The capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866, Udong was sacked by the Thais, bombed by the Americans and blown up by the Khmer Rouge.
Despite this past, a new generation of Khmers have poured interest and money into trying to bring reason to the mayhem and the results form an excellent day trip from Phnom Penh, best done in the late afternoon for the spectacular sunsets.
Set astride a series of hillocks to the south of Route 5, Phnom Udong is made up of a row of stupas and shrines in a variety of conditions that can be thoroughly explored at a comfortable pace in a couple of hours. On weekdays you could well have the entire site to yourself, but on weekends it can be quite busy with visitors and wedding parties from Phnom Penh.
Best approached from the north, your moto will most likely drop you at the base of the stairs toward the northern end of the hill among a cluster of trinket shops and where hordes of children will vie to accompany you during your exploration.
The beggar-lined stairway (509 stairs) runs up to the newest addition to Phnom Udong: a glitzy modern temple home to a Buddha relic, previously housed in Phnom Penh. The attraction here is not so much the stupa as the view over the surrounds, which is breathtaking.
You can take a path that runs along the ridge allowing you to visit each of the sites without going downhill. The next stupa south, Chedi Damrei Sam Poan, holds the remains of King Soriyopor. South again you'll reach Chedi Trai Trang, built by King Norodom to house the remains of his father King Ang Duong. It is distinctive for its yellow colour and four Bayon-style faces at the top. South again lies Chedi Mouk Pruhm, a bland concrete affair holding the remains of King Monivong.
After this the trail rambles downhill then up to a series of four small chapel-like temples, all in fairly poor condition, but very popular with devotees. Of particular interest is the second one (running north to south) which contains a Buddha statue wearing four stars in an unusual military fashion. The last one contains a holy cow replica -- the original cow was apparently made of gold and stolen by the Thais after they sacked the area.
Last, and most impressive, are the remains of Arthaross temple, a massive enclosure which was badly damaged during the war and whose large Buddha image was blown up by the Khmer Rouge in 1977. A massive new golden Buddha has been built and placed inside the temple, which still lacks a roof and remains in disrepair. The rumour is that a wealthy Phnom Penh businesswoman paid for the new Buddha to be built. Construction began in 2005 and finished in 2008. Two rows of tall pillars which would have held a very high ceiling are also still left bare.
According to legend, all the wealth of Cambodia was stored in a large cavern underneath Arthaross temple. Chinese visitors who saw the wealth returned home and reported that the Khmer state was a powerful and wealthy one and that should a giant naga emerge from the cavern, the Khmer people would rule the world. This worried the Chinese, who approached the Khmers and asked that a temple be built atop the cavern facing China (somehow this would protect China). The Khmer agreed and the temple was built -- unusually facing north towards China (Buddha statues are normally build facing the east). It seems to have been a bad deal for the Khmer as they never got to rule the world -- no word on the whereabouts of the giant naga.
How to get there
Phnom Udong is around 40km from Phnom Penh and is best reached by catching a Kompong Chhnang-bound bus and hopping off at the turnoff at the 37km mark or, if you have a group, by taking a share taxi from the lot around the corner from the PP Sorya Bus Station at Psar Thom (Central Market). The bus fare is 15,000 riel and the trip takes about one hour.
From the turnoff, motodops will take you to the temple. They'll ask for $2 and they'll be happy to return in a couple of hours to pick you up.
Returning to Phnom Penh you can either flag down a bus, or take one of the share taxis that hang around at the junction. They'll charge about $2 per person back into town. A share taxi directly from Central Market to the temple entrance and back is about $4 to $5 per person, depending on your bargaining skills.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 1st October, 2015.