By Michael Miller
Cambodia is a haunting place. It is a land of excess and austerity, horror and beauty.
This is what drew me to it; the naïve thought that things could be simpler or richer in Cambodia than in the drab gray suburbs of the American Midwest. In the comfort of my daily life in Missouri, I had become numb. I needed rupture, renewal, salvation.
“Expect nothing,” a Buddhist wise man once told his student as he packed for a long journey. On the plane flight to Phnom Penh, however, I expected everything. I needed it. After two years in an office, I wanted to plunge into the fire of a foreign land.
Within a few days, things seemed to go wrong. Two of my friends were incessantly fighting, their relationship souring in the sweltering heat. They screamed at each other over trivialities while women selling dragon fruit on the street corner wondered what could make these rich white people so upset.
Around us swirled a cacophony of markets and car horns. Everywhere people were eating noodles and curry, the smell of spices drifting from tiny, chaotic kitchens out over the wet and narrow sidewalks. We had brought our problems with us, but the city ignored us. I found a strange comfort in our irrelevance.
Leaving our hotel early one morning, our tuk tuk (open air taxi) dropped us off in front of the concrete walls and barbed wire of Tuol Sleng. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge had used this former high school as a concentration camp. The regime tortured thousands of teachers and intellectuals here before sending them to the “killing fields” outside of the city.
But I quickly gave up on Tuol Sleng. While the others walked around taking pictures of the cramped cells and blood stains, I sat down on the dirt of the courtyard. Why had I come here? Did I really think that I could understand death—or life, for that matter—any better by coming to this dark place? In the museum gift store tourists were busy buying the same T-shirts and trinkets as in Thailand, as if the museum meant nothing at all. I left the museum feeling depressed.
We left the next day for the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, six hours to the north. Arriving in the afternoon, we walked past the crumbling statues of naga guardians, across the bridge and into the vast temple complex. The Khmer kings built Angkor Wat to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods. As we walked up hundreds of steps worn smooth by thousands of visitors, I thought of the Buddhist monks for whom each step is a prayer.
At the top of the temple, I found myself standing next to two young monks in saffron robes above a canopy of green. In the warm breeze, I tried to let go of my doubts and my desires: the doubt that coming to Angkor Wat would make any difference in my life, the desire that it make all the difference. When I opened my eyes, the monks were gone. Lighting a stick of incense, I left some riel notes next to a thick, yellow prayer candle, and left.
I met my friends on the temple lawn and, for the first time in weeks, everyone seemed happy. Sitting on the steps to an ancient library, I looked up and saw blue sky where the roof should have been, a hot air balloon listlessly carrying tourists above the temples.
Gone were the fierce desires and seesawing emotions of Phnom Penh. Gone was the need for Cambodia to change my life. In the fading light, we sat and marveled at the simple beauty of this place, where heaven met the earth among ancient stones.