by James Huffman
Well, we are at the end of our third full day in Cambodia and it already feels like a week has past. There are so many things I want to write about here, and would if the time spent writing about them wouldn’t keep me from having even more experiences I would want to write about. One of the strongest things I have been feeling so far is a deep respect and appreciation for all the people I have met along this journey. A notable example is Chan, the translator who came to our hotel on Thursday to give us a crash course in Khmer. He began by teaching us some basic phrases; hello, how are you?, yes, no, and no thank you, which I have found myself using the most. Venturing out into the streets, markets, and temples of Siem Reap typically results in a barrage from tuk-tuk drivers and vendors.
After about an hour of translating, Chan began to tell us about the history and politics of Cambodia and his experiences living here. Without going into detail, he explained the importance of speaking the truth about the government and told us that you can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing. He also described his experiences practicing Christianity and Buddhism. He was born Buddhist, and began practicing Christianity as a child because the church taught him English and fed him when he attended. At first he felt weird practicing two religions, but then he realized that most religions basically teach the same thing, to better ourselves. Now he is ok with practicing two religions, he is a Buddhist Monday-Friday and a Christian on Saturday and Sunday.
Since then, I have spent two days at Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples and have said “no thank you” many many times. Our first day at Angkor Wat began with watching the sunrise meditation at 5am. It might have been the early hour but I found myself especially appalled and perturbed by many of the other tourists. There was a giant tour group wearing toxic bubble-gum pink shirts, shouting to each other, and taking flash photos in dark rooms while I was trying to let my eyes adjust to better view the beautiful carvings it contained. There was an American college student I found myself stuck behind who described the millenia-old center of spirituality as “the shit”. Carvings of S hearts B and other inane graffiti in the ancient stone as well as discarded scraps of garbage were a constant frustration.
At the end of our first day I found myself disappointed. I expected the reverence I had for the temple to be universal. I hoped for a feeling of deep spiritual calm. I craved silence and solitude amongst the millions of delicately carved stones. Instead I got the hottest tourist attraction in Cambodia where thousands of people flock each day to fill their memory cards instead of their hearts and minds. A place where people would rather stare at a screen on their camera, phone, or ipad.
It is easy to fixate on what went wrong and to feel cheated out of the experience I was hoping for. The truth is however, I was never promised any kind of spiritual experience, or that the other tourists would be on their best behavior, or that the tour groups would know to give me some space. I may have preferred a different scenario, but in the end it is up to me to chose whether I am going to let “what went wrong” ruin my time or not.
I returned again today, this time choosing temples a bit farther from Angkor Wat and opting to leave my camera at the hotel. I also tried to be open to accepting and enjoying whatever happened. My expectations were not going to change what would happen, and my frustration if those expectations were not met was not going to rewrite the past.
We took an hour tuk-tuk ride to the first temple, which by itself was an amazing experience. The sky was overcast today which made for a refreshing breezy ride and a much needed respite from the heat. Throughout the lush green countryside we saw children playing at school, beautiful houses on stilts, cattle grazing, rolling storm clouds, and much more.
We arrived at Banteay Srei and were immediately stunned buy the intricacy of the carvings. Tiny delicate images and text covered almost every surface. Sharing the temple with only a handful of others, we took our time exploring. Fifteen minutes after arriving the skies opened up and began pouring down rain. Only two of our five group members came prepared for the rain, the rest of us ducked behind walls looking for whatever shred of shelter the exposed temple had to offer. I finally found a thick window between two walls to curl into.
Lightning soon followed, quickly approaching until it was right on top of us. I only had a few brief moments to imagine the Kurukshetra War was taking place above before six barefoot children ran up soaking wet to sell us ponchos. Alexa bought one, quickly realizing the poor quality when she hastily put it on and caused several large tears. After some laughing at this misfortune the kids took the opportunity to try and sell her another poncho.
I was then the only one without rain protection and stuck in a window, I was an easy target for the children. “One dollar!” they shouted “One dollar for all!”. After some hesitation, I gave in and bought a poncho. Their sales pitch did not end there and after a few minutes I made a deal with them (or so I thought) that if I gave them a dollar to share they would go get out of the rain, since we were now alone in the temple, there was no one else left to sell to. I handed one of the younger girls a dollar, which only caused greater fervor among the children.
photo by Paula Ulrich
After almost a half hour, and the rain showing no signs of slowing, we decided to move on to the next temple and hopefully escape the rain. We started our walk back and the children followed, or more specifically followed me. Once we were outside the temple I began running and the children followed. I stopped and the kids stopped, ran backwards and the kids ran backwards, ran sideways, jumped in circles. We were about halfway back to the tuk-tuks and only one small girl was still playing this game with me. I told her if she could catch me before I got back to the tuk-tuk I would give her a dollar. I took off in a slow jog and she followed, staying with me the whole time and even pulling ahead at some points. We got back to the tuk-tuk and I exaggerated catching my breath, hands on my knees and panting, she did the same. I gave her 6,000 riel ($1.50) and she smiled and ran off.
photo by Paula Ulrich
There is much more I could say about this beautiful day, Banteay Samre which we had entirely to ourselves, the sun slowly setting at the next temple, the tuk-tuk ride back, but every second at this screen keeps is another moment better spent. Instead I will end with what Chan said, that religions are here to help us be better people. The temples may not have been the experience I was expecting but they gave me the opportunity to work with my own cynicism, a chance to play with the children and give them smiles instead of money, all while taking in the beauty and history, and I believe these experiences have helped in my journey to be my best possible self.
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