 1000 years.”

So if Dowling is right, Britannica and George Coedes are completely wrong and rather than being a cultural continuity, Funan and Chenla were birds of a different feather. The idea that Funan was not particularly Indianized, at least in terms of art, appeals greatly to me. It means that the Mekong Delta region had already thrown up one important kingdom before the region became disticntly Hindu, stressing the importance of indigenous Southeast Asians in the rise of powerful, outward-looking kingdoms. Before the people of the delta region become devotees of Vishnu and Siva, building brick shrines to these Indian gods, they had already built great moats and ramparts around their own capital city at Angkor Borei and sent ambassadors all the way to the Chinese imperial court.

Funan (1.3) Digging for Funan

For a long time, the only real sources of information about Funan came to the Western world via China. We know, for example, that Funanese emissaries first reached China in the year 225 AD, opening official diplomatic and commercial relations between the two Asian states. In addition, we have accounts of Chinese visitors to ancient South-East Asia. Needless to say, these accounts of ancient Chinese travellers are far from ideal. They are often more interested in Funanese mythology than history, and we need to bear in mind that they are written by foreigners who viewed these Early South-East Asian societies with a superficial understanding of the culture they were observing. Still, they did offer some tantalizing glimpses of the vanished kingdom. One of the more interesting passages dealt with the penal system of Funan, based on painful ordeals. It shows us a deeply supernatural worldview, in which a man carrying a red-hot chain would only be scorched if he were guilty- this as a matter of celestial punishment.

They have no prisons. In case of dispute, they throw gold rings and eggs into boiling water; they must be pulled out. Or else they heat a chain red hot; this must be carried in the hands seven steps. The hands of the guilty are completely scorched; the innocents are not hurt. Or else the accused are made to jump into the water. The one who is right enters the water but does not sink; the one who is in error sinks.

In recent years, however, a second stream of information about Funan has been made available- that coming from archaeological digs. There has been no richer source of information than that coming from the small village of Angkor Borei, located just kilometres from the Vietnamese frontier. Though not all this data has been analyzed and published yet, it had already broadened the knowledge base about Funan.

The modern village of Angkor Borei sits at the end of the grand canal from Takéo, which was built by Cambodian forced labor during the Khmer Rouge period. It is the centre of Angkor Borei District, a backwoods border region of a poor nation. It has recently been connected with Phnom Phenh by a sealed road, which has removed the need to ship goods up to Takéo first. In consequence, the village is booming and its waterfront is filled with small put-puts bringing vegetables, fruits, live chickens and household goods across the watery frontier. Yet it is not this river life, but its former position as the centre of a powerful kingdom, which puts it on the cultural tourism map. Situated only three kilometres from Phnom Da, it makes an obvious stop on a tour of the area.

By the time we arrived in Angkor Borei, the day had reached a fiery intensity and Donal was giving Cameron and I resentful looks, as if he were in danger of incineration. We climbed up the embankment and found that the museum was in the form of a modern Khmer wat and set at the bend in the river. Just behind it was an elegant, French-style colonial building in a sad state of disrepair. Noting our interest in the structure, the Khmer caretaker pointed at it and said, “Old museum”, and then turned to the neighbouring building and added, “New museum.” At least he was trying to be helpful.

The ‘new’ museum was a small one-room affair that had been put together by the European Union. It seemed that the pick of the finds had been sent on to Phnom Phenh or perhaps even Paris and the caretaker took great delight in gesturing at different displays and saying either, “Original”, or, “Not original”- by which he meant a replica. Overall, it seemed that the good stuff had been shipped off elsewhere, though there were plenty of different earthenware pots and water-jugs which were ‘original’. The most impressive displays was some (replica) stone statuary. Foremost among these was a fine carving of Vishnu, one of the triad of Hinduism’s most beloved dieties. Featuring the head and torso, it has a readily identifiable Khmer appearance for those who have been to the great ruins at Angkor. After seeing this statue, I was convinced that Funan was not only an Indianized kingdom but also Khmer. This wonderful statue, hailing from Phnom Da, seemed to be clearly a part of a Khmer cultural continuity which encompassed Angkor in its later phases. This certainty was to be shaken only much later when I encountered a persuasive essay by Professor Dowling which argued that this Vishnu statue hailed from the seventh century and was a creation of Chenla, the Khmer kingdom which eventually subjugated Funan. This  argument made it likely that Funan and Chenla were quite distinct culturally.

The museum contains both antiquities and replicas

There were also Buddhist statues from later centuries, which showed that Angkor Borei had remained a centre of the later Chenla kingdom, though it had clearly been founded in the Funanese era. In its later imperial phase, it seemed that Buddhists and Vishnuites might peacefully have co-mingled on the paths (and waterways) of this ancient town.

