Southern Thailand

After finishing my visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, I made my way back to Bangkok to meet with Linden. In the few more days that he and I spent there, I determined that the city very much gives the feeling of being on the set of a Terry Gilliam film.

Here’s a game: Bangkok or Zero Theorem?




Once we had satisfied ourselves with Bangkok, Linden and I took an overnight bus bound for Krabi to begin our explorations of a small portion of Southern Thailand.

Waking up on the bus in the morning an hour or so away from Krabi Town, I was immediately struck by the curious beauty of the surrounding geography. The landscape is sprinkled with mountain formations unlike any I have seen elsewhere. Flat-faced cliffs of limestone jut straight out of the ground, often like tall and skinny mesas with flat tops covered in vegetation. I was very curious about the geological explanation for how these bizarre but incredibly beautiful mountains have taken shape.

Apparently the limestone in the region was originally a sedimental layer formed over time beneath the ocean from coral reefs and the remains of various shell-bearing creatures. After shifting tectonic plates and volcanic activity drove initial mountains upward, the patient work of erosion from the mildly acidic rain along crevices in the calcite limestone caused the formations to break apart and slowly divide, resulting in the large number of scattered mountains with very flat-faced cliff sides.


  

Krabi Town 

This small town, which shares the name of the wider province in which it is located, serves as a hub for travelers visiting the south. Many backpackers quickly pass through on their way to other places, but Krabi Town has a few things to offer that I would deem worth checking out. There are nice cafes all about. All throughout Thailand I’ve found trendy cafes with a similar aesthetic to the small, hip places one wound find in the Bay Area.

Small cafe in Chiang Mai.

Krabi Town has an excellent night market with tons of amazing, cheap food—absolutely worth going to (at least once).

One evening, while walking along the riverside on our way back from getting lunch, Linden and I noticed a large orb of glistening gold atop a distant mountain. We were curious what it was, and if we could find a way to get there.

Some quick research revealed the mysterious mountaintop shimmer to be the golden chedi at Wat Tham Seua—also known as Tiger Cave Temple.

The site of the Wat was chosen in the mid 70s by a monk named Ajahn Jumnien, who found the caves at the site to be an optimal environment for practicing meditation. Apparently several tigers used to take shelter in the caves—hence, the name. Jumnien holds a reputation for having cultivated deep wisdom and compassion. In the 60s, during a communist insurgency in Thailand, he provided a neutral sanctuary for fighters on both sides of the long violent conflict.

To reach Tiger Cave Temple, one must ascend a staircase of 1,237 steps reaching a height of 278 meters. These aren’t your average steps, either—the platforms are often quite narrow, and the faces rather long. It is quite a climb.

As I got higher up I had to mentally fend off paranoid fantasies of giant earthquakes. Periodically I would turn around, each time finding that the horizon line had grown visibly more distant from my new vantage point.

The climb was well worth it. The summit where the wat’s large golden chedi rests offers a sprawling panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.


Tonsai/Railay/Phra Nang Beaches

Tonsai Beach was my primary destination while visiting the south, as I had received multiple independent recommendations to check it out. The beach is situated just west of the small peninsula that hosts the more popular Railay Beach (partitioned into two beaches—East and West) and Phra Nang Beach.

The natural beauty of these places is astounding. Towering limestone walls with swirls of red, orange and cream color often droop into stalactites pointing downward toward the warm azure water. I saw what was likely the most beautiful sunset of my life as I sat in the waves close to the shore, watching the darkened silhouettes of long tail boats pass in front of pink clouds and a huge orange sun. I tried my hardest to fully savor the fleeting moment as it slipped away like sand through my fingers.

This cluster of beaches is a rock climber haven for quite obvious reasons (big flat limestone cliffs everywhere all over the place).

Tonsai Beach, where Linden and I stayed, seems to host a culture setting it apart from the other nearby beaches. It might be described as having a climber/hippie/reggae/psychedelic sort of thing going on. Most of the accommodations are bungalows. The first place we stayed, “Chill Out Bar and Bungalow,” had a really friendly staff and great coffee. Linden and I spent plenty of time practicing our slacklining skills there while meeting other travelers. Some of the staff would spin (and spit) fire at night, sometimes while jumping across the slackline on one foot and wearing flip flops.

