Udong (also Oudong) is a nekropolis some 40km northwest of Phnom Penh. In the centuries between the early 17th and 1866 it was repeatedly the capital of Cambodia. In 1866 the poor place was abandoned for the sake of Phnom Penh, which was suggested by the French colonial masters as the new capital and equipped with the Royal Palace which is nowadays still the seat of the royal Cambodian court and the main tourist attraction there.
From the old capital is little left. The royal buildings were built of wood, as always in the past, and they didn't stand the tropical climate after the court's move. In fact the buildings were in a bad state already in the years before the move.
What is left of the old times are a number of royal burial sites, marked with several great stupas. The stupas, however, were heavily damaged, particularly in the Vietnam War in 1973/74, and then again in the time of Democratic Campuchea, when the Khmer Rouge blasted them (1977). Reconstruction has been done in recent years, but it's not the same as it was before. What was built in sandstone and laterite in the past has mostly been replaced with concrete. Partially the concrete's surface is already bursting again, what shows the inferiority of the new building material.
All these stupas are erected on a hill or small mountain, which is called Phnom Udong, or Phnom Preah Reach Throap. Additionally to them there are a few other buildings with religious purposes. In any of these buildings is at least one beggar sitting.
It's a walk over several hundred steps upwards the hill; there are three stairways leading up. Additionally there are jungle trecks which I didn't follow. Up on the mountain the path follows a line on the ridge where the stupas and other buildings are beaded. There is another, smaller hill with another stupa on it.
At the foot of Phnom Udong is a parking and a great deal of food stalls. More foodstalls than tourists, I would say, because the sight is not very frequented. Sometimes there might be a busload of tourists getting dropped, and then it looks different.
On the parking is also a stupa placed which is filled with skulls and bones of killed people. In the late 1970s it was one of the around 20,000 sites in Cambodia who are called the 'killing fields'. Here were around 100 graves, with altogether 1,200 killed people in them.
The place's name roots in the ancient Indian Sanskrit language and is variously translated into English. It means 'the highest', 'supremacy' or 'the victorious'. As usually in history and present these euphemistic names ridicule themselves compared with reality. After the Angkorean empire was defeated and it's capital Angkor Thom havoced by Siamese troops from Ayutthaya, Cambodia was since a meaningless kingdom with little power. It's geostrategical position between the two powerful empires of Siam and Vietnam would have certainly led to Cambodia's extinction in the second half of the 19th century without the French interference declaring it a 'protectorate'. Cambodia was again and again invaded by Siamese and Vietnamese armees and had to pay tribute to either one or even both stronger powers. In the same time there were struggles within the Cambodian aristocraty for the power, what led to an even weaker Cambodia as it was anyway.
The last king who resided in Udong was Norodom I.
The predecessor of king Norodom I was Ang Duong, who's ashes are allegedly burried here under one of the stupas. If one is visiting Phnom Penh's Royal Palace, there is a horse memorial of king Norodom I and another stupa in which king Ang Duong's ashes are also placed. Where his remains are really burried is as unknown as unimportant. Maybe they parted them.
Ang Duong reigned in the years from 1841 - 1860 and ordered the construction of hundreds of pagodas, canals, bridges and terraces, urbanizing the surroundings of Udong. Nowadays there is on the first glance nothing left of it. The surroundings look like a common Cambodian landscape, coined by rice paddies and sugar palms so far the eye reaches. King Ang Duong was, by the way, the one who appears in Henri Mouhot's record of Kampot where he met the king and had a talk with him.
In 1859, the French explorer Henri Mouhot travelled from Kampot to Udong, having audiences with the second king and princes of then Cambodia. His description of the Udong of the time gives a lively insight in this section of Cambodian history.
The following day I devoted to making an investigation of the city. The houses are built of bamboos or planks, and the market-place, occupied by the Chinese, is as dirty as all the others of which I have made mention. The longest street, or rather the only one, is a mile in length; and in the environs reside the agriculturists, as well as the mandarins and other Government officers. The entire population numbers about 12,000 souls.
The many Cambodians living in the immediate vicinity, and, still more, the number of chiefs who resort to Udong for business or pleasure, or are passing through it on their way from one province to another, contribute to give the animation to this capital. Every moment I met mandarins, either borne in litters or on foot, followed by a crowd of slaves carrying various articles; some, yellow or scarlet parasols, more or less large according to the rank of the person; others, boxes with betel. I also encountered horsemen, mounted on pretty, spirited little animals, richly caparisoned and covered with bells, ambling along, while a troop of attendants, covered with dust and sweltering with heat, ran after them. Light carts, drawn by a couple of small oxen, trotting along rapidly and noisily, were here and there to be seen. Occasionally a large elephant passed majestically by. On this side were numerous processions to the pagoda, marching to the sound of music; there, again, was a band of ecclesiastics in single file, seeking alms, draped in their yellow cloaks, and with the holy vessels on their backs.
(...) Suddenly two pages came out of the court of the palace, crying out, "The King!" A thunderbolt falling in the hall could not have caused a greater sensation than this announcement; there was a general hurryscurry; judges, advocates, accused, and spectators fled pell-mell, taking refuge in the corners with their faces to the ground. I laughed to see the legal functionaries, and the Chinamen with their long queues, rushing against each other in their eagerness to escape at the king's approach. His Majesty, who was on foot, now appeared at the entrance, followd by his pages. He waved his hand and called me to him. Immediately two attendants brought chairs and placed them on the grass opposite to each other. The king offered me one, and the entered into conversation with me, while the whole escort and every one near us remained prostrate on the ground; as far as the eye could reach, not a soul was standing.
"How do you like my city?" asked the king. (The word city is here used to signify the royal palace, it's appurtenances and fortifications.)
"Sire, it is splendid, and presents an appearance such as I have never seen elsewhere."
"All the palaces and pagodas which you see from here have been built in one year since my return from Siam: in another year all will be finished. Formerly Cambodia was very extensive; but the Annamites have deprived us of many provinces."
"Sire, the time has arrived for you to retake them. The French are assailing them on one side; do you attack them on the other." His Majesty did not reply, but offered me a cigar, and inquired my age.
Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina,
Volume I, p. 199-202
The Cambodian capital before 1601 was Lovek, some 15km away from Udong. According to Rough Guide Cambodia (3rd edition 2008) it is nowadays a tiny, little place with two shrines only, nearby a hamlet. No big match, certainly; however, to my disappointment I failed to find it. Lonely Planet (2008) doesn't mention it. Lovek has been destroyed by a Siamese army in 1593/94, led by king Naresuan.
Lovek (also: Longvek) was chosen to be the Cambodian captial by king Ang Chan (1516 - 1566). He ordered a new palace building there in 1553. Nothing of this building and the other infrastructure of the time is left nowadays.
Lovek was also a place known by Portuguese explorers and adventurers. Several Portuguese arrived in the place and were in contact with king Ang Chan, who was open towards the Westerners.