It’s nearly 100 degrees yet I am wearing long pants and a black cardigan. “The women of our culture are very conservative,” says our tour guide “you must be respectful.”
Once I approach the stone foot bridge to Angkor, I agree that this is certainly a place that deserves respect.
Massive hallways are lit by the spotlight of the sun, revealing walls covered with ancient carvings which tell stories of life in 12th century Asia.
“She teaches you how to dance, and she protects you”, the guide says. The larger reliefs are referred to as devata’s which is translated to mean deity. They are thought to offer protection.
Ancient architecture offers us lessons of the past. Imagine yourself in 12th century Asia, under the control of a King powerful enough to direct an empire so permanent that it’s magnificent structures still stand to this day.
What stories lie within these walls? There are the obvious ones, the ones that are carved with such detail, still present for us to see. The Churning of the Sea of Milk is one of the most famous, as it tells the Hindu tale of the search for immortality. It seems to me that the temple itself is the fruition of this tale, considering its nearly immortal status.
As we walk the stone hallways, up and down corridors, through hidden passageways, the tour guide asks “do you believe in re-incarnation?”
I don’t reply because I do not believe.
He then goes on to explain a modern-day interpretation: “You have a cell-phone,” he says, “the cell-phone falls out of your pocket and breaks all over the ground. The cell phone died.”
“But what is inside the cell phone is still valuable,” he remarks.
“Inside the cell phone you have a memory card, which is where the most important things are kept.”
“You put the memory card in a new cell phone, and the most important things are alive again.”
Although I don’t believe in reincarnation or superstition, I can see the value in a philosophy that focuses on developing the inside, the spirit.
We get wrapped up in the way others see us, in our accomplishments, our appearance, our possessions, and we lose sight of our true selves.
Every moment I spend here in Cambodia I am challenged. There have been days where I’ve felt like giving up, like calling the airline and booking a ticket back home.
I question my purpose here. I wander what kind of an effect I am having. I recently read a book that spent an entire chapter calling out the flaws in international volunteering, suggesting that anything short of a yearlong commitment is just disruptive to the local community.
I hear things like this and I start to panic. I think of all the ways that being here is self-serving. I think of all the expectations I had on the onset. I think of what life will be like when I get back home.
But then when I am alone, riding my bike through the congested city, among the people who live here, who never leave here, who probably will never know anything but this city – I realize so many of them are genuinely content.
And if it is possible to remain of good spirit in a place that constantly reminds you of it’s tortured past and it’s struggling future, then it really is about more than having a perfect shell, it’s about learning to make the most of what you’ve been given and forgetting the rest.