Neighboring Railay beach was much more populated, with more upscale hotels for accommodation and an alley lined food stands. It wasn’t our favorite place to spend the day, but we found a great spot to spend nights there playing pool and sitting on cushions in front of the waves, watching the moon hanging in the sky opposite its shimmering reflection on the sea. The moon appears to wax and wane from bottom to top in this part of the world.

I found Phra Nang to be easily the most beautiful beach in the area. To the left of the entrance is a cave full of carved wooden phalluses of various sizes (I never found out what their significance was. Linden and I just causally referred to it as the “dick cave.”) Next to that is a larger cave system to climb through with gorgeous colors and shapes. A thin layer of ocean water sits over a land bridge leading to a small island nearby where tons of small crabs with shells of purple and green scurry about the rocks.

Ko Phi Phi

Linden and I spent a few days here, following the advice of a fellow traveler in Siem Reap who spoke highly of it, but we found it wasn’t really our kind of place. It hosts a lively nightlife, with tons of bars lining the beaches, shining blindingly bright lights and blasting booming music that prohibits engaging in conversation with the person standing right next to you. There was one spot where visitors could pay to accept the challenge of hanging on a pull-up bar—the longer you hang, the more shots and beer you are given. I was wary about the social dynamics one might find in an environment that rewards voluntary displays of “buffness” with increased belligerence, but fortunately most people around seemed to be enjoying themselves and one another peacefully.

Linden and I did take a day at Ko Phi Phi for a boat trip to some surrounding islands where we met some great people and got to do a little snorkeling. Good snorkeling spots were a little challenging to come by, but it was a pretty joyous experience being able to glide beneath the water’s surface above corals hosting schools of colorful fish.

One of the most interesting experiences of the island tour was stopping at Maya Beach. Linden and I were unaware prior to arriving that this is the highly famous site where the movie The Beach, starring Leo DiCaprio, was filmed.

Emerging onto Maya Beach is like stepping into a Where’s Waldo? spread full of people with outstretched arms, many of them with the extra added length of sticks, all of them holding devices at the end in a sort of festival of self-directed photography. Hence, Linden and I dubbed Maya Beach “Selfie Cove.” Hoards of people. Thousands of selfies. That’s Selfie Cove.

Linden and I decided to enter as full participants in engaging this cultural phenomenon.

Selfie Cove, as it turns out, is an ideal place to take your selfie skills to the next level.

The Meta-Selfie: A selfie containing a selfie.
Well executed, Linden.

(Flash-forward to Chiang Mai, where Linden and I decided to push the envelope even further.)

The Infinite Selfgression: Selfies within selfies within selfies—ad infinitium.
 

After a few days in Ko Phi Phi, Linden and I were pining for the more relaxed environment of Tonsai and decided to head back there to spend our few remaining days before flying north to Chiang Mai from Krabi Airport. We spent one of our last days kayaking around the ocean in the rain with some snorkeling gear. The snorkeling wasn’t too spectacular in the area but it was still a great day. We happened upon a clownfish taking shelter in an isolated anemone on the ocean floor. It would float up to greet us each time we would swim down to see it. 

A lucky find.

Reflections on 120 (or so) Hours of Meditation.

The Vippassana retreat at Wat Rampoeng certainly stands completely unique amidst my life experiences. 

I am most grateful to have done it. There is no way to adequately put words to what came up over the 10 days. In fact, as with most experiences that touch upon the sacred, I would rather not to try to force it into language.

However, I do feel a desire to attempt to give some description, in loosely outlined sketches, of some of the more profound dimensions of experience that arose for me through such an intensive period meditation (around 12 hours a day).

At times I sat enduring considerable physical pain, witnessing my mind producing a whole spectrum of responses to that pain—concern over the possibility of sustaining injury, a swelling of anger toward Theravada Buddhism, even accusations toward the monks for too-narrowly viewing pain through Buddah’s doctrines of Dukkha (life is suffering), Anicca (impermanence) and Anatta (no self) while neglecting the value of the body’s physical well-being. I began preemptively blaming my instructors for encouraging me to harm myself. These inner voices were met in opposition by other voices insisting that if I were to shy away from the pain then I would be selling myself short of the potential benefits of the practice, and I would fail myself by not trusting the instructors and embracing the full opportunity afforded by the retreat. This battle would come and go, especially during the early days of the retreat—temporarily disappearing and subsiding, then temporarily reappearing and waging on.

