Roat has big white teeth, the skinny wiry frame of a tree-faring monkey, and speaks way better English than some of my family members who have been living in the United States for more than three decades. He followed me after I first asked him a question inside the Athaross temple on the top of Phnom Oudong, the former epicenter of Cambodia before the power was transferred to Phnom Penh as well as the site of the remains of many Cambodian kings. And then I started to follow Roat.
My little friend proved a very amiable and knowledgeable guide. I walked behind him as we climbed higher and higher and higher up the mountain, until we reached the top and I saw it, the newest addition to the collection of stupas at Phnom Oudong – it was the most beautiful stupa I had ever seen in Cambodia thus far. Well, perhaps I should replace the word “beautiful” with “clean and pristine.” Yes, it was definitely the most clean and pristine stupa I had ever seen in Cambodia so far – and one simply cannot help but take full notice of anything so alarmingly clean and pristine around here.
The delictely chiseled landmark sits majestically atop the mountain. From afar it is a white tower, overlooking the flat lands stretching far into the distance below, a monarch surveying the territories of the realm.
At the bottom of Phnom Oudong, in the center of a very quiet, modest plaza is another stupa, set apart from the scurrying sights and sensational smells of the outdoor market nearby. Roat led me here after we descended the mountain. Its size is dwarfed by the king stupa on its throne above, and while I was there, its audience consisted of not much more than the motorbikes parked around, the song of a bird in a tree, the occasional squirrel, a batch of falling leaves, and a settling cloud of dust from the road. Inside the stupa’s rib caged glass body lays a lonely pile of bones. This is the genocide memorial at the foot of the mountain.
A continuous stream of people will climb the whatever number of steps there are to get up to the top of Phnom Oudong. They will lift their two feet to clump up the stone paths, they will dodge monkeys, they will sweat (well, at least I sweated), to ascend towards the blue sky, to pass each ancient stupa, to get to the peak, where a relic of the Buddha lies. There they rest, pray, and swim in a sea of lotus flowers and incense. They will make this pilgrimage, because you see, religion is anything but dead in Cambodia.
Yes, when you make physical observations of a genocide memorial, it seems like the memory of the genocide is dead, a relic of history itself. The memorial at the bottom of Phnom Oudong does not require much effort to read. There are no stairs or monkeys, and I only expelled just a little bit of sweat, but it is easy to pass by. I certainly passed by it on my way going up the mountain. And for others, it appears to be unnoticeable, even forgettable.
This is a recurring pattern I am finding: unheard of, often dilapidating genocide memorials located on or adjacent to fully functioning religious sites alive with human activity. However, I refuse to believe this is representative of a Khmer neglect or ignorance of genocide history. The Cambodian memory of the genocide is stored somewhere else, far from these scattered collections of monuments and bones.
Thanks Roat for your companionship. I hope you do become a teacher one day. You’d make a great one.