How do I reconcile the breathtaking beauty of Angkor with the sprawling mass graves of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps the greatest complex of spiritual architecture in the world, contrasted against horrific, too-recent genocide. This tension of opposites tears my heart –
I was already in ethically complex territory. I had conducted a fundraiser for this trip, to do pediatric massage with HIV/AIDS orphans in Vietnam, and the donations had poured in; The trip was fully funded! Now here I was in Southeast Asia well in advance of the volunteer program, leaving Vietnam on a bus to Cambodia. Of course all the donor money had gones towards covering the program costs, and I was traveling on my own dime. Nevertheless it begged the question – was I doing the right thing?
First, I argued to my stringent inner critic, travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap once you get there. If you want to spend 1st world prices, there are many Cambodians who will gladly oblige. But for those who understand the economic state of the country, it’s little effort to find private air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi for under $12 a night. Meals, transportation, entertainment & commodities – the American dollar goes far in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Truth be told, once you’re in the region, the cost of shoestring travel in Cambodia is well below the cost of living in Los Angeles. It would have been more expensive to spend these days back home.
Second, and more important, I believe that travel is an end in itself. I once went to an Ani DiFranco concert in which she sang this about the USA:
Myopia is strong here, and the mind control deep.
While I don’t really know exactly what she’s talking about, spending some time in a third world country certainly opens the mind to a broader reality of what it means to be human. Different language, different culture, fundamentally different quality of life – suddenly the petty concerns of the affluent westerner (like which character just died a shocking brutal death on Game of Thrones) take on an almost comical quality. I’ve written recently of my personal distinction between tourism and traveling, the former amounting to superficial entertainment, the latter suggesting a deeper engagement with the reality of an “other” culture or ecosystem.
Traveling is an end in itself because travel is essentially a process of education and growth. We encounter what is different and difficult, and in the process gain insight into ourselves and the familiar places and cultures we come from. The deeper human condition stands out in greater relief, and our values are re-evaluated. If America still presumes to lead the free world, it is vital for Americans to seek a deeper understanding of that world, and the ethical injunction it places upon us. My prescription for a better planet: the wealthy need to vacation less, and travel more.
Cambodia challenges on many levels. What are we to make of a culture where people live in tin shacks but communicate and track popular trends on their 3-year-old-model smartphones? Their bedrooms may contain multiple family members sleeping together on a crowded floor, but they have a flatscreen TV on proud display in their livingroom/storefront. The intersections between tribal life, modern poverty, and global economy are bizarre, confounding the mind and making it difficult to draw conclusions, much less suss out values. Regardless, the people of Cambodia are scrambling to catch up, positioning themselves to receive maximum tourist dollars, recent genocide or no. I have never felt so surrounded by repressed, unacknowledged trauma as I did in Cambodia – yet the tourist industry is booming.
Why did I come here?
I came to Cambodia for the Temples of Angkor. I had been hearing talk of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, since studying abroad in Singapore in 2003. But as Angkor Wat finally appeared on my horizon, I learned that it was only the largest of an astounding temple complex (the largest complex of temples in the world), that covers a region the size of Manhattan.
The Kingdom of Angkor flourished from roughly the 9th to the 15th century CE. No only stone ruins remain of what was once a magnificent civilization. Over the course of its history, Angkor was unique in its fusion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism – two spiritual traditions which have meant a great deal to me. The fusion of expansive pantheism with the mindful compassion of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an extraordinary, early example of interfaith spirituality.
Angkor Wat is the biggest structure, but not the greatest. Sprawling temples adorned in gorgeous eastern iconography literally litter the landscape. Wandering through some of the ruins, one finds the most extraordinary sculptures lying in piles of rubble – such sculptures are so plentiful that there is no point in trying to restore all of them, and the rubble takes on a beauty of its own. Among the most striking sites is Ta Prohm, an enormous monastery slowly being eaten by the jungle. In Ta Prohm, archeology meets echopsychology, as the natural world slowly invades and invites the architecture of mankind back into its earthy womb.
I neither mince words nor court superlatives when I say that the temples of Angkor are among the most extraordinary sights on this planet. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are not listed among the “seven wonders of the world” is that these ruins were not uncovered and made available to the general global community until the final years of the 20th century, long after such lists had already been settled.
Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but so crawling with tourists that a sensitive soul may have trouble fully appreciating its majesty. On my third day in the complex, I made a second visit to Angkor Wat just before sunrise, and managed to bribe a guard to let me into the inner, upper sanctum for $5 (it’s amazing how far $5 goes in Cambodia!) – there I meditated alone, at a site of historical spiritual pilgrimage to rival Mecca and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a once in a life time opportunity and an uncharacteristically thrilling meditation. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the clock and quickly took my leave before the throngs of tourists arrived.