At times I experienced a whole other side of pain, as I gradually became aware of where my muscles were tight and contracted, identifying various unconscious somatic holding patterns (particularly in my right hip) and slowly beginning to release them as my body learned to trust that it would find support from the earth below. The pain at times slowly became sweeter, even transmuting into pleasure, as I elongated my spine toward the sky, allowing my legs to quiver in release of psychosomatic energy and eventually relax into stillness.

There were periods during which long-neglected memories floated to the surface, rethreading various past selves to the present. I was reminded of the incredible amount of flux and change I have continually moved through during the course of this life, knowing it will continue.

Midway through the retreat I walked, very slowly, across a balcony with my gaze fixed on the green waxy leaves of a tree. It appeared so lucid before me in the absence of any thought or reverie intruding upon my mind, leaving me to be absolutely present to my senses in the moment.

At times I would be so naive as to think that I had reached some lasting breakthrough in my meditation, as though a threshold had been crossed and I was now at a more advanced level in my practice finally beyond persistent physical and psychological difficulties. But the most still and peaceful states of mind would always inevitably give way, and I would eventually find myself mired again in unpleasant moods, showered by cascades of uncontrollable thoughts and wandering mental chatter.

While, in a certain sense, I did indeed notice considerable progress occur in the quality of my meditation throughout the course of the retreat, it also very much felt as though I never got beyond square one. The feeling of progress consisted, it seems, in simply arriving at new ways of being with what is, of being with myself from moment to moment—whether in pain or pleasure, dissatisfaction or peace (whatever it may be, it will always change again)—without grasping so hard. 

I came to fresh recognition of certain areas of conflict within myself—different elements of my psyche that stand in mutual tension. I hope I can remain conscious of these internal contradictions, so I might find ways of holding them that are less destructive and more creative.

The space created by the retreat allowed me to get in touch with layers of myself that are typically not so readily accessible. Layers are peeled back, more insight emerges, but there is always more, and the problems and questions never disappear. I remain as ever a mystery unto myself—and I imagine that will forever be the case.

I can’t say it all, and so leave much unsaid.

Waste not your breath on winces over past follies.

Save your strength and spare the gavel that loudly cracks judgement upon prior missteps.

Turn now to face the trail of offcast rinds that hide behind you.

Could you conceive that this present form would be the final?

Should it now withstand the serpentine power ineluctably shedding you, through restless transience, time and time again?

Don’t you sense your skin already breaking?

Grant this present pain permission to pass through—its full embrace is its funeral pyre.

Tread lightly, breath after breath, upon the soles of fleeting feet.

Each step, a death.

Each step, a birth.

I anticipate that I will be integrating the experience for some time to come.

I intend to do another Vippassana retreat, eventually. To anyone else who feels curious or drawn to it, and who is not overly daunted by the challenging aspects it presents, I would certainly recommend it.

Travel Tech Woes…

Recurring technological misfortunes have been a fated aspect of my travels, it seems…

Just to give some reasons for the extended delays on my posts:

My original post on Angkor Wat vanished mysteriously after I posted it late on the night before the start of the Vippassana retreat, leaving only a title hovering over a blank page. Given that it took a considerable amount of time to write then upload the many pictures through a dubious wifi connection, it left me feeling rather discouraged.

Then, after recently writing up most of a post about the Vippassana retreat in the notes application on my iPad, the screen on my iPad informed me this morning that it has been disabled. 


This happens when the incorrect password is entered more than 6 times. I certainly hadn’t done that myself, so either one of my roommates at the hostel I am currently staying in made such an attempt, or there is some other anomalous reason it happened. Whatever the cause, I will unfortunately no longer be able to use my iPad (which I was using to do my blog writing) for the remainder of the trip, as I will need to address the issue back home.

After taking a period to witness the emotions this produced—pouty feelings in response to the loss of all the reading material I spent much time uploading onto my iPad before leaving and which I had been enjoying, as well as the inconvenience of having to use my phone if I want to continue writing blog posts—I have inevitably been lead back to the realization that all of this really isn’t so bad.

