Monday, May 30, 2011


We had to delay our travel plans to Sihanoukville and Siem Reap by one day, thanks to a little inconvenience that my mom termed "the real Cambodian experience". On Sunday we left Phnom Penh to travel to the beach town by bus, a four hour ride. We left in the morning and were there by lunch, whence we checked into our lovely hotel that was within walking distance of Serendipity Beach. The beach is beautiful. It is also filled with hordes of mostly women and girls (a few boys) who hound you to buy their bracelets and fruit and pester you to let them give you massages and manicures. It seemed that one or two girls selling strings of bracelets was connected with a woman offering pampering services, and they were probably mother and daughter.They are relentless, more so than any other place I've seen in Cambodia, but they are also very savvy, and there is obvious competition. One girl who claimed to be 14 (she was definitely more like 12) attached herself to us, and even gave us each a bracelet free of charge, was all cute smiles and flattery when speaking to us. But the moment a younger girl came over with her own bracelets, the older girl's face flashed into a scowl and she angrily told her off in quick Khmer. Then she turned to us, her face transforming into that sugary-sweet smile as fast as she had flipped a light switch, and she laughed with innocence and resumed her pretty English words.

beautiful Serendipity Beach

That evening, Lauren and I decided to go to Independence beach to catch the sunset. When we got there the beach was empty except for Cambodian families that were picnicking in the cool evening air. We walked along the beach, taking in the sound of the crashing waves and the sun descending through the golden clouds. It was just beautiful. It reminded me a lot of sunsets in Hawaii that I love so much, and yet it was so different. We walked barefoot in the sand away from the families till we were alone on the beach and in our thoughts. There was just an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility in the moment, and the sunset was so beautiful, I think it requires a few photos, though none have truly done it justice.

On our last day, we decided to check out another beach, called Sokha Beach. Sokha Beach is more excluded, due to the fact that the Sokha company (something to do with petroleum) bought probably the nicest portion of the beach, built an expensive resort just dripping with opulence on it, and now charges too much if you want to come and use the beach. But we wanted to see what it would be like without the crowds (read: beggars). To get to the beach, Lauren and I took the road less traveled, and by that I mean we climbed up and down and over rocks, all along the water's edge till we reached the beach. It was a little frightening at times trusting my slippery flip flops, but it was so spontaneous and fun. As we reached the end, we ran into some local kids fishing in the pools for crabs.

The beach was nice, but it seemed so out of place in Cambodia. We found ourselves missing the crowds of women and their incessantly insisting children. Even stranger still, was that right next to Sokha resort stood a shantytown, probably illegally right on the beach. Such are the contrasts of Cambodia: extreme opulence and extreme poverty; foreign oasis and low living conditions of the locals. We longed for the people and simplicity of Serendipity Beach.

Sihanoukville was lovely. It was a bit touristy for my liking, but we had fun and I would love to go back. I loved being able to swim in the ocean and the breezes that came with it; a welcome respite from the humidity of the inland cities.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


We walked over to Wat Langka at our usual time, a little after 5 o'clock in the evening. We climbed the steps of the temple and into the sanctuary room, where the familiar orange mats and cushions had been placed neatly in three rows for any and all who want to come. There was only one other woman in the room, and she sat very still in the depths of meditation. We chose our usual spots, sat down, and closed our eyes.

My mind wanders a lot. I like to let it wander. As much as I try to focus on my breathing in meditation I always find myself thinking of this and that. I think about being in Cambodia. I think about my family and home. I think about China. I think about myself. I can be focused on the in-breaths and the out-breaths from my nose, but always in the back of my mind are thoughts. And as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am not a very flexible person. Even sitting cross-legged is a bit of a struggle and ungainly. But, during meditation, I try my best to sit as comfortably as I can while looking a bit like the part, and I can always find a way to find peace.

