Monastery on the Hill of Lady Penh, and other Cambodian Stories
My sister and I were the only non - Khmer passengers on the bus from Vietnam to Cambodia. Operated by Tourist T & T Trading, we were to cross through Moc Bai in the south of Vietnam, the only legal crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. The fare from Saigon to Cambodia (our drop off point was at the capitol Phnom Penh), I have been told, currently costs approximately USD 10. Cambodia in the summer of 1996, before the most recent wave of civil political in-fighting, already seemed a lonely and quiet sibling compared to Saigon's brazen sun, confident vendors, and arresting style.
"CAMBODIA?!" was the response from my dismayed Vietnamese family when they learned of my planned trip. Why would you want to go there? Who would want to visit the introverted, troubled sibling of Vietnam when you had the wittiness, the edge, and the life of Saigon? The 1,300 km of land between the two countries have seeped into its earth a history of indignance, border disputes, genocide, invasion, Vietnamese occupancy, Cambodian refugees exiled under the Khmer Rouge Communist regime, cross border commerce and trade, and now my sister and myself. A twisted double helix of history between the two countries mirrored the genetic code that divided myself from the Khmer passengers on the bus. The hatred between Cambodians and Vietnamese had taken root deep beneath the Mekong River, beneath the arbitrary international boundary the French declared between the countries in 1939, beneath border skirmishes and takeovers.
Given this historical context, why did I want to go? The Mekong River flows into eastern Cambodia and thus I would follow, my curiosity leading me to learn more about that strand of history to which Vietnam is bound. During Cambodia's most recent wave of political in fighting in 1998, its regional economic crisis, civil violence, and headliner stories, there was not a day that passed when I didn't think about San Somen, about orphaned monks, about the sacred hour when the moon and sun danced a last waltz over the temples in Siem Riep. But I should backtrack to 3 years ago so that you may hear round robin Sanskrit-Khmer-Vietnamese translations, see the kaleidoscope of yellow saffron robes against pink lotuses, feel the power of prayer at dawn, and hear the echoes of hallowed drums which drew us in.
After our bus had delivered us to the door of Rex Inn at No 99AE Preah Sihanouk St (opposite Lucky Super Market, 855-23-724344), my sister and I disembarked dazed from the road trip with its 5 stops for "passport and document" checks. Upon arrival, we didn't dispute the lodging choice our driver had made for us (obviously working on commission), nor were we taken aback by the stark change in surroundings after traveling only 7 hours.
One Cambodian folkloric history dates the birth of the present capitol, Phnom Penh, back to 1327. A rich widow named Dom Penh found a tree with 5 Buddhas in it, thus, she formed a pagoda, Wat Phnom Don Penh, or the Monastery on the Hill of Lady Penh. We didn't find Lady Penh during our visit, instead, we met San Somen.
Unnalom Pagoda No. 117 is the only record I have of its location, its name, that it is real and exists outside of the pictures I took. When this elder monk (photo) stepped out to sweep the stoop, I never caught his eye - to this day, he doesn't know that he opened the portal through which we entered to meet Somen.
The monks in the living quarters hurriedly pulled together chairs so there would be room for us when we stepped into the darkness of their room. I did not know then that many young Khmer men normally spend a period as monks associated with a temple. The Khmer have long been practitioners of Buddhism, evident through the 95% of the population who are Theravada Buddhists. It was dizzying trying to follow the conversation in that room. The men were in various stages of study of their required 4 languages of study: Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer, Vietnamese. As my sister and I spoke, our words floated through a wavelength of multiple translations until a question ricocheted back from this round robin of translations. Are you Vietnamese? Where are you from? Do you speak Khmer? Their words kept spilling out of the cornucopia of translations. From this group, Somen and his friend led us to the courtyard to view the outside of the monastery.
Somen and I were able to communicate through his halting Vietnamese. As I had no knowledge of Khmer, our conversations were punctuated with long silences. I entered the monastery, he told me quietly, when my family was killed in the genocide under Pol Pot. This 30 year old man had grown up in the temple, as many of the novices in wats (pagodas) throughout the country had. During the country wide purge from 1975-1979, anywhere from 11% to 32% of the population (depending on the various data sources) died under the Khmer Rouge. Leaders Pol Pot and Ta Mok created an alliance to purge the Khmer Rouge party of any 'anti-party elements'. Through this web of history, I came to speak to an orphan of genocide. Perhaps Lady Penh never existed, but I did find a Living Buddha on that hill known as Phnom Penh.
The Killing Fields Museum (Tuol Seng), a former school taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and turned into a torture chamber, is now open to visitors for USD 2 entrance fee. We viewed a haunting photo of carcasses divided by age upon death. The camera peers over the adult male section. From 1975- 1979, the Khmer Rouge Community Party is said to have exterminated anywhere from 800,000- 3 million of the Cambodian population. To leave a description of this photo out, which I considered, is an unrealistic touch up of the country's history. It is a sight which I would prefer never to document again, but it is also a period of Cambodian history which affected most every family and is worthy of documentation. Its inclusion here is not to minimize its importance in history to that of the market vendor stall, but rather, it is to denote how ingrained the Killing Fields are in Cambodia's history. Similar to a complicated fabric with thousands of interwoven threads, every facet of Cambodian life was changed by this period of genocide. What is remarkable is that the contents of this photo exist along side fields of pink lotuses and monks' yellow saffron robes trailing in the wind, alongside Living Buddhas on Lady Penh's Hill, and dancing goddesses from 8 centuries ago???? But again, I am ahead of myself. You will have to read on to the Siem Riep section in order to cross the bridge between man and the gods.
On to Siem Riep
In the interest of time, my sister and I decided to take a one hour flight to Siem Riep, 125 miles north of Phnom Penh, foregoing the longer, scenic, and possibly less secure routes by land and water. Royal Air Cambridge, as of 10/99, offers 7 daily flights from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep (USD 170 for round trip). In our research, we also learned of boat rides between the cities which could take from 4-6 hours for USD 12-25. Mom's Guest House No. 0099 on Wathbo St (next to Bayon Restaurant, no phone number on business card) seemed as good as any other hostel/hotel, so we chose that converted home for its comfortable cabins and proximity to the temples.
Spread over more than 400 square kilometers (77 square miles), 1000 archaelogical sites in the Khmer ruins dot the land with their towers, bas reliefs of apsaras (dancing goddesses), and overturned columns and boulders. A live picture book of Khmer magnificence, a time capsule of slave labor and architectural grandeur. Not trained as a historian or architect, I was awed not by the technical, but rather by the poetic. Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples in this structure. With its five towers and 2 square kilometers of area, it is the largest religious temple in the world. Constructed as a representation of Hindu cosmology, its layout led us into a continent surrounded by 6 concentric rings of land, 7 concentric oceans, the city of Brahma (home of the gods) at the peak, and stone bridges between the worlds of man and of gods. We also visited the other 'main' temples of Anghor Thom (1 km north of Angkor Wat) from which we could see the Bayon temple, and behind Bayon, Ta Phrom temple (the only unrestored temple in the complex).
In some ways, the bridge was raised after we crossed into this universe, and I have not found my way home since. If you cross that bridge (terraces lined with stone nagus), you will find sunrises over haunting stone goddesses who have danced for 8 centuries and Indian mythical epics. You will be gazed upon by Angkor Thom's 54 towers, each with 4 stone carved faces (said to resemble King Jayavarman VII himself in the human incarnation of a Living Buddha). Perhaps you will find the community who called us in for 6 hours, who offered no names, addresses, or signs. If you have any clues as to whom they are, I would welcome any help finding them. Until I do, I am stranded in that universe of concentric oceans and dancing stone goddesses.
'An com.' Eat rice, the monk called out to us in Vietnamese. And so began our day in a community behind one of the Angkor temples. We heard an early morning hallowed rhythm which drew us away from the temples, through a grove, into this community.
During our half day there, we did not meet one Vietnamese or English speaking person save a 10 year old girl who knew some Vietnamese. During the morning we spent there, when we watched the women grind the cassava, bring water, and prepare the lunch. We did indeed 'an com' after we joined the community in lining up to give alms to the monks in their outstretched rice bowls.
We ate against a backdrop of Angkor temples, Living Buddhas who smiled mysteriously on temple visitors, and dancing apsaras who seduced with their silence. As quickly as we were invited in, we were slowly led to what seemed the head monk, a community leader of sorts, when we were instructed to bow and take our leave.
Upon my return to the States, I found San Somen's letter with its multiple postmarks that travelled from the capital, through the lowlands, the Tonle Sap 'Great Lake', through the Cardomom Mountains in the southwest of Cambodia where it graced the highest peak, Phnom Aoral, down the Mekong River to the states where it found me in Oklahoma.
Dear: Nhat Phuong and Nhat Anh
First of all, please forgive me if my Vietnamese is imperfect in this letter. You see, I am not very fluent ?..
And so began Somen's (the Buddhist novice from Phnom Penh) apologetic letter with a formal request to consider us his friends. He had never befriended a female outside the temple, he explained, and he would be honored if we would consider his request of friendship. I wrote back immediately and never heard from him again. Perhaps my letter is somewhere in the Mekong, winding its way back to the Monastery on a Hill.
Until it arrives, here is my open letter to San Somen:
Venerable San Somen:
We would be honored to be able to call ourselves your friends, and I have not forgotten our conversation at the foot of the stupa 3 years ago. Throughout the most recent civil disturbances in Cambodia, I hope you have remained safe, that your Vietnamese is improving, and that you have found peace amidst the chaos. I have shared your story with a magazine here in the United States- I hope you do not mind. I wanted others to learn of the rich history and life there is in your country. Though I have crossed the bridge back into the world of man, I have not forgotten how it was to be among Bodhisattvas (Living Buddhas) who guided us along our journey across the border into a world of saffron yellow and grace, pink lotuses and dancing goddesses, drums and monasteries, prayer and stone, fabric vendors and storytellers.
Published on 4/12/01