Alas, after allowing some time for my motivation to return, I now have both blog posts written out again and ready to go. 

As a postscript: I decided, in writing my second post about the Vippassana retreat, to forgo many of the details I had previously explained about the retreat and just try to cut straight the heart of my experience in meditation. My apologies if it is lacking in context.

I will publish the post on the retreat directly following this update. After giving it some breathing room, I’ll cross my fingers and see if the post on Angkor Wat will make it to the other side in tact this time—tomorrow, most likely.

Angkor Wat

[Postscript: Anxious as I have been to publish this post, it has stubbornly resisted even to successfully load minor editorial updates I have been making. Given its high volume of pictures and my present technological limitations, all requests repeatedly time out. In case the publication does go through soon, I write this note with fingers crossed that all of the photos will be included. Apologies for any content that may be missing.]

It was certainly a powerful experience sauntering around great structures in the twilight, eyes tracing the scattering limbs of root networks where trees have patiently claimed their places through years of growth in conversation with eroding stone, all the while thinking to myself: this is the most ancient human-made structure I have ever set foot upon.
Having done too little wandering out of California throughout my life, and by no means across great distances on such occasions, I have so far lacked opportunities to visit sites that can boast of such deep history. Visiting Cambodia’s Angkor Wat—the worlds largest religious monument—along with many of the surrounding temples, was definitely a worthy starting point. 

Most of the structures I visited date back to the 12th century, during the reigns of king Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII—the second and third kings of the Khmer Empire, which once stretched across a region covering not only Cambodia, but much of modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam as well. 

The older temples I got to see go back to the 10th century (and the construction of one them goes as far back as the 9th).

Having originally noted down the names of the various sites (in improvised spelling) after after hearing them verbally (and barely comprehensibly) from my Tuk Tuk driver, Luy, it has proven a formidable task returning to the mass of photos I took in order to identify the temples and sort them accordingly. 

Below are photos from 10 of the temple sites I visited on the outskirts of Siem Reap over the course of three days.

(Note: due to a thinning density of fellow tourists and increasingly beautiful sights that lured me out of my prior lazier photography, the quality of the pictures get better further along.)

1)Angkor Wat (Overseen by Suryavarman II: Early-mid 12th Century)

Angkor Wat means “Capital Temple” in Khmer. Originally it was a Hindu temple devoted to Vishnu (marking a break from the Shaivsm of earlier kings), but later transitioned to a Theravada Buddhist temple following Buddhism’s rise to prominence in the Khmer Empire. The deep historical confluence of Hindu and Buddhist elements present at this site can also be felt throughout the wider region.

I came here to catch the sunrise, but the weather didn’t quite afford the picturesque moments like those in many photos I have seen where the sun hovers as a blood-red orb over the high turrets. Still, it was beautiful.

Any visitor of Angkor Wat, as I’m sure most already imagine, will inevitably show up as a member of a mass tourist-swarm. All part of the experience. It certainly poses a challenge for those who strive for minimally populated photographs.

I got pretty excited at my first-ever monkey sighting in the courtyard outside Angkor Wat.
Think this monkey is sulking? Don’t be fooled—he is merely playing with his foot.

While I found Angkor Wat itself impressive, it was among other surrounding temples that I really found the rich experience I was hoping for. Not only do they afford opportunities for comparatively greater amounts of solitude, but I found the beauty incomparable.

2)Bayon (Overseen by Jayavarman VII: Late 12th-Early 13th Centuries)

This temple had stood at the center of Angkor Thom—Jayavarman’s capital. It is famous for the many protruding stone faces that decorate it.



3)Ta Prohm (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th-Early 13th Centuries)

Originally, this site served as a Buddhist monastery and university outside Angkor Thom. It is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor region. It was given a boost of fame—I rather hate to say it—after being featured in the film Tomb Raider. Even so, it is easy enough to navigate into pockets of solitude and find unpopulated frames for the eyes to enjoy. While certain temples have seen varying degrees of restoration, this one has been left largely untouched from the time it was rediscovered. It is truly an incredible place.

Yes—by all accounts, that is a dinosaur.


4)Preah Kahn (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)

Preah Kahn means “Royal Sword” in Khmer. Like Ta Prohm, it is largely unrestored, and carries a similar feeling. In addition to the temple itself, there was a lot of beauty to be found in the surrounding areas.