Much of my three days exploring the temples was organized around avoiding the crowds. I came to love best the most obscure temples that lay off the beaten path. A short distance from its giant cousin, Ta Keo is described by Lonely Planet as “not cutting it” after seeing Angkor Wat – but I heartily disagree! Ta Keo sports a steep climb to the small high sanctum, which opens to the four cardinal directions. I had just purchased a tiny statue of Brahma, the oft-ignored creator-god of the Hindu Pantheon, whose four faces look out across the four cardinal directions. This motif ties into the four-directional cosmology of many indigenous peoples, as well as the psychological “quaternary” that so fascinated depth psychologist Carl Jung, who used intricate mandalas to map the human Psyche. Ta Keo embodied these ideas in stone and open sky.
Another secret treasure is Preah Palilay, a small, almost Celtic temple in the Mahayana tradition, rising out of the forest apace from the paved roads. Miles to the East. I had to argue my driver into taking me to Phom Bok – a hill temple off the beaten path. He insisted there was nothing there, but after an arduous climb, I came upon a tranquil set of ruins dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, destroyer, and preserver), along with two libraries and an enormous Shiva Lingam tragically shattered by the Khmer Rouge, all sitting silent on a high hill overlooking the rice paddies of the region. I loved it because I was alone – a perfect spot for unmolested meditation as a tropical monsoon broke across the complex, hammering ruins and tourists alike with rain.
The descendents of the Angkor empire still live here, growing rice in fields around the temple. In one back-road trip by bicycle, I passed through a village that was alarmingly littered with trash. I wondered if through the process of colonization by the west, these people have completely lost touch with the needs of their land, throwing piles of plastic and metal upon it as though those materials would biodegrade as quickly as coconut shells. The dissociation is disturbing.
But the dissociation of modern Angkor is disturbing in more ways than one. These temples represent one of the greatest ancient spiritual sites on Earth – and modern Cambodia would turn it into Disneyland, thirsty for tourist dollars. These incredible sacred sites are choked with tourists who have no respect for sacred space – they are much more concerned with posing for pictures in front of the ruins. A place where people might find their deeper selves and touch their deeper truths has been transformed instead into a Hollywood-style spectacle. Opportunistic clerics encourage tourists to kneel, bow three times with incense, and leave money at a plethora of temple shrines under the auspices of courting “good luck” – and given their economy, who can blame them? Nevertheless, it is capitalism blaspheming as spirituality – deeply disturbing to one who comes to this sacred place as a spiritual pilgrim.
Meanwhile, just a few miles south in the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the notion of sacred space seems nonexistent. I couldn’t go for a walk at night without being offered drugs or prostitutes a dozen times. It seemed like every taxi-driver was also a drug dealer, and my hotel manager offered to “bring me girls” before I had even seen the room. The one time I allowed myself to get roped into a “massage” ($3 for thirty minutes) I literally found myself fighting to get the poor girl to stop molesting me. When I tipped her $2 anyway, her eyes lit up with surprise and gratitude – that a man would actually give her such a big tip without sexual services! It was heartbreaking. I bowed to her, honoring the Tradition of Thai massage in which I trained, and walked out into the night fighting back my tears.
It still fills me with rage, just thinking about it – the way these women are disrespected.
On my third and final day in the ruins of Angkor, I made pilgrimage to the shrines: kneeling, praying, and meditating at one site after another. Some of the priests and nuns were genuine, others opportunistic – but I knelt and prayed and mediated and made my donations regardless. Each time, I was given a prayer bracelet, until by the end of the day my wrist was covered. The tourists might think me crazy, but I would give these temples their due – I would honor them for what they are.
I needed to experience the ancient history first, before turning to face the modern atrocity. On my way back to Vietnam, I stopped to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. It was only one of many genocidal sites where the Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered their victims. Because they didn’t want to waste bullets, most who died at the Killing Fields perished by blunt trauma, puncture wounds, blades, or other creative means. Men and women, babies killed by having their brains dashed against a tree, in an ideological “purification of the populace”. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill those it suspected of dissent – it killed their families.
How did this happen?
That is a question worthy of a lifetime of study. I’ll tell what little I know. From 1975-1979, communist radical Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a radical cleansing and restructuring of Cambodia. Pol Pot was born in Cambodia but educated in Europe. Upon return, he “liberated” the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population into slave labor under the rhetoric of building a better country. Anyone who opposed the new regime, and anyone who was suspected of opposing it, including peaceful Buddhist orders of monks and nuns – were confined, interrogated, and slaughtered.
I wept at the Killing Fields, walking among mass graves, distributing my prayer bracelets from Angkor amongst thousands of similar colorful offerings. At the site in Phnom Penh, there is a beautiful memorial stupa which houses the skulls and bones of some of the victims who have been exhumed. How could this happen? What force could compel human beings to put ideology before the value of human life? What can we do, I asked myself over and over again – How do we fix this?
I was haunted for days – I’m still haunted now. My first glimmer of an answer emerged when I arrived in Vietnam, and finally began my volunteer work with AIDS orphans. What a gift and reflief it was, to be of service!
