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  • A Lesson in Meditation: Vipassana Dhurak Buddhist Centre of Cambodia

    My quadriceps protest the position I put them in. I am seated on the floor, legs crossed yogi style, attempting to sit up straight. I imagine a string that's attached at one end to the temple ceiling and the other end to the top of my head. I pretend it is straightening my spine, but I still feel as if I am going to fall over backwards. Breathe slowly, I tell myself. Relax the knees. Don't think about the tight muscles. Clear my mind. Listen to the wind through the temple doors, Think of the calm of the surrounding hills. After about ten minutes, I open my eyes. This isn't working.

    The monk smiles as I get up. I walk quietly around this new temple so I don't disturb my guide and Glen. Neither one of them is grimacing in pain. I am impressed they took to meditating so easily.


    The colorful panels that tell of Buddha's life cover the walls and ceiling. It's a tall building. I bend back as far as I can so I can see everything above me. The temple is so new that there are a few details left to finish it. Two empty niches in the back might be for lighting or speakers. i'm not sure. A pile of marble tiles wait to be installed on the terrace.

    The Buddha is made of many polished stones pieced together. It's unusual because all other Buddha's I've seen have been solid—gold or jade or concrete. These stones are from Cambodia, all cut and polished by Cambodian women. The wall behind the Buddha is painted with a gigantic bodhi tree whose crown reaches the ceiling. The leaves continue on the ceiling, over the Buddha.

    The temple is elevated. It's doors open to show many other buildings at the complex—some house the monks, some are used for study. There is a another temple for a reclining Buddha, another for a set of figures I'm unfamiliar with. There is a reservoir. In the center is a huge figure of a woman standing on a crocodile. The grounds are impeccably manicured with flowering trees and bushes. The two flag poles near the entrance are each easily 100 feet tall. It is an impressive complex.

    As large as this Buddhist center is, I see no one except the monk in the temple. He is pleased that we all sat and meditated (or attempted to). He now gives me pointers in breathing and sitting so that I can continue the practice of meditation on my own.

  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat

    I am wearing a light jacket. I wish it was made of fleece. Chugging along at 30 mph in a tuk tuk makes 15 degrees C seem much colder, The "RealFeel", as perceived temperature is referred to around here, seems to be around 11 C. It's dark. I'm in one of a long line of tuk tuks and buses making a predawn trek to Angkor Wat.

    I follow my photography guide—Eric de Vries—through the main gate. We fall in with the crowd for only a short while when he steps off the main path onto one lit only by moonlight. I follow him closely to avoid making a misstep. We are in stealth mode. We don't have a light, so the masses aren't likely to follow us to this off-the-beaten-path location.

    We are the first to arrive at a small pond on the right side of the Angkor complex. The complex is far enough away that I should be able to fit it all into one frame along with its reflection in the pond. I look at my camera's LCD. It is still too dark for an image to form.

    A few small groups join us at our site, but from the glow of flashlights I can see that the left side of Angkor has the large masses. I hear murmurs as we await the sunrise.

    The first bit of light starts to show. Eric instructs me not to use my tripod and instead use an ASA of 2500. While the sun is rising in the sky, he tells me I should decrease the ASA each minute to compensate for the increasing light. I'm skeptical about the no-tripod instruction. I hauled this thing more than 7,800 miles and now I'm not going to use it. But he's correct. The first image forms and looks great. I keep decreasing the ASA, and the images get even better.

    In my photos Angkor Wat is silhouetted against the sky. The technique Eric shared with me hides the large section of scaffolding that covers part of the temple. I look around and see that people using point-and-shoots or who are not adjusting their fancy cameras are getting ever brighter photos that show ugly tarps and the metal of the scaffold.

    We move to the crowded side. The temple is also lovely from this view, with the orange ball of the sun just now visible over the temple wall. There are so many people that it is almost impossible to get a shot of Angkor without also including part of the crowd. I stand on my tiptoes, hold my camera high over my head, aim as best I can, and click. After five or six tries, I succeed.

    I walk to one of the many outdoor restaurants next to the crowd. I warm my hands on a cup of hot, sweet coffee. It's an amazing start to the day.

  • The Killing Fields of Cambodia

    "In 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed my father and uncles. Five men in my family, all killed," my guide explains before we set off in his tuk tuk to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. It is just one site of many all over Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rounded up people in a truck, telling them they were taking them to a better place to live and work. On arrival, they imprisoned them, but not for long.