5)Neak Pean (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)

To reach this temple, whose name means “The Entwined Serpents,” one first has to walk the span of a long wooden bridge reaching accross a large, shallow lake. 

It was built to sit as a circular island in a surrounding moat, with the figures of seven-headed stone serpents (a very common image in the region) surrounding key points of the perimeter.

From what I’ve gathered, this temple had fairly alchemical origins. Apparently it was created for healing purposes, as bathing in the pools was held to balance the elements in an ailed individual, restoring them to health. Four connected pools represent the four basic elements—Earth, Air, Fire, Water.

It is said that four great animals—an Elephant, Bull, Horse and Lion (corresponding to the four cardinal directions)—originally stood in the surrounding moat. The horse is the only statue that still remains.

“The only remaining statue is that of the horse Balaha, a form of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, saving sailors from the ogresses of Tamradvipa. The temple on the lake was originally dedicated to Avalokitesvara.” (From the Wikipedia page)

While I consistently wondered what all of the sites had been like during the living height of the Khmer Empire, I hold particular curiosity of what once took place here at Neak Pean.



6)Ta Som (Jayavarman VII: Late 12th Century)

This temple was dedicated to Dharanindravarman II, father of Jayavarman VII, who had been King of the empire some years earlier in the mid 12th century. It is another one left considerably untouched from the time of its discovery.



7)East Mebon (Overseen by Rajendravarman II: Late 10th Century)

This is the first of the temples I visited pre-dating the introduction of Buddhism in the empire. It was built in devotion to Shiva.



8)Banteay Srei (Overseen by Yajnavaraha: Late-mid 10th Century)

This pre-Buddhist temple of red sandstone was also built in devotion to Shiva, and is the only temple in the Angkor area that is not attributed to a monarch. Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist, was the grandson of King Harasvarman and served as counsellor to King Rajendravarman II—to whom East Mebon (above) is attributed.



9)Banteay Samre (Suryavarman II: Early-mid 12th Century)

This temple is attributed to the same king who oversaw the commencement of construction on Angkor Wat. There is a huge amount of surrounding land to explore at this site.


10)Phnom Bakheng (Overseen by Yasovarman: Late 9th-Early 10th Centuries)

The earliest in its origins of all the temples I visited, it is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru dedicated to Shiva. Its mountaintop location makes it a highly popular tourist destination for sunset.

A mass of human bodies obscured the actual structure at all times, so there were few opportunities for good photos.

The sunset from Phnom Bakheng marked the completion of my visitations of Cambodia’s Angkor temples (for now).

Bon Voyage, Linden! Enter, Silent Solitude…

Greetings, all!

Yes, yes… It has been quite some time since I have posted an update here. Having a partner-in-travel shifted my dynamic of time allotment.

My very good friend Linden, who spent a month traveling with me across Thailand, departed for home about a week ago. It was great having him as a companion—he will definitely be missed. It was great playing cards while waiting for meals, discussing the comparative merits of various Deftones albums, engaging in an ongoing dialectic about culture and politics, getting wrapped up in late night philosophical discussions, and all sorts of shenanigans… It’s good to have friends.

Now, just as it is time for me to get back in the swing of traveling solo, I am preparing to engage in 10 days of deep solitude. 

Tomorrow morning I will begin a 10-day Vippsassana meditation retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai.

Just inside the gates at Wat Ram Poeng.

I will be waking up each day at 4am, dressed in all-white clothing, for two hours of meditation. Breakfast begins at 6am. Then four more hours of meditation. Lunch at 10:30am. Meditation will continue until reporting begins with the meditation instructor some time around 2pm. No sleeping until 10pm. Repeat. For 10 days.

Barely discernible, two visitors engage in walking meditation (very slowly) in the hallway.

No speaking (except with instructor during reporting).

No reading or writing.

Eye contact and engagement with others is to be avoided.

And of course—this all implies no phone use or internet access.

While I have held a modest mediation practice through intermittent periods of my life (usually just 30 minutes in the morning), I have never engaged meditative practice with this degree of intensity, nor following from this lineage.

I am sure it will be quite challenging. Perhaps it will be more than that. I do not know what to expect, but enter openly and with curiosity.

