Oudong was the capital of Cambodia for 248 years, playing host to the crowning of several monarchs, including Norodom, great-great-grandfather of the current king, Norodom Sihamoni. However, in 1866, King Norodom was persuaded by the French to relocate the capital from here to the more strategically positioned Phnom Penh; the court, totalling more than ten thousand people, moved en masse and Oudong was abandoned. The old wooden city has long since rotted away, but the site, scattered with shrines and chedi, remains an important site for pilgrimage and has been recently designated a tourist spot, thus filling up with Cambodians on weekends and national holidays.
Visible from afar, the multiple chedi on the larger of the two hills at Oudong are something of a landmark. Approaching from National Route 5, you’ll arrive at the foot of the larger hill, sometimes called Phnom Preah Reach Troap, the Hill of Royal Fortune, as the royal treasure was hidden here during the war with the Siamese in the sixteenth century. As you approach the hill you’ll pass a small building on the left which contains human remains collected from another Khmer Rouge execution site nearby.
The once ruined columns and rotten roof beams of Preah Atharas (atharas being an ancient unit of measure equal to eighteen cubits), the vihara at the top, were being restored or replaced at the time of writing. It was built by the Chinese in the thirteenth century to seal the cave – so legend has it – of a mythical sea monster, which had to be contained to stop the Chinese losing their dominance over the Khmer. The vihara was heavily damaged during fighting between Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge forces in 1973–74, and received further attacks from the Khmer Rouge post-1975, and for many years only a shoulder and part of the right side of the thirteenth-century eleven-metre-high seated Buddha remained; its resplendent restoration is now complete.
The ridge has an increasing number of shrines and several of the older ones are worth seeking out as you walk north. One of the first you’ll come to is Preah Ko, featuring a particularly appealing statue of Nandin, the sacred mount of Shiva. Worshippers pour water over the bull’s head, rendering the water holy, to then take home. Further north, Preah Neak contains a Buddha seated on a coiled naga, its multiple heads curved over to afford him protection. Easily recognized by the four faces that cap its spire, the pale-yellow chedi of Chet Dey Mak Prohm contains the ashes of King Sisowath Monivong (reigned 1927–41). Higher up the hill is the crumbling chedi Tray Troeng, built in 1891 by King Norodom for the ashes of his father, King Ang Duong (though there’s some dispute as to whether the ashes are really here or in the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh). Some of the glazed ceramic flowers that once covered the chedi can still be seen, but the local children used to sell them to tourists when they “fell off”, and now they have been replaced with modern alternatives.