Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cambodia's Word

"What sort of future is coming up from behind I don't really know. But the past spread out ahead dominates everything in sight."  ~Robert Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

I walk among the ancient ruins of Angkor and through the narrow passageways of the temples--old and empty and silent. I climb up steep, steep stone stairs and over the roots of strangling trees wrapped around the still standing structures. Stone figures sit cross-legged on snakes, their heads all decapitated now. Giant Buddha faces tower at the top of some temples and stare out over the region. I try to picture what this place was like hundreds of years ago, back during the Khmer Empire, back when these temples were first constructed and life vibrated throughout them. But all I see is the haunting afterthought of what was.

The only people lingering in Otres this time of year are the locals and expats--those long term expats who keep coming back again and again until they just never leave. Like a few places I've been, I can see how never leaving is easy to do here--life is slow and easy and cheap--the Gulf of Thailand in one direction holding secrets and stories of privately owned gun patrolled islands just beyond the coast, and in the other direction, long stretches of nothing beyond the village. I talk to a group of young expats one night--broken dreams and nothing to lose in a big world.

A guy from New Zealand sits across the table from me and talks enthusiastically. "I'm broke as fuck, but this is where it's at, this place has potential. Thailand's ruined, Phnom Penh's a dump, Siem Reap's a tourist trap, Sihanoukville's way too seedy, but here, Otres, this is the spot. I can do things here." He reminds me of a few characters in the Beach which is both amusing and terrifying. He flicks his cigarette and stares into space for a moment then abruptly points at me. "Stay out of Australia. Everything there is trying to kill you."

And in some sort of mysterious cross wiring of conversations, the guy to my left from somewhere Eastern Europe now whispers to me--a mid-conversation confession. Between his thick accent and drunken rambling, I could only catch a few key words--tattoo, prison, brother, spy. There were a few different ways I could put it together. Later when the group dispersed he looked at me with his icy blue eyes through his shaggy black hair and thanked me for listening. Anytime, I had said. Though I hoped not anytime soon.

A few nights later walking back to the village from the beach, I stop at the darkest part of the path and look up, and for the first time ever, I see Scorpio clear and full and on the rise. It really hits me then that I am literally in a very different point on the planet looking into space, into the past, from a whole new angle.

On the bus to Phnom Penh the kid sitting behind me says loudly, "Are we there yet?" His mom tells him no, of course we aren't. And in the most matter-of-fact way, he then states, "Well, it sure looks like we are." I gaze out the window--at the rain pelting down on the flat stretches of fields--vast emptiness in every direction.

Nothing can really prepare you for a silent walk through fields where mass genocide took place or through the halls and rooms of an elementary school turned secret torture prison. I didn't have to wonder about anything. The man narrating through the headphones I wore left nothing to the imagination--images that will haunt for days or weeks or years or much much longer if you're from Khmer lineage.

I've given a word to every country and every town I've lived in on this journey--an all encompassing word that captures the essence of the place. Cambodia's word is haunting--an unsettling quite that lingers over Angkor and Otres and the killing fields and S21 prison of Phnom Penh. I take all these stories and all the old energy that came up in Ubud and release it into the haunting. It vanishes along with all the old ghosts, and I continue on my path toward the unknown.

Do you agree with Persig's quote--do you let the past dominate everything in front of you? Does it haunt you and prevent you from moving forward? How do you let go so you can continue moving toward the unknown?

I absolutely loved Cambodia and will miss it terribly. I will definitely go back to Otres and linger a bit longer one day, but today onward to Gili Air! Also, watch out for a future post on the words I've given to all the places I've been on this journey!

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