My mind was restless, and my body was being fidgety. I stared at the woman silent as a stone and at Lauren perfectly poised, and I uncrossed my legs and let out a big sigh. I stared out the open window at the grey sky that was being flooded with pink as the sun went down. I decided to go for a walk, so I stood as quietly as I could and tip-toed out of the temple. I have seen people walk slowly in rounds around the temple before; it must be some prayer method. I walked around the walls of the temple on the balcony that looks over the garden of stupas below and the fledgling skyscrapers of Phnom Penh (there are few) in the distance. I was strolling in circles when I turned the corner and came across a monk. He was older, wore glasses, and his robe was a darker, more burnt color of orange. I smiled and said hello, tips of my fingers to forehead, and he nodded back. Then he began to speak to me in English. We were talking a little when I asked him if he was going to meditate. He never really answered that, but his next question of me was, "Do you know how to sit properly?" I laughed awkwardly and replied that no, I didn't really know how to sit properly for meditation. Then he motioned for me to come with him for he was going to show me how.

Lauren joined us, and we each grabbed a mat and a cushion and sat just outside the temple in order to not disturb those inside. Then began our private teach on meditation, how to do it correctly, and why we do it. The monk showed us the proper way to sit, right foot in front, left foot tucked in the bent right knee. If you are really seasoned you could venture to put the left foot on top of the right knee, as the monk himself demonstrated, but that is way beyond my body's level of flexible skill, so I stuck with the first posture (which even that was a little uncomfortable to work into). Then he showed us how to hold our hands. You gently cup your right palm over the left, and touch your thumbs together at the tip, forming a rectangle. You let your hands rest in your lap. Your back must be straight and erect, but not too tense. Then, you close your eyes.

You ignore everything in the world around you; the only thing on your mind is your breathing, only the in-breaths and the out-breaths at your nostrils. Nothing else. You let go of everything. You let go of the past, because it is in the past, and you should not worry about it anymore. You let go of the worries of the present and the worries of the future. All that matters is this moment right now, and your breathing.

You let go of pain. You do not feel pain, nor does it belong to you. There is no me, no I, no my. It is not your pain. You observe the pain, but it is not your pain. That is the source of all our suffering—me, I, my. But it is not yours. It is fleeting. You observe it detached, you do not judge it. And you release it. You notice the air rising and the vanishing. Not me, not my; you notice the pain but it is not your pain. My ankles and my feet began to hurt from sitting in this position for so long, but I willed myself to ignore it. But as the monk spoke, it was like feeling no pain and yet an innumerable amount of pain all at once. One moment I would feel it and I would inhale and try to focus on other things, like the monks voice, but the next moment the pain would be gone. If I can sit very still, it's like it's not even there. It reminded me of the advice from a travel book on Japanese hot baths; the war is so scalding hot, but as long as you don't move, your body can handle it. As soon as you move you feel the heat. It was the same with sitting on the mat.

Meditation has many benefits. Above all, it nourishes your mind. Educate the mind, shape the mind, liberate the mind. That is the goal of meditation. It is hard at first, but with practice it will be easier. Sitting will be easier and more comfortable, and meditating will be easier. Every little bit is essential, every posture crucial. We must always strive to correct ourselves when we feel ourselves slipping in the posture. Constantly check and correct yourself. For meditation, it is worth it. There is a peace and tranquility that flows throughout your body when you open your eyes to the world again. You move as if on a cloud, graceful and smooth as silk. You are relaxed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


On Tuesday, we were woken early in the morning to the sound of drumbeats and clanging bells. It was Visaka Bochea, the day that Buddhists commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. A little while later, as we sat outside, began the deep, sonorous chanting of the monks from Wat Langka, the temple that lies across the narrow street from our hotel. The colorful banners that the monks had hung the day before swayed in the wind as the drums and bells continued to sing all day long. I took a peek inside the gate and saw the doors and windows of the temple wide open, and the sanctuary room was filled to capacity with the faithful. All day they were there, praying, listening to the monks. Come nightfall, the whole city is adorned in colorful, mismatched lights such as only Cambodians can make pretty. You can feel the celebration in the air, and you can see it in the crowds of people that gathered in the "parks" that create divisions in the road and the way they dance and blast their music on sub-par stereos. Quality doesn't matter, though; it's all about camaraderie.

