We began our second full day in Cambodia bright and early at 5am, heading to the ancient temples of Angkor for a sunrise meditation and day of exploring. Although it was still dark when we awoke, the almost-full moon brightened up the streets of Siem Reap and we were about as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we could be given the hour. We arrived at the first temple, Ankgor Wat, with some time to spare, snapped a few group pictures, and found a quiet secluded area to begin our day with a group sit.
A little history lesson for you… The region of Angkor is on the outskirts of Siem Reap. It is filled with ancestral temples spanning miles across the breathtaking landscape. The Angkor Era began in 802 AD and fell in 1431, leaving a timeless mark on history with the many temples left behind. The era began with Jayavarman II subjugating an area of land the size of Cambodia and crowning himself chakravartin – universal monarch. He became the founder of the Khmer empire and chose an area 8 miles outside of Siem Reap as the empire’s first capital. Under his rule, Preah Ko and Bakong were the first temples built in Angkor. In the decades following, the kings built many more temples to continue the tradition of their predecessors. These temples were originally for the Hindu religion, but after the empire fell they became inhabited by Buddhist monks and are now regarded as Buddhist temples. Ankgor Wat, the most famous temple, is arguably the largest religious monument in the world. (Ranges, 2009)
As we began our time in Angkor Wat with a group meditation, my mindfulness was put to the test. Never before had I meditated in this kind of environment. Sure, I had done my share of sitting outdoors, but this was different. Cambodia is the epitome of humid and hot, especially during May (one of their hottest months of the year). It’s equivalent to a Bikram Yoga class – you sweat so continuously that eventually you forgo wiping the drips away because it’s just not worth it. Even before the sun was fully up, as we sat on the stones and focused on our breathing I couldn’t help but notice the slow drops making their way down my face, back, arms…you name it. The flies were drawn to our group as well, causing my mind dance between the ticklish fly landings and the steady drops of perspiration. My ability to let be and let go was definitely tested.
Even so, there was an energy in the air that made everything not only bearable, but pleasant. That’s something I have learned in the past week of being in this beautiful country – even within the discomfort and suffering, there is so much beauty and joy. I find myself exhausted due to my disrupted jet-lagged sleep and constantly drenched from the heat, yet still I can’t help but smile. I’m so happy to be with this group of incredible women, working and growing together. As Jessica shared during our initiation ritual the first night, we each have our own intention and reason for being here but we can rely on each other’s support in order to fulfill our personal, and the group’s, intentions.
Back to Angkor Wat…our meditation was truly beautiful, even amdist all of the distractions. It set the tone for the day. As I continued exploring the ancient ruins, I felt as if I was on a walking meditation journey – present, reflective, and aware. We took group pictures and then split off, sometimes with a partner and other times off on our own.
One of my (many) favorite parts of the day happened early on. Throughout the temples were altars and shrines set up with incense, statues of gods and goddesses, and intricate decorations. At one of these temples, Sue encountered a monk and, having some experience at Angkor Wat, motioned toward a book that he was holding. He graciously began to offer blessings to nearby onlookers. One at a time, someone would sit down on the small carpet with the monk. As he tied a red braided bracelet onto their wrist, carefully knotting it five times, he offered Khmer blessings. After rubbing the bracelet back and forth on their wrist and tapping it a few times, he reached for his book. The guest held the book on top of their head, took a sort of nail-shaped-pen-pointer object, and poked it into one of the pages. The man would take the book off their head, open it to the page they had blindly indicated, and read their fortune. Chatti translated whenever one of the members of our NCAS-I group went so that we could understand what he said. As I watched, I thought “Oh this is pretty cool,” thinking it was like a fortune cookie or some random tidbit of knowledge that could potentially work for anyone. And then I decided to give it a go.
When I sat down, I immediately felt a change in my energy. I suddenly had the urge to cry and the air around me become more dense. It was as if this tiny carpet we sat on together created a sacred boundary between us and the rest of the world. The crowd of people melted into the background and I was focused on what was happening between the monk and me. It was truly a transpersonal experience. I can’t speak for everyone, but my fortune was unique to my situation and could not have fit more perfectly. It was what I needed to hear in that moment, and allowed me to relax once more into being. What a special reminder that these deep interconnected moments happen when we least expect them.
I separated from the group after this experience, feeling a desire to have some space and to trust where my feet took me. I headed to a new area that was more hidden, away from the ancient temples. Here, I found young orange-robed monks-in-training inhabiting temples and buildings. One structure resembled a school, with a chalkboard and children reciting after the teacher. Another was a beautiful temple painted with bright colors, large statues, and a very out-of-place Hello Kitty clock. I made my way to a rock under a tree with a nice view of a few different buildings and pulled out my watercolors and pencils. Sketching the lively scene and the characters that inhabited it, I felt happy and a deep sense of comfort even in this strange atmosphere.
A couple of young boys dressed in jeans and plaid shirts looked like they were doing chores for the monks. I watched them attempt to maneuver a gigantic wagon full of baskets, laughing and goofing off when (who I assume was) their supervisor turned his back. One of them noticed me and walked over, hesitant yet curious. I invited him to look as I added color to the sketches, and pointed out the wagon and his green shirt on my page. He smiled bashfully and sat by my side as I finished the painting, double-checking with each stroke that my color choices were accurate. When I finished, I looked at him, smiled, and a thought crossed my mind. I wonder if my new little buddy would like to keep this painting? This was the first painting I’d done in Cambodia, and I noticed a small pang of possession. Taking a deep breath, I tore the picture out gently and held it out to him. He accepted it, nodding approval. All of my hesitations melted away at this instant, and I was filled instead with a deep sense of connection and warmth. THIS is a big part of what art therapy is all about – communicating through images, being in contact, and taking risks at different behaviors. In a small way, I was able to let be and let go.
The rest of the day we explored the temples at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, our experiences filled with other amazing stories along the way. A small group of us ended the day creating more watercolor images at Ta Prohm, once again sharing some beautiful moments of connection with passerbyers. Something I realized today is probably pretty obvious, but it blew my mind – people are interested in art! They find it fascinating and frightening at the same time. If given an opening, more times than not a stranger will approach and open up to you. Today I observed, once again, that the artistic language is an opening for connection and growth if allowed the space to just be. In the comfort of art’s familiar language, I can navigate this world of the unknown.
Photographs by Chatti Phal Brown, a friendly Cambodian who went by “Starbucks” and myself 🙂