Cambodia

30: Phnom Penh & Siem Reap

“With our thoughts, we make the world.”

– Buddha

Well that doesn’t look right.

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 An outdated stereotype, sure, and an admittedly heavy weight for the heavily-weighted to bear, but when it comes to problematic stereotyping, at least this one isn’t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.

Nothing.

Shit.

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.”

“What?”

“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.

Maybe this is my new thing, starting my visits in depressing places where man’s inhumanity to man is on full display. The truth is, the world is full of them. In Phnom Penh, skipping The Killing Fields would be ignoring this important history, turning a blind eye to the memory of the human beings who suffered simply because they lived. “Those who ignore history,” as they say…
More than one million Cambodians (with some estimates closer to two million) were victims of the Genocide carried out during the brutal Pol Pot regime. Five thousand skulls of the eight thousand human beings who died at Choeung Ek are on display in the site’s Buddhist stupa.
There are four sides to this stupa, an emotionally overwhelming sight to behold.
Most of the skulls are tagged to indicate the manner in which each man, woman, or child was murdered. Hoes, clubs, spikes, axes…as if genocide isn’t horrific enough, the methods which were used achieve the seemingly impossible – making the heinous act of Genocide even more cruel.
Not the most uplifting way to begin a blog, but it’s exceptionally important for each of us to see and remember and acknowledge the darker capabilities of man. When we hear the word Genocide, most think of Nazi Germany in the ’40s. But the Cambodian Genocide was the late ’70s. Rwanda was the ’90s. Darfur in the early 2000s. Today, right now, Genocides are taking place in Myanmar, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan – and these are only the places the U.S. has formally labeled “Genocide,” which isn’t as easy as it sounds, making the promise of “never again” ring ever-so-hollow.
Just when I feel a bit overwhelmed, however, the world has a funny way of reminding me just how wonderful it can be, and just how connected we all really are. This is James. James is Cambodian. He was also raised in Smith Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island, just a few streets from where Dad – also James – grew up. I found him running Boston’s, a restaurant/bar decorated with New England sports memorabilia. Boston’s is on a side street I went down only because I’d taken a wrong turn. Fate. We talked about NY System and Fellinis and traded names of people we know. Now I just need to do something about the traitorous Brady and Gronk jerseys he’s still got hanging on the wall.
No one tells me what to do.
Having done my penance in Phnom Penh, I would begin my visit to Siem Reap in a more pleasant manner – visiting a favorite of Margot’s, Footprints Café, for a little pick-me-up.
Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, was built in the early 1100s by the Khmer King Suryavarman II. At the time, it was the capital of the Khmer Empire.
Rising nearly 100 feet, the Bakan is the tallest structure within Angkor Wat…
…and despite the convenient little staircase, it is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure how the monks climbed up and down the even steeper concrete stairs over the centuries, wearing those ankle-catching robes, without the benefit of a handrail. I imagine there was an “incident” or two.
As I did with a lantern memorial on Vietnam’s Thu Bon River – and so many other places during this incredible journey – I would light some incense as an offering for Dad here at Angkor Wat. I’ve got him pretty much covered by all the Bigs, just in case the others have been wrong all along.
From Angkor Wat, I would scooter a short distance to Bayon Temple, erected in the late 1100s. There are more than 70 major buddhist temples in Angkor, never mind the hundreds of minor ones. Nearly 98% of Cambodians are Buddhists, and Buddhism has existed here since the 5th century. It’s impossible to travel any road without seeing several formal and informal monuments and shrines.
Ornate carvings depicting Kings and Battles and ceremonies adorn the outer walls of Bayon.
The skies would open during my visit…
…and I found myself trapped alone – or almost alone – for quite some time. We had a chat.
I wasn’t the only one who would end up all wet. See some frolicking monkeys here.
The Gate of The Dead, from the late 12th Century.
All Buddhism and no play makes Pete a dull boy...
I busted some moves. And maybe my hip.
Along my scooter journey to the Kulen Mountains.
The entrance to the temple of the Reclining Buddha in the middle of the Kulen Mountains.
This just never ever gets old for me, being able to see and feel ornate stonework that was carved by some dude more than a thousand years ago.
By the time this family was done presenting their offering of thanks – a common sight at temples across the country – Ganesh had sweets for days.
Yours truly with what I thought was THE Reclining Buddha. Turns out this was just a warm-up.

That said, now picture that idol with a cup of froyo.

Right?

That’s going to be my offering from now on. Together, we can make it a thing.
High above the Preah Ang Thom Pagoda, carved directly into the top of the sandstone mountain, lies the actual Reclining Buddha, the largest in Cambodia, coming in at 26′ feet, head to toe.
Who the hell would travel all the way into the Kulen Mountains, climb all those the stairs, and then write on the goddamn Buddha?
Probably this guy. There are bathrooms all over this holy site, but why let that stop you from whipping it out and taking a leak when the moment strikes.

I can only hope Ganesh gifted him a kidney stone.
My pre-damage ride, which wasn’t the best mode of transportation for the bouldery, rutty pathways to come.
Ornate temples full of idols of all shapes and sizes are common throughout the country.
These were all in a remote village I accidentally came across in the middle of the mountain forest.
It was hot. Do I look hot? I was hot.
GEAUXXXXXXXX.
The famed waterfall of Phnom Kulen National Park. It had begun to rain by the time I arrived in late afternoon, sending most everyone else home for the day. You can only get so wet, I figured, so I headed in for a shower under the falls.
More showers headed for Kulen during my ride down the mountain. It was time to bend that governor and step on that gas and wake the neighbors as I opened that scooter up on the 90 minute ride back to Siem Reap.
While steeling my nerves for my scooter comeuppance, I met a cool cat back at Onederz Hostel who knew Bruno from Cape Town. The resemblance is uncanny.

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.

Until next time, ជយោ!

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