Apart from the statues and ewers, the museum did extend our knowledge of this city a little. We were struck by the fact that the city had once been surrounded by earthenware walls six kilometres around. These consisted of brock foundations with heaped earth on top and apparently large sections of the walls had remained to the present day, though they were now built over. There were also moats around the town, some twenty-two megtres across and a network of canals radiating outwards from the town. These walls and moats were thought to date back to the first half of the first millenium, strongly suggesting that Angkor Borei was a major Funanese city. Building earthworks of this size must have been a monumental undertaking in the third to sixth centuries and proved that the ancient ruler of these parts must have had a large army of labour at his disposal. Though there was litle to see on the surface today but canals, baray (resevoirs) and earthen ramparts, the scale on which these had been constructed suggested to an important ancient city.

While outside the museum, there was not much for the tourist to ‘see’ at Angkor Borei, we certainly got the sense that this litle village had played a far prouder role at one point in history. Indeed, along with the port cityof Oc-Eo in Vietnam- now largely destroyed- this was clearly one of the main centres of the kingdom we know as Funan. Cambodia had re-centered itself over the centuries and its later centres- Isanapura, Angkor, Lopburi- had been shifted further and further from the swampy, lush and maddeningly humid Mekong Delta, but it was here, in this watery landscape, that Khmer civilization had its roots.

Funan (1.3) American Missiles and Phnom Da

It is now thirty-seven years since the end of the Vietnam War came to an end. Yet everywhere you go in Indochina, the war and its aftermath can still be felt. The crashed bombers and missile casings may have been collected and sold for scrap metal, most of the Communist ideology of the victors has been cast off as scrap as well, yet you cannot travel long in this region without being somehow reminded of the apocalypse which engulfed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the middle part of the twentieth century. This is especially the case in Cambodia, where the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia heralded the arrival of one of history’s cruellest and most murderous regimes: The Khmer Rouge. We hardly expected to encounter the region’s violent Cold War history while climbing Phnom Da, a sacred hill known for its ancient temples and statuary rather than its associations with twentieth century events, but almost everywhere you go in Cambodia the landscape is littered with the wreckage of the war, and here was to be no exception.

It didn’t start out that way, however. At first we were just excited to have arrived in this remote part of Cambodia and looking forward to seeing the temples on the hill. As the boatman tied up our rental, we walked up towards a collection of buildings ahead. Like everywhere else in rural Cambodia, there seemed to be small children everywhere: the country’s population had almost tripled since the ousting of the Khmer Rouge- as if the locals were trying to repopulate the land after the mass-killings. In their dirty, disheveled clothes, these children seemed even poorer than the village children we had encountered along the main roads, and I think we all felt some of the awkwardness that well-fed tourists feel on entering a deeply impoverished community.

We bought three entrance tickets to the hill for $2 apiece, and a very small girl attached herself to us and appointed herself as our guide. She appeared to be only six or seven years old but malnutrition is a scourge in rural Cambodia, and we considered that she may have been considerably older and that her growth may have been stunted. Having spent many years living in Indonesia, I was somewhat surprised that a young girl should have been permitted to guide foreign tourists up a scrubby hill. It would have been unimaginable in Indonesia, especially in a traditional rural community.

The path up the hill was surrounded by thick shrubbery on all sides and there were some tall trees, casting the path into shadow. As we climbed up the winding path, views backwards towards the canal opened and by the time we had reached the crest some ten minutes later, we were afforded magnificent views out over the floodplain. Having come for the history, we had not anticipated much in the way of scenery, but the glowing green of the floodplain, stretching away towards the border with Vietnam, a mere eight kilometres away, was a magnificent sight in its own right. In most parts of the world, Phnom Da would have been classed as a mere hill, but in the low-lying, waterlogged lands on the edge of the Mekong Delta, it commanded views far across the landscape and it was possible to sympathize with the ancients who had regarded the place as a ‘sacred mountain’.

The temple itself was on a more massive scale than I had expected. In Java, the oldest Hindu shrines are small, boxy and tentative. This Hindu temple, the oldest surviving in all of Cambodia, was already monumental in its size and conception. Now our sources told us that what we see today may date from the 10th or 11th centuries and be an Angkor-era restoration, but the foundations are said to date back to the 6th or 7th century and have long been attributed to Funan- though this is contested. It may well be that the original temple was already on a grand scale, showing that the early Khmer rulers of the region were already ambitious builders.

Prasat Phnom Da, damaged by the Vietnam War
Prasat Phnom Da, damaged by the Vietnam War

The temple faces northward but the path comes up at the rear, arriving at a ‘false door’, as shown in the picture. This motif was to be repeated innumerable times over the centuries in Cambodia and it is worth mentioning that stone imitations of wooden architecture are a common theme in the architecture of this kingdom. There are also some elaborate lintels over some of the doors but the interior of this brick and sandstone monument is empty, its central image long since removed. Despite being empty, the interior of the temple does boast one surprise- a large missile hole in the roof.

