สวัสดี from Bangkok,
The journey to Bangkok contained some fun. We got a ride to the Cambodian border with a licensed bandit who mistook the road for a racetrack and the car’s horn for a plaything. The frequent sounding of the horn – to alert oncoming traffic that he was intent on occupying their lane or as a courtesy to slower traffic in his lane that he is about to speed past their left shoulder – proved that he was not conversant with the fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This was a driver who could not sit still. He made a mockery of the road rules, or perhaps demonstrated that there aren’t any.
Cambodia shares some universal attributes of poor societies viz. corruption in the police force and a penchant of many people to gamble excessively. (Both attributes are easily explained by a fundamental understanding of human nature.) In Battambang there exists a huge statue in the centre of a roundabout which embodies both of these human frailties. In Khmer language ‘bat’ means losing or disappearing and ‘tambang’ means stick. The compound of these two words gave the name to Mr. Battambang, a local legend who was a renowned warrior in pre-colonial days. It’s a kneeling figure of Battambang artistically represented in this larger-than-life concrete statue.
hoping for a change of luck
At ground level, a variety of foodstuffs have been laid there by gamblers hoping that their sacrifice may bring them a change of luck. I saw many fruits, vegetables and even a beautifully glazed full pig, with snout facing Mr. B.
A small unsavoury enterprise has grown up around the custom. 10 metres away someone is selling the fruit for the gamblers to deposit and the police officer on duty there sells back the merchandise to the same vendor the next morning. It’s hard to believe that people can be so gullible. What’s more, it’s said that successful gamblers often return with more offerings in thanks for their providence.
This crazy superstition also takes its perverse form at the grave of Ta Mek, who was Brother Number Five in the Khmer Rouge. There, hopeful gamblers place incense on the graveside in the hope of improving their luck.
Incense, food and money are also offered by Khmer People – as well as those in Thailand and Laos who practise Buddhism – to their large population of Buddhist monks who have no other source of sustenance. There are often lines of monks moving about the streets or studying in public libraries or other places. There seems to be no shortage of new recruits to the monasteries. It is not uncommon to see boys aged 8 or 10 in saffron robes and sporting a No. 1 crew cut. At first, I thought this meant they faced a lifetime in the monastery but it seems some families have developed a habit of sending their intransigent sons for a dose of Spartan hardship to straighten them out. These secondments may last three months or six months.
Some of the temples are grandiose buildings. And, Angkor Wat is by far the grandest of them all. It stands in the middle of rainforest near Siem Reap and draws tourists by the thousands. The temple of Angkor Wat is in fact only one in a very large complex of temples, constructed over many centuries.
75 metres across
The story of Angkor Wat’s construction is amazing. A swamp had to be drained and to achieve this a huge moat was dug out by hand in a square pattern (perhaps 75 metres across the moat!) Then the enormous stone buildings had to be built on sand base – calculated to be sufficient to prevent it from sinking back into the swampy ground. All of the sand and all of the rock had to be transported from quite a distance.
Whilst in Laos I ventured by boat up the Mekong to Pak Ou caves. The boat trip was pleasant enough but they were probably never going to live up to one of their marketing claims: “Please book now and you will have a full taste of happiness.” These are not particularly remarkable caves except for the number of Buddha statues which have been left there over the past 500 years. (The practice ceased in 1975 when independence as a republic brought a different official approach to Buddhism.) After making my ‘pious donation’ – as the sign suggested – I learnt that there are five common poses for Buddhas: Calling for Rain, Calling for the Earth to Witness, Meditation, Stop Arguing and (not common) Reclining. I also learnt that it is illegal to export the statues from Laos.
I have also learnt recently that in Laos the Sangha College is now offering a Bachelor of Arts in Buddhist Studies. The Venerable Bounson Keophilon, the college director, said, “Future graduates of the degree will use what they learn from the course to contribute to national socio-economic growth, especially in the era of modernisation”.
We also ascended the hill behind Luang Prabang to see what is alleged to be the imprint of Buddha’s foot, which is housed in a small hut. Three different perspectives on this site: The Lonely Planet: “Perhaps Buddha was a dinosaur.” M.: “What a scam!” Greg: “ha ha ha”.
Buddhism is in fact not a religion and not even a belief. Perhaps it is best described as a teaching. Some of what I have learnt about Buddhism comes from Dany who showed me around the floating villages of Cambodia. Dany is a knowledgeable and erudite Khmer who believes that even many of the monks are unaware of the teachings of Buddha. “They are just following tradition,” he says. It appears that some of the most important teachings are that humans have no soul, change is suffering and that Nirvana means ‘nothing’ (literally anyway). “It serves no purpose to come to the pagoda, pray and go away,” says Dany. Naturally – as in religions – there are proponents who don’t understand what they are doing, which explains why you can sometimes see people in what looks like devout prayer. Either way, it has whet the appetite to find out more.
from Bangkok where the monsoon is heavy, heavy, heavy