Monks casually engaged in construction.

I am, of course, quite backlogged with posts on my travels covering the interim since my last update.

Back to being solo now, I expect that I will more easily find time to carve out in devotion to writing out blog posts (following the retreat, of course.)

I have yet to make posts on:

1)Angkor Wat

2)South of Thailand—Krabi Town, Tonsai/Railay Beach, Ko Phi Phi

3)Chiang Mai

4)Pai

While in the south, I had an unfortunate mishap crossing back to Tonsai beach from neighboring Railay one night several weeks ago. A rogue wave caught me with phone in pocket, and my phone was destroyed along with a host of pictures. Luckily, I was able to find a fairly cheap phone replacement after arriving in Chiang Mai, and a good portion of photos had been backed up on my cloud (to my great relief.) I have also just received, from Linden, pictures of the areas that had been lost (thanks buddy!)

My time before beginning the retreat is quite limited, so my plan for now, following this update, is to get a post up on Angkor Wat before leaving for Wat Ram Poeng. Afterwards, I will retrace my steps and recapitulate the highlights leading up to the present.

Following the retreat I’ll be off to Chiang Rai for a few days. From there I will travel by slow boat across the border into Laos on my way to Luang Prabang. From there—who knows?

Three Days in Siem Reap

Three Days in Siem Reap

After making it through the notorious land crossing from Thailand to Cambodia—where the air is thickly pungent with the odor of decaying fish and travelers who do not stay vigilant may well have their passports taken and visas processed by superfluous agencies for a special fee—I was soon staring through the bus windows out over the Cambodian landscape.

Rice stretches out for miles, as farmers donning sun hats strolled along the banks of paddies and herds of cows and oxen waded neck-deep through the water beneath flocks of birds soaring in formation overhead. It might have been all too easy to dwell in a romanticized reverie about “Cambodia” as represented by these picturesque scenes had the signs of real poverty not quickly grown increasingly evident. For considerable stretches on the way to Siem Reap, small homes patched with multicolored tin sheets and dirt floors lined the sides of garbage-strewn streets. This isn’t the whole picture, of course, but it is considerable, and noted among the contrasts of what I had witnessed passing through Cambodia as opposed to Thailand—at least along this route. I know there is much more to both Thailand and Cambodia than the small fraction I have encountered, so these first impressions can hardly be taken as representative.

Much of the spiritually significant craftworks I have seen throughout the region are produced in abundance throughout Cambodia, and line the street sides. Large Buddha statues sitting in lotus with neutral faces, spirit houses packed tightly like in suburbs, and vibrant pottery painted with rich and contrasting colors.

The sun was setting as I arrived in Siem Reap and gratefully took a complimentary tuk-tuk ride to my hotel. As I got settled into my dorm, one of my roommates—Rory, a traveller from England—just arrived back in. Dark outside now, I went out to join him for dinner. As we turned onto the first nearby street, I couldn’t help but burst into delighted laughter.  For a powerfully nostalgic instant, I truly felt as though I were back at Burning Man, walking the playa at night time. Brightly lit and colorful signs stretching off into the distance. The lights of passing bikes as people on foot walk atop the dusty ground. Rows of open-faced buildings granting those strolling the streets a view to the inside of the many bars and restaurants so they might be enticed to join the festivities.The feel of this part of the city bore some striking similarities to Black Rock City.

After an incredibly satisfying meal of tikka massala and garlic naan with a 50-cent pint of beer, Rory and I continued to wander the streets for some time.

Pub Street: A hotspot for visitors. Self-explanatory.
A tempting culinary display of cockroaches, crickets, tarantulas, scorpions and snakes.
 

I got up very early the next morning at 4:30 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, hailing a tuk-tuk driver named Luy who chauffeured me around the various temples over the next three days. I will hold off to devote to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples a post of their own.

Luy was a very kind man with generosity shining from his eyes. He makes a living as a tuk-tuk driver working every day, often getting up very early to do so. 

The evening before my final temple visit, I went and visited a Buddhist pagoda near the center of town. There I met a monk named Kounsrem. When he found out I am from the United States he explained to me that he likes Donald Trump because he is a “sexist man.” I stared blankly, unsure whether this monk was a trickster attempting to get a rise out of me. “Sexist man… You know, business man? I also study to become a business man so I can help my people.” Apparently the term he first used contained a Khmer word that just sounded remarkably like the English word “sexist.”

