To Western eyes, coming from countries where church is separated from daily life, clergy is separated from the general populace, and you believe in one creed at a time, there was a lot to get used to in Cambodia. For one thing, most boys from Buddhist families become monks at some time in their lives, and women may become monks, too. It may be for a short time before they move back into daily life, or it may last a lifetime. But either way, you will see the brightly colored orange robes and shaved heads everywhere.
I found it disconcerting to see the aesthetic looking monks smoking a cigarette or chatting on a cell phone. Our guide, never short of opinions, was disturbed by a old man in black who sat in a courtyard of the tumble-down Angkor Thom. It is unusual to see monks in black robes, and in searching for an answer as to why someone would wear black, I found many–but none definitive. At any rate, this smiling old man with the shaved head held out for me a small cheaply-made metal figure of a buddha. I took it, thinking it was a gift, but he held his hand out asking for payment. That set off our guide. Monks are supposed to accept what is given, but not ask. “The monks have forgotten how to be monks,” he fumed. No wonder, since they were routinely slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge during the days of Pol Pot.
One of the ways of earning good karma is by caring for the temple, and after climbing the seemingly endless flights of gray stone stairs to the top level of Angkor Wat, we found this small room with its homemade broom and basket, although we did not see the caretaker.
Since all of the temple complexes changed hands at least twice between Hindu and Buddhist regimes, it is possible to see both religions reflected in their art.
The most beautiful temple of all, Banteay Srei, is sometimes called “The Woman’s Temple.” Legends say that long ago, when all the Cambodian men were off fighting the Thais, the women built this temple/fortress and became female warriors. As is the case with all the temples around Siem Riep, the truth is lost in time. But it is easy to think of this as a feminine construction. It is petite and graceful compared to the other temples that seem to lord it over their surroundings. And the carvings are ornately executed on a golden stone that practically glows. ( I did not get that gold color by processing–that’s how it looks.)
I should add that we were extremely fortunate because we visited only three months after the last of the Khmer Rouge had been cleared out of this area. Before that year, no tourists had been able to visit Banteay Srei.
The most interesting lessons in religion that we had in Cambodian came not from the carvings that tell both Hindu and Buddhist stories in the temples, but from the stories of our guide’s life. Here he stopped at a hollowed out tree and lit a candle. He explained to us that it was a custom to honor the tree spirit. We never were quite sure whether he believed in Animism along with his belief in Buddhism, or whether this was part of a tourist-pleasing act.
But we were inclined to think that he at least half-way believed in otherworldly spirits when he told us that he could not linger at the end of the day, because he had to get home to his two young daughters, who would be home from school. His wife had died some years before and his older daughter, he said, had trouble sleeping because she was sure that she saw her mothers ghost in the corner of the ceiling. While at the time, I thought this was a young child’s reaction to losing her mother, I learned that the ghosts of ancestors is a much more serious business than I thought, when I read and reviewed In the Shadow of the Banyan.
In the decade since I was in Cambodia, I have learned a great deal more and hopefully am slightly less naive. It is just one more reason that I would love to return to that country and see what I might have missed.
These pictures are all my property, scanned form old prints. Please do not copy without express permission. The post is my contribution to Travel Photo Thursday. To see more travel photos form around the world, go to Budget Traveler’s Sandbox (which this week features beautiful Nova Scotia) and click on any of the names at the end of the main post for more photo essays.
Have you re-visited a place at two times in your life and found that it seems a different place because YOU are a different person?