With the border with Vietnam being within sight, Viet Cong soldiers often slipped into Cambodia during the war, and it seems that the once-dark interior of this ancient temple was one of the favorite hiding spots. Yet if they thought that American respect for history was a magic talisman against raining missiles, they were mistaken. The Americans had sent a missile straight through the roof of Prasat Phnom Da, obliterating everything inside. While we don’t want to compare the destruction of a single temple to the vast human suffering of the war, it is surely a great folly to destroy a 1500 year old historical site for the gain of killing a few enemy combatants. It is said that the Head of the Louvre personally contacted the CIA after they bombed Mi Son, a former Cham temple complex in Vietnam, and asked them to stop the devastation of Indochina’s cultural heritage, which took a heavy toll during the 60s and 70s. It seemed that in the height of that war, not even holy mountains were sacred.

Funan (1.1) In Search of Funan

The ‘port’ of Takeo is not an impressive affair, especially at the end of the dry season. A few wooden boats with outboard motors are moored along the shore, and some rickety wooden stilt-houses perch above the entrance to the canal. The water is a dull muddy color, like tea dregs, and there is very little of it; you get the impression that in a drought year it might dry up altogether. Still, for the romantic traveller, the idea of the place has some appeal: today, just as in the time of the kingdom of Funan, these canals can take you all the way into Vietnam and The Mekong Delta, connecting this remote part of the country with the South China Sea and some of the busiest sea-lanes in the world.

It was the unique access of this part of Cambodia to the wider world which had encouraged the activity of ancient traders and had eventually promoted the growth of a trading city at Angkor Borei, the final destination for our planned day trip. This site had been extensively excavated by French archaeologists since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1998, providing evidence that it was a major centre of the kingdom known to Chinese annals and modern historians as Funan. We were setting off in search of this most elusive of Cambodian kingdoms.

We do not propose to offer a detailed history of this kingdom here. This is the realm of expert historians not curious backpackers. For those with the disposition, we have provided links to some of the more informative websites we have found about this ancient kingdom. But in the broadest terms we know that the earliest kingdom in present-day Cambodia, at least according to Chinese sources, was called Funan. The famous archaeologist George Coedes suggested that this name might have been a corruption of the Khmer word phnom meaning hill or mountain. By extension he was suggesting that Funan was ethnically Khmer- an assertion which has also proved controversial. What is not disputed is that the kingdom of Funan spent tribute to China periodically between 253 and 519. We also know that Chinese travellers visited Funan several times, leaving scant but tantalizing reports. The one which is most evocative, at least for me, is as follows:

The king’s dwelling has a double terrace on it. Palisades take the place of walls inside fortified places. The houses are covered with the leaves of a plant which grows at the edge of the sea. These leaves are six to seven feet long and take the form of a fish. The king rides mounted on an elephant. His subjects are ugly and black; their hair is black; they wear neither clothing nor shoes….These barbarians are not without their own history books; they even have archives for their texts.

The passage suggested numerous fascinating questions: Was this Chinese traveller of eighteen centuries ago describing the earliest Khmer kingdom? Was the king mounted on his elephant the comparitively humble predecessor of Suryawarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, and Norodom Sihanouk, the current monarch of the nation of Cambodia? Where the history books refered in the text written in Sanskrit or an ancient form of Khmer? Did the Chinese traveller imply that the king of Funan ruled over a subject people who were ethnically different from himself? Khmers are not frizzy haired. Did he rule over some form of Asian ‘Negrito’ people or perhaps some obscure branch of the Malay race? After all, he had mainland Malay neighbours in the kingdom of Champa and Cham villages can still be found along the major waterways of Cambodia.

Knowing that we would find few answers in the flooded rice paddies of eastern Cambodia, I was nonetheless glad to be setting off through the landscapes- or rather waterscapes- where these earliest episodes of Cambodian history took place. From Takeo, the main canal led due east towards the border with Vietnam. With few other boats about, we made rapid progress and the views were spectacular, despite the uniform flatness of the landscape. The chief beauty of the region was its brilliant show of color: the whole landscape was saturated with shades of lime green and yellow-green, sometimes bordering on chartreuse. In the extraordinary lushness of the delta soils, everything from the rice crop to the river reeds was a bright and luscious.

Along the earthen walls of the canal, occasional rude shelters had been set up. These small, thatched shelters were temporary accomodation for people out tending the rice fields, fishing in the canal or guarding the flocks of ducks which were being farmed in the canal, fenced in by mesh nets. On the way out to Phnom Da, our first stop, we passed several dozen of these makeshift duck farms, most of them watched over by Cambodian boys, who sat perched on the banks. Though on a couple of occasions they were wading chest-deep in the water, either fixing the nets or herding the ducks. There were no villages in sight and living out there amongst the flooded rice paddies, amid the croaking of frogs, was an existence as far removed from that of the average Westerner as I was able to imagine.

Because of the remarkable flatness of the landscape, even minor hillocks appeared as mountains in that part of the country. Throughout our half an hour speedboat trip, we had often caught glimpses of Phnom Da- a rocky protuberance, part-covered in vegetation- with the ruins of an ancient temple situated on its crest. After a while we turned off the main canal and made our way directly towards this single hill in a world of water. Eventually the driver turned down the engine and we glided towards the base of the hill. Hearing our engine, a mob of Cambodian children came running towards the banks. It seemed there was a small village located at the base of the holy hill.

Interesting Funan and Chenla Websites