The sorrow of the Cambodian genocide hit me much deeper at Tuol Sleng, a school turned detention center for the Khmer Rouge. Now a genocidal museum, Tuol Sleng displays the spare rooms where captives were kept and tortured before being sent to die. In other rooms are pictures – walls upon walls of photographs – of the thousands of men and women who were arrested and condemned to death. I don’t know if it was the third wall of pictures of or the fifth, but suddenly the sorrow struck me fully. I had seen their bones at the killing fields, but here I could see their faces.
These were people.
I found myself standing alone in the central courtyard of Tuol Sleng, wondering why I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying. There have been a few times in my life when I have truly and deeply understood what is important in life, and this was one of them.
This is what matters: that people should be free to live and love, to live their own lives unmolested by ideology, oppression, and violence. What matters is that this atrocity that ariose in Cambodia not 4 decades ago must never happen again.
It is an uncomfortable truth that Pol Pot’s ideology was a Western import – a consequence of colonialism. I studied the works of Karl Marx in depth as part of my coursework at UC Berkeley, and I cannot imagine a greater twisting of Marxist ideals than what the Khmer Rouge did “for the people” in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it was education and ideology from the ‘’advanced’ western civilization that decimated this land. If the Cambodian people had been left to their own devices and development, rather than being colonized by a western culture that insists on its own superiority, it is hard to imagine this atrocity occurring. What happened in Cambodia is part of our Western shadow – the great mistake we have made in believing our intellectual rationalism to be superior to all other forms of human being.
I spent a bit of time in the south, around the beach and island communities of Sihanoukville, before returning to Vietnam. Idyllic at first glance, this region is a haven for international criminals and has a strong mafia present beneath the idealistic white sand beaches that draw ever larger crowds of tourists.
I know quite a bit about trauma from my doctoral studies in depth psychology. I know how trauma can fester like poison when it isn’t worked through and released. The trauma in Cambodia is unimaginable, and the white-washed gloss of attractive tourist destinations only makes it worse. Shadows are shoved out of sight in an understandable bid for tourist dollars – meanwhile, one of the largest child prostitution markets on earth blossoms in the dark.
In sunny Sihanoukville, I got entangled with a pair of local expats – a former American and a young French existentialist – who tried to convince me of the fundamental darkness of human nature, the meaninglessness of life. They offered me stories (and one disturbing photo) of bodies washed up on the pristine white sand beaches. The Frenchman (who was appropriately obsessed with the barbaric Game of Thrones series) insisted that religion was the cause of all the evil in the world, and that Hitler had been a “Proper Christian” – perhaps he hadn’t been to Tuol Sleng to see the faces of the dead – and he had no answer for the difficult truth that the Khmer Rouge was a secular organization that murdered people for having spiritual beliefs.
The difficult truth, I insisted to this Frenchman, is that the scapegoating of religion only makes things worse, cultivating more resentment and misunderstanding rather than doing the hard work of healing. It is not (and has never been) religion in itself that harms and oppresses, but rather ideology – any ideology, secular or spiritual, that is devoid of heart. Wherever ideas, religious or “rational”, become more important than people – be it the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge – it is the desecration of the human heart that is the ruin of humanity.
This is the lesson Cambodia whispers, under its breezy gloss of exotic vacation packages. Cambodia offers one of humanity’s greatest spiritual treasures, which we squander in the name of tourism, and one of our greatest human tragedies, which we too-often would rather ignore. Depth psychology has long suggested that it is the repressed, unconscious aspects of being that haunt drive our lives. James Hillman in particular has suggested that it is the unheard voices of the dead that must be listened to, if we are to survive and thrive as a species and a planet. But most of us cannot bear the pain and sorrow and mystery of the past – the weight of history – so we entertain ourselves into a stupor instead, We feed on the barbarism of media products like Game of Thrones, which reminds us of the darkness for an hour, but also slyly suggests that it isn’t really real, that it’s only entertainment. That we don’t have to do anything about it.
If we would find the courage to face the darkness, to listen to the voices of the dead – we might find those voices are trying to tell us what we need to know, to overcome our troubled past, to build a better world.
A month back in the United States, re-adjusting to the requirements of marketing and first world capitalism, I go to Trader Joe’s wearing my $3 “I [heart] Cambodia” T-shirt. I wear it not because I love Cambodia the way I love New York or Los Angeles, but because I recognize that even more than our tourist dollars, Cambodia desperately needs and deserves our love.
A fat man with an eye patch notices my shirt in the vegetable isle. He approaches me and begins to talk about being stationed in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the conversation turns to genocide, he shakes his head and says, “Human begins are just horrible, aren’t they? Just horrible!”
I look him squarely in his one good eye and calmly reply:
“We have a lot of work to do.”
It is too easy to fall into cynicism – that the world is broken and there is nothing to be done. I say that is defeatist at best, and lazy at worst. This is a choice, that every day each of us is asked to make. If you choose to believe there is nothing to be done, you will do nothing.
In fact, there is everything to be done. That is why we are here, now, alive in this time. The challenges now facing each of us, as individuals and a species, are immense. But I say, look around you:
There is a great work to be done, to heal this world.
We are doing it.
Here are 4 minutes of edited footage from my three days at the Temples of Angkor: