Flowers and String

The sky is its usual soupy, dusty pale peach color as I sit in one of the open-air food stalls inside the grounds of Angkor Wat, letting the sweat dry. The woman trying to sell me scarves from one of the clothing stalls stops with the rehearsed pitch when I answer her in Cambodian. 

"No one who comes here ever speaks our language," she says, smiling. She seems tickled when I ask her about her life and I get the impression it's not something the tourists ask her about often. 

She's younger than me, lives with her family in the country nearby and has five children. She sells scarves for the shop owner and gets a 50 percent commission. Many days, she tells me, she has no sales. It can be hard to feed everyone though her husband works too. Her small son, about 5 years old, is cruising through the stalls selling postcards and magnets. He goes to school in the morning and helps his mother in the afternoon. 

I ask all the many children who hawk things around the temples their age. No one I meet is older than 8.

Back in Siem Reap: Tourist Trap, the small city that feeds and houses the never-ending parade of visitors to the Angkor region, there is more social stratification between the locals and foreigners than I've seen in any other tourist hub. I'm not surprised that no one asks the vendors around the temples about themselves. Tourists and backpackers keep to the tourists and backpackers. Though, to be fair, most of the Cambodians I interact with exhibit a timidity that makes me feel like I'm assaulting them instead of asking questions. They are friendly, but not outgoing. Shy people who are ill-suited to the hospitality industry personality-wise but grateful for the work because there are few viable alternatives here.

At the Garden House Guesthouse I've booked into for the duration -- a family-run operation -- one of the adult sons tells me that he doesn't like helping to run a hotel, it's exhausting. Peter came back to Siem Reap to work in the family business because, though he has an IT degree, he found it nearly impossible to live in Phnom Penh on the wages an IT worker earns. Two hundred dollars a month doesn't go very far but that cheap labor is why much of that work is sent to Phnom Penh by foreign companies. (His name isn't Peter. It's a word that starts with the letter P and has two syllables neither of which I pronounce correctly when I try to say it. I cringe when I do it, but I try. In my mind I call him Peter.) 

Later, as I'm sipping a beer from my perch at one of the western-style restaurants along the Siem Reap River in town -- a place where the Khmer staff are wallflowers and the tourists ignore them until time to order or pay -- there's commotion from the courtyard of the Cambodian People's Party compound across the river. About 30 Cambodians are taking an outdoor aerobics class at the political headquarters. Which makes me think of something else Peter said. 

Young people are moving away from the party. There's too much cronyism, too much corruption and favoritism. The older people, he says, are loyal because it was the CPP who saved them all at the end of the Khmer Rouge insanity and war. But, 30 years of the same party in power is becoming enough. Cambodia's government may be a parliamentary monarchy, but there's been one prime minister since the mid-80s. The fact that about 70 percent of the population was born since 1979 is a bad sign for the party. This is a young nation. Maybe that's why they're trying to attract people with group fitness classes. 

There's a sweet smell in the warm evening air and I try to ask my young waiter in English what the fragrance is, since he seemed to speak Restaurant English OK. The conversation dies when we can't understand each other, and I'm left waving my hand under my nose making exaggerated sniffing sounds with a smile on my face. After I've eaten I attempt a few Cambodian phrases. He is also surprised and pleased I speak some of his language. A few minutes later, he's back at the table holding a frangipani blossom out to me. A gift that he'd just plucked off a nearby bush -- that sweet smell on the air. 

These, then, are the small, quiet moments bridging the great divide between Tourist Trap and human community. They happen simply, amongst the frenzy of tourist buses and tuk-tuks.

The next day, another of these moments steps in front of me. Although the temples scattered over the Angkor region are ruins, they are still places of Buddhist pilgrimage and worship. There are often makeshift altars and shrines tucked away in nooks, sometimes with a monk or nun in attendance, sometimes not. I'm filming Ta Prohm, best-known as the Tomb Raider temple, when I wheel around a corner and find a low, small altar on a pile of stone being cared for by an equally small nun. I ask her permission and take a still photo of her. Then I turn off the camera. 

"Pray, pray," she says -- her only word of English. She motions to the altar decorated with the bottom half of a stone Buddha (a holy statue is a holy statue) nonetheless carefully wrapped in his gold cloth, flowers, bamboo, a candle, incense, a bunch of short lengths of braided string, some neon yellow and some red, and a donation plate. It's impossible to guess her age. She's got a slight hump back and a shaved head, and she smiles kindly. 

It's unusually quiet for a moment, a rare thing, without more tourists tromping through this corner of the structure as she hands me a joss stick and shows me how to hold it between my hands. She motions for me to mimic her as she faces the Buddha, folds her hands and quietly says what I assume is a prayer. I make the motions and she reaches for a yellow and a red braid, a string bracelet that she ties around my wrist, muttering something in Khmer that again sounds like a prayer or blessing. I hope it is. We stand maybe a foot from one another and with her eyes down, I scan her face well. There are no lines on it anywhere, her skin wonderfully smooth. She stands shorter than me and that's quite a feat. 

I light my incense and place it in the pot with others to burn. The TV producer in my head is screaming to turn on the camera, but I can't. It's such a personal, quiet moment I'm loathe to force it into the situation. It doesn't feel right, too intrusive. I stand with her alone for a moment and then several white foreigners wander through quickly, cameras swinging off their necks. "Pray, pray," my tiny nun says. The strangers don't acknowledge she's there, but keep walking, looking for the next amazing photo op. I leave a small offering in her donation box and she grins widely. I only see three teeth in her mouth.

My views on spirituality have shifted during my adult life. I view much of religious philosophy and certainly dogma as so much superstition. But I do believe in humans. Traveling extensively has had a lot to do with that. My innate cynicism has faded -- some -- and my faith in people and my trust in them has been strengthened as a result of what I've seen and the places I've been. 

Who knows, with so many of the tourists disregarding the little nun, maybe what she whispered while tying on my bracelet was something along the lines of, "You damned tourists, I hate the lot of you, I wish you'd all drop dead." But I don't think that's what it was. And though I don't think a higher spiritual power has any, well, power when it comes to what she said, I do believe her kindness has power. I believe her human qualities of goodness, sharing, and her ability to connect with a strange woman whose language she doesn't understand has plenty of power. That's the real blessing. 

One of many makeshift altars hidden through
Angkor temples, this one in Ta Prohm. 


Outside Ta Prohm, the circus of tuk-tuks, vendors, stalls, heat, and dirt fuse together and I'm back in the Cambodia of Siem Reap. It's an interesting blend of modern convenience and inconvenient quirks. Like new, clean toilet facilities with toilet paper in dispensers at the sinks for drying your hands. An effort to cater to the comfort of the people keeping the local economy going, but a disconnect from those people.

There’s a lot to the region that I haven’t seen and won't be able to see. There are floating villages on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and country orphanages, fundraising for which people in Siem Reap approach foreigners at the popular city sites. I haven't seen what Cambodia is. That will have to be an entirely separate trip. But I have seen a tiny glimpse of who Cambodians are. You must dig a little deeper with them than with, say, the outgoing Filipinos and Vietnamese, but the flowers and string are worthwhile rewards.


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