Soundtracks can add immensely to the emotional appeal of a movie. Think Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars (the first three), Lord of the Rings (all), Apocalypse Now and Sorcerer. Music can be bombastic, cloying, loud, annoying, add nothing to the pleasure of the viewing, or be the reason to get up and walk out (think A Knight’s Tale, Xanadu, Beaches and anything with Justin Bieber). In many cases a soundtrack will add nothing to the experience and be hardly noticed (think most films). In my short 13 days in Cambodia my internal soundtrack was stuck on two tunes. Both of which I like (thankfully) but both of which were on repeat (annoying).
The epic travelogue-cum-sociopolitical satire of the Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia may seem inappropriate, given when it was written and where Cambodia is today. But as a looping ditty, it’s pretty catchy:
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but it’s life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife
The second soundtrack song is only tangentially related to Cambodia. Four lines from The Doors’ third magnum opus (after The End and When the Music is Over) The Soft Parade would pop in my head every time we went to observe and photograph monks at their lunch time ceremonies:
The monk bought lunch
Ha ha, he bought a little
Yes, he did
It’s pretty clear what Jello Biafra was writing about, but Mr. Morrison’s mash-up of spoken poetry, lyrical shifts, and tempo changes remains a bit more opaque. I always wondered who “the monk” was and why he bought lunch. Regardless of the answer (if there every was one) those lines entered my head on this, my fifth day in Cambodia, as we entered the great hall of the Monastery at Oudong.
Oudong (also spelled Udong), in the Odongk District, sits just 40 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. One wouldn’t know it by looking at it today, but for 250 years — beginning in 1601 — it was the capital of the Khmer Empire. The Empire itself was in a state of decline and was being pressured from the west buy the invading Thais. Finally in 1866 it was abandoned and the capital moved further southeast (and further away from the Thai influence) to its current location, Phnom Penh. At one time there were hundreds of pagodas and other structures, but a century of neglect took its toll and then the Khmer Rouge showed up and finished off the job. I suppose there must be some old traces of what was once there, but now you see a great, new, gleaming wat complex below the hill of Phnom Oudong itself. The buildings are a sight to see and you are free to wander about — as is the case in most Buddhist complexes. One of the main temples (as evidence by it sitting on a higher hillock) has an incredible colorful display of the life of Buddha. But our main point in being there was not to sight-see as the average tourist, but rather to observe and photography the lunch ceremony of the monks.
Photographing long queues of colorfully robed monks with their silver bowls in hand has become seemingly de rigueur in Cambodia, Laos and Burma. So much so that there has been some negative press around it. It was a new experience for me so I certainly knew nothing but to remove my shoes and hat (when entering any of the temple buildings) and be polite and unobtrusive. I did my best on those counts. Our intrepid guide, Nathan Horton, had of course been there many times and so the presence of his eight photographers was no surprise to the establishment.
The eating hall was partially filled with white robed men and women (who I later found out were both visiting personages and novitiates) as well as some plain clothed villages. It turns out that the villagers had traveled far to bring the monks their lunch, produce and food from their district further down the Mekong River. It was an honor for them to do so. Finally a long line of saffron approached led by smiling monk, preceded by a well-fed dog.
There is a clearly an order and hierarchy to who sat where and we watched as they filed into the hall. The whole time there was someone at the front dais chanting. Once everyone took their cushioned seats at the low tables the chanting continued as the villagers offered and served food, first at the front tables. Being conscious of my presence, I positioned by self well to one side of the hall, by the doorway and in such a way that I could photograph both the front but also the back half of room. As you can see from below. Being respectful of them eating, I photographed little of the actual meal. The food looked and smelled good and yes, I was hungry by this time.
Afterwards we photographed some of the nuns having a grand time cleaning the dishes.