     

    At night, the Khmer Rouge would play revolutionary songs loudly, over speakers. The screeching songs, mixed with the sound of the diesel generator, drowned out the screams of the prisoners as they were bludgeoned to death. The bodies were then thrown into a mass grave and sprinkled with DDT. Those who weren't dead by the bludgeoning were finished off with the DDT, which also helped to control the stench of the decaying bodies.

    I arrive at the site. It looks peaceful, surrounded by rice paddies. Then I see the craters, each one indicative of a mass grave. Bones protrude from the ground, as do pieces of clothing. The rainy season uncovers these artifacts. Each month volunteers collect what gets unearthed. In the center of the site is a towering stupa. I must tip my head back to see to the top because it is so tall. It's filled with skulls and large bones. There are so many bones that the small ones could not be placed inside this memorial.

    I see the Killing Tree. When first discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were bits of brain and skin embedded in the blood stained bark. This tree was where the Khmer Rouge smashed the heads of babies and small children.

    There are small plots of dirt cordoned off and shaded by a roof at which my audio tour tells stories of what happened. It's a somber place. Everyone wants to turn back time and bring these people back. The posts around these plots are filled with peace bracelets. People have also thrown bracelets and money on the dirt itself. I can tell these plots are treated with respect because the money I see is deteriorating in place. No one dares to remove it. I recognize some of the money. I am surprised to see Ben Franklin's face on a rotting $100 bill. That's a month's wage here, yet no one will remove that bill.

    The Khmer Rouge took advantage of a cruel and corrupt government to put in place an even crueler government. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, although educated, sought out and tortured or killed every person with an education. He killed all the doctors he could find, the teachers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who read, who owned books. He broke families apart, taking the children and turning them into soldiers for the cause, soldiers who were then willing to kill their own family if necessary. He forced everyone living in Phnom Penh to leave the city and move into the countryside to farm the land. Those who didn't die of starvation and disease were tortured, many killed.

    One out of four Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Bullets were precious, which is why bludgeoning was preferred. I saw the cracked skulls and the smashed jaws. Pregnant women were not immune. Fetuses were cut from their bellies and hung up on tree branches.

    It's gruesome. It's an unbelievably cruel story, one that the world watched from the outside. And a story that continues to this day. There are still Khmer Rouge awaiting trial for war crimes. The trials get delayed, which is no relief to the victims' families.

    Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, was a Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. When he saw their fall coming, he fled to Vietnam and led the rebel army that was sponsored by the Vietnamese to take down the Khmer Rouge. Hun has been Primer Minister for decades, and refuses to give up the position. He appointed many Khmer Rouge to government posts.

    Hun Sen never had to answer for his actions as Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. Would the world have turned Germany over to one of Hitler's commanders to rule? I think not. I understand why the Cambodians are dismayed at having this dictator in power.

    Many in the world support Hun Sen because they think he is a better alternative than anyone the opposition can put forward. The Hun Sen supporters are not the people who lost family under the Khmer Rouge.

  • Disrupting a School Day in Cambodia

    I just finished a picnic lunch in the countryside outside Siem Reap. I am sitting under a tree next to a Buddhist temple. Two sad, dirt covered dogs gaze at me while a puppy jumps playfully at the table hoping for some scraps. He gets them. My guide says, “There’s a school a short walk away. Let’s visit the classroom.”

    If I tried to pop into a classroom in the USA unannounced, I’d likely be arrested. So I am a little concerned. I say, “Are you sure we can just walk into a classroom?” He says, “Yes. They will love it.” So we walk on.

    As I approach the school yard, I notice that some children are outside, some inside. I hear excited murmurs. When we get to the classroom I don’t see a teacher anywhere. To my surprise, there are children seated at the desks.

     

    We enter and most of the children jump up and run towards us. They see cameras and want photos taken. Many keep flashing peace signs, so much so that it makes it difficult to get a good shot without having fingers in front of someone’s face. There is so much movement, it’s also difficult to focus. Clearly this is the highlight of their day.

    A few children sit at their place, looking shy and reserved. I take one of the shy girl’s photos. She smiles when I show her image to her. Other children surround me so they too can see her image. Now everyone wants to see their image in my camera.

    This goes on for at least ten minutes before the teacher arrives. We wish her a good day and leave, the children waving at us as we make a quiet getaway.

    There are schools all over the countryside. Most, but not all, children attend. It’s easy to see who attends by the fact the children wear uniforms. As I walk through other parts of this rural area, I see children who appear to be school age, but are helping tend livestock or work in the fields. The literacy rate in rural areas is about 74% compared to urban areas, which is about 90%.