This portrait of Kounsrem was taken at his kind insistence.

Kounsrem then took me by the arm and ushered me around the temple, telling me the story of the Buddah’s life as illustrated by a series of painting surrounding the courtyard, after which brought me into the temple to give me a blessing—reciting a chant and using a small brush to splash water from a silver bowl upon my face—after which he gave me the honor of giving a donation to the monastery and thereby making karmic merit toward achieving a more favorable rebirth in my next incarnation.

A distinctive feature of the pagodas here are these spires, which jut out from the corners of the roofs and curl upward like trumpeting elephant’s trunks.

After seeing the sunset from a mountaintop temple on my final evening in Siem Reap, Luy, rather than dropping me off in front of my hotel as he had done the days previous, took me back to his neighborhood to join him at a friend’s home for dinner. There I met his wife and five-year-old son, as well as his close neighborhood friends. Fortunately, I was informed beforehand which of the dishes contained dog so I could politely avoid it. 

“Jul muoy!” The Khmer phrase for “cheers!” An easy one to learn, since in contrast to the custom at home of toasting once and then putting it rest, the Khmer initiate another toast every minute or two, it seems. “Jul muoy!”

Mr. Luy and his family.

Luy dropped me off back at my hotel. I told him “Aukoun” (thank you) and promised I would recommend his services to any friends of mine who make it to Siem Reap. So if you want the contact info for a great driver, get in touch with me!

Siem Reap is a fascinating place to travel.  The locals are incredibly sweet. I also met diverse array of travelers coming from places like the Netherlands, Russia, Tonga and one nationally itinerant individual who was born in Saudi Arabia, spent many childhood years in Sudan, has lived most of his life in Malaysia where he studies architecture and from where his passport was issued, but doesn’t really tie his sense identity to any one these particular countries.  The infrastructure in Siem Reap is a minor challenge to navigate at times, and dealing with money is tricky because not every establishment will have enough change to give you. In most cases it’s easy to let go, since what does a small ways in the U.S. goes much further out here, and most of my interactions were with kind and beautiful people simply doing the best with what they have got. I would have loved to spend a bit more time there (and in Cambodia, generally) if I could. I have not ruled out returning in the future.

There And Back Again: Reflections on Travel and Trust in Crossing to Cambodia…

There And Back Again: Reflections on Travel and Trust in Crossing to Cambodia…

Once I had finally made it onto the bus in route to Siem Reap, I came across this line in Goethe’s “Faust,” which felt like an affirmation of the morning’s experience:

A mind once formed is never suited after,

One yet in growth will ever grateful be.

Navigating unfamiliar infrastructure on my way to places I’ve never been and surrounded by people who do not speak the same tongue that I do—travelling has often brought me to the borders of my comfort zone. In trying to get to the Mo Chit bus station where my bus would be departing for Cambodia, I often questioned if I was going the right way. Was that last stop where I was supposed to get off? Did I just blow it?

Such moments require a fine balance between employing common sense, leaning on intuition where definite clarification is not available, and just letting go in trust of the larger current drawing me through the flow of experience—so long as I make my best efforts to help steer the course.

Made it to Mo Chit Bus station – with little time to spare and no idea where to go to catch my bus to Siem Reap. With a snapshot of a ticket written mostly in Thai, I managed to find a person here and there to keep me going in the right direction through a maze of alleyways lined with stands selling various goods. Never more than a smile and a finger pointing off in some very vague direction toward what looked more like an industrial back-alley than a bus station, and where there was no obvious pathway. The assured smiles of the others were affirmation enough.

Made it to the terminal just as my bus was pulling out to leave. Or not…. The driver of the departing bus smilingly pointed me to the adjecent bus, still parked.

A big reason for me taking this trip has been a desire to put myself out of my comfort zone and meet situations where I need to rely upon my own faculties in new ways…

As you course the knife’s edge in between trust and doubt,

Mind your heart lest you forget what this journey is about,

These swelling, hatching edges you have ventured far to test,

A fool cast abroad out upon a fool’s quest.

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All is well that ends well.