That night, we headed to the rooftop of the FCC (Foreign Correspondent's Club) for dinner. We were treated with the most breathtaking views of the Tonle Sap River right in front of us and the Mekong River in the distance. The moon was full, and it reflected as bright as the sun would on the calm water below. In the distance, clouds clashed and produced the orange glow of lightening streaks. It was the most amazing phenomenon; the sky was clear above our heads and we couldn't hear any thunder, but you could see the jagged bolts as if through a screen far away. It was mesmerizing.

Lauren and I ventured over to Wat Ounalom, where the head of Cambodia's Buddhist brotherhood lives. It was midday, and we were pretty much the only ones there. We crept up the stairs to the main temple, and inside we found an ornate shrine covered in religious relics and flowers. There was another surprise in the temple hall; if you look closely, you can see a young monk fast asleep on a mat in front of the shrine:

We tiptoed to the exit in order not to wake him; he just looked so peaceful. Outside, we came across an older nun. She beckoned to us with her toothless smile and produced two thick red strings of yarn. One after the other she tied the red cloths around our wrists, smiling and babbling on in Khmer. The bracelets are supposed to provide protection and strength. Last year, a Buddhist nun tied these red bracelets around our wrists at Angkor Wat, but mine has since stretched out, so I don't wear it for fear of it falling off. But now my right wrist stands adorned with a new, tighter bracelet, thicker than the last, but its purpose is the same.

We walked to the sanctuary on the ground floor where we found a few older men conversing with a monk of the temple. When the monk saw us enter, he too stood up and presented us with the red bracelet which he tied around our wrists right next to the one from the nun. To receive twice the blessings of the monks, and not five minutes between them! I hope this means we will be blessed with extra protection and extra strength. The second bracelet is a little thinner than the first, but this helps me to tell them apart. I suppose it doesn't matter which is which, but for some reason I feel that I should be able to identify them. They feel very special, perhaps because of the seemingly spontaneous way in which they were presented to us.

I was quietly taking a picture of a some incense sticks in a quiet courtyard of stupas and a small temple when a booming voice called out (more like grunted) and possibly caused me to jump ten feet in the air. I turned around to see the owner of the noise, an elderly man, standing on the steps of the little temple and waving his arms at me. I thought he was complaining that I shouldn't be taking pictures in such a sacred place, so I hastened to throw my camera back in my bag. But he kept motioning, and in very broken English indicated that if I wanted to, I could enter the temple. I cautiously walked up the steps (I could easily have been misinterpreting him) and he proceeded to open the door that had been locked. He pulled the door aside to reveal a tiny room with a Buddha shrine in the center. The man motioned me in, so I ducked my head at the narrow doorway and stepped inside. The man followed behind and sat on a mat on the ground, indicating I should do the same. Still a bit unsure of what was going on, I crouched down. A moment later, I heard Lauren being hustled into the same space by a young woman who was smiling and chattering in Khmer (it seems to be a trend here...). We both looked at each other confused, though intrigued. The man lit two incense sticks and handed them to us, whence we held them in front of the golden Buddha so that the smoke may carry our prayers to him. Then the old man took a bundle of incense sticks and dipped them in a goblet of water, and proceeded to spray us while chanting. I have no idea what he said. He kept chanting and chanting, flinging water droplets on us as we sat silent, transfixed. Then he took each of our right hands, palm side up, and said a prayer over them. The only part of the prayer that I caught was the end, when he chanted, long and drawn out, "sok sobbay", which I only know as a greeting and a return greeting: "How are you? I'm fine, thank you." Then he splashed water on our upturned palms and indicated that we should rub it all over our faces. The water was refreshingly cool and smelled of incense. I felt as if I'd been baptized, but I think it's more of a general blessing ritual.

We walked out of Wat Ounalom dumbfounded. We were blessed twice by monks and their protective red bracelets, then we were blessed a third time by the man in the little temple. I've never had that ceremony performed on me before. I wish I knew what it all meant, what the man was chanting, but I suppose the mystery is part of the intrigue. This is a culture and religion so much different than the the two in which I was brought up. I'm drawn to its beauty, its complexities and simplicities, its shining colors, and its foreignness. I want to immerse myself in it and make it a part of my life just as Judaism and Christianity are. I'm thