30: Phnom Penh & Siem Reap
“With our thoughts, we make the world.”
Buddhism. So peaceful and inviting and, on its surface, so much more appealing to me than most other religions. Their idols always have a little smile, like they’ve finally found that elusive enlightenment. Many are presented in a state of peaceful meditation – something we could all use a little more of, especially in these dark days of America’s backwards-ass re-canoodling of Church-and-State. The fat ones are most often depicted as jolly. An outdated stereotype, sure, and an admittedly heavy weight for the heavily-weighted to bear, but when it comes to problematic stereotyping, at least this one isn’t racist. A lot of the lady Buddhas are portrayed as chilled out, lying down, looking blissful. While it’s wonderful to see women in history depicted as sitting upon thrones of gold, in positions of great power, revered and worshipped, I’m willing to bet a certain percentage of the ladies out there would trade that throne for a few hours of peace and quiet, the husband out, the kids away, a comfy daybed, a spot in the sun. The only thing that could make those idols more appealing is if they were also holding a cup of froyo. If they’d done that from the start, Buddhism’s popularity would probably dwarf both Christianity and Islam put together. Then there’s Ganesh – “the remover of obstacles and bringer of good luck” – as if being an adorable little elephant wasn’t already enough.
Meanwhile, the imagery of so many other religions is a comparative bummer, a barrage of human sacrifice and death and torture and other horrible fates that await those of us who use our God-given brains to choose the “wrong” path.
But be honest, if you had no prior knowledge of any religion, and had to choose one based on idols alone, are you more likely to get on board with “Fun Bobby,” the well-fed jolly dude who looks like he just ate a weed gummy and downed a couple craft beers, or the bone-thin guy nailed to a cross, with a spear-wound in his ribcage, who’s bleeding from his head because he’s wearing the world’s least fashionable hat?
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
And that’s pretty much what I was thinking about as I began scootering the 90 minutes home from Phnom Kulen National Park to Siem Reap, along rutty, gravelly mountain roads at false dusk in the rain. The colorful fruit and vegetable stands I’d passed on the way in now sitting empty under the dark and waterlogged forest canopy. The Rangers I’d exchanged helloes with so many hours before, long gone home.
My religious contemplations were merely a diversion, however, a distraction from the primary concern at hand, that being how to handle the fact that while one of my scooter mirrors simply wouldn’t stay in a set position, slowly ticking downward every time I angled it to see the fast-approaching motos and trucks, my other mirror was sitting in the storage pocket of the scooter itself, completely disconnected, it’s lonely stick of an arm pointing toward the heavens like an NFL’er thanking God for letting him score that last touchdown.
I’d lost it on a long, empty pathway, if you can call a rocky, bouldered, dirt and puddled trail a pathway. But that’s where Rung Bror Cheav – the Bat Cave – was located. I’d gotten lost not long before, ending up in a small little village in the mountain forest, a village that seemed to exist simply for its random collection of ornate, disparate temples. A monk and two women had helped put me back on track. But Rung Bror Cheav was still 2 kilometers away, a short distance by most standards, but a long way off when you’re pretending to be Travis Pastrana in a Gazoo helmet on a bone-rattling, bottoming-out scooter with the afternoon getting a bit long in the tooth.
I’d actually made the responsible choice at the time, having done the math and deciding it was best to turn back. I had no spare tire, no tools, and no cell coverage should something go wrong on this remote, empty, and unforgiving mountain trail. I could make it back to the village on foot and spend the night with the monk and women, I supposed, which would have made for a much more interesting entry than this, but I still wanted to see The Thousand Lingas and swim under the Kulen Waterfall.
And then, in an instant of adult self-sabotage – one of the stories of my life – I decided it would be funny to send my brothers – Steven and Jon – and our famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and the soon-to-be summer blockbuster movie based on the soon-to-be NYTimes best selling novel, The Incredible Adventures of Pud), a video of that kooky trail. While I rode down it. Throttling and braking with one hand. Filming with the other.
It didn’t go as planned, but it did go exactly as expected (watch?).
And right about then, just as I was ephiphanizing about the world’s religions to distract from thinking about how much I would be charged for breaking the scooter – fifty dollars? A hundred? – trying to remember what the rental contract said, if it said anything at all, and where I’d even put it – well, right about then is when the bug hit me square in my open eyeball.
And stuck there.
And began to sting.
And then burn.
I started slowing down while desperately digging fingers into my eye, but the stinging and burning made me squeeze that brake a little harder, harder, and harder still, until, as one might expect from a tourist on a rented moped in a foreign land, I laid that sucker down.
For the second time.
My left calf and knee and elbow and hand took the brunt of the physical damage, my ego taking the rest. I jumped up almost as quickly as I’d gone down, looking around to discover that no one, save for a stray mountain dog, bore witness to my glorious fail. I wiped the embedded wet gravel from my palm and leg, my shorts and sleeve. My shoe and the scooter itself were speckled with muddy sand too, but I left that for the rain to wash off, thankful I hadn’t broken anything more, be it more scooter or bones.
I could have lied, I suppose. Well, more than suppose – lying was actually something I contemplated for much of the rest of the ride home. I was already 0-5 on the list of Buddhist precepts, lying being one, so I didn’t feel like it’d damage my chances of joining the faith any more than they already were. I could use the epoxy in my room, bought to reattach the soles of the leather sandals I’d purchased for $10 from a Masai in Zanzibar. I could just glue the mirror back on, and then ease the scooter over the curbing of the rental place upon my return.
But then, what if it fell off right then and there, with epoxy residue turning an awkward moment into a despicable one? But maybe it would work, I countered, just long enough for me to leave Siem Reap and travel on. What then? Well, it might fall off in a day or two, for one, and what if I ended up sticking some poor college kid on a $25-a-day budget with a hundred dollar repair bill?
“Oh don’t worry, these mirrors just fall off for no reason all the time,” the girl who ran the shop might say, with a hint of Cambodian sarcasm, before telling him he’d get his passport back only after he forked over the cash.
Or it might fall off when the boy, her younger brother, washed the scooter down with the hose the next morning. By then I’d already be on the road to Bangkok, impossible to find, entirely free and clear. But still, they’d know. And more importantly, I’d know. And just because I spent most Sunday mornings at St. Augustine’s Church sitting in the back row, chewing gum bought with money Dad had given me for the coffers while daydreaming about endless acts of personal heroism, that doesn’t mean I’d avoided my baptismal religion’s greatest gift – Catholic Guilt.
And this was a nice and kind family, simply trying to eke out a living. Covid left everyone here in Cambodia, in Vietnam, across Africa and beyond, with no income and zero government assistance for over two years. And I broke the damn bike, after all, while acting like a jackass, no less. And I’d already started acting responsibly today – right before acting utterly irresponsibly, sure, but for me that still counts as being on a sort of roll.
I’d motor the rest of the way home, without incident, pondering the fate of my soul and the scooter damage done. How much would it cost? A hundred dollars didn’t seem out of the question. Sure, a mirror probably doesn’t cost that much here, but it’s a rental, and the scooter would be out of commission, and there’s the general inconvenience, not to mention an entirely acceptable penalty for simply being an idiot. A hundred wouldn’t break my bank, but when that’s your total daily budget, the thought still stings a bit, especially when you have an hour or so over which to ponder.
Do the right thing, the voice inside my head insisted, even if you do get gouged for the damage. They’re nice people and they’re just trying to make a living. Sure, they probably have a pile of spare mirrors out back, a graveyard of scooter parts from idiots past. The kid will probably have it replaced in five minutes, too, the bike not missing a single goddamn rental rotation, I thought with a grimace as I rode roads of picturesque rice paddies surrounded by glorious mountains, the irony of my curmudgeonly cynicism – a gift from Dad as powerful as anything with which the Vatican could burden me – rearing its ugly head.
But even if I do get gouged, the money wouldn’t be going to frivolous things, I countered my counter.
I do this a lot, arguing with myself over moral quandaries, willingly going down that bottomless rabbit hole.
It’d more likely go to food. Or bills. Or into the bank to help them get through the world’s next, seemingly inevitable pandemic.
And besides, Dad might have gifted me his cynicism, and he probably would have laughed hysterically at my retelling of how the mirror fell off just as I was telling the young woman what a pleasant and uneventful time I had on their scooter. But at the end of the day, Dad was guided by morality and ethics. And unlike his youngest, at least, he was a devout Irish Catholic. He would have insisted I do the right thing. And maybe he was doing just that. Maybe his was the voice in my head.
I would arrive in trafficky darkness, shower, then grab a drink at my hostel bar before facing the music and my financial comeuppance. They’d closed early, so I had to WhatsApp the shop to open for me, sharing in writing that “I might have broken the mirror.”
No turning back now.
“So what’s wrong with the mirror?” the girl asked when I rolled up the curb and through the open gate.
“Well…,” I said, lifting the mirror from the pocket of the scooter and holding it near the broken arm onto which it was formerly attached. “To begin with, this should be connected to the end of that thing,” hoping a little levity might help my cause.
I cut to the chase. “What do I need to pay for the damage?”
She looked at me, then at the mirror in my hand, and then asked me to wait a moment, taking out her phone and making a call.
Ahhh, the old “call my manager” shtick, I thought, that classic American car salesman tactic, allowing them to deflect the blame for the inevitable bad news about to come. “I’m sorry,” she would say any minute now. “I think it’s a lot too, but that’s the price the owner gave me.”
She spoke in Khmer, yet another language of which I’ve failed to learn even the most basics pleasantries. How convenient, I thought. I’m about to get ssooo screwed. Half a minute later, she hung up. Here it comes.
“My mother said it will cost five dollars.”
“Five dollars. Is that okay?”
“Five dollars? Uhmm, yeah, that…that seems fair,” I said, handing her a 50,000 riel bill. “Do you have change?”
I walked back to my hostel, the relief at my fortune turning to guilt for my cynicism, my lack of faith in humanity, in this nice family, and the misguided internal debates that had dominated my thoughts the past few hours.
“With our thoughts, we make the world,” Buddha said.
If that’s true, what kind of world do I think we live in? What kind of world do I live in? What kind of world do I want to live in?
I should have told her to keep the change, I suddenly thought. Should I have, though? Would that have been kindness? Or guilt, perhaps. It might have been seen as pity, maybe even insulting?
I didn’t have an immediate answer to that question. And luckily, I didn’t need one. Not right then, anyway. I had a six-hour shuttle ride to Bangkok ahead of me, plenty of time to fully engage my next moral quandary, journey down the next bottomless rabbit hole. Just me. And Dad too, perhaps. Time to think not simply about whether a few dollars would have been seen as kindness or pity, but to create the world in which I want to live from that moment forward.
Cambodia hadn’t actually been on my itinerary. But more than a few friends, old and new, thought it crazy that I fly over, from Vietnam to Thailand, instead of traveling by land to see Siem Reap and Angkor Wat along the way. They were right, of course. My time there wasn’t long enough, but it was time well spent, and I would certainly go back, the sights, the history, the food – and the Cambodian people themselves – all part of a world in which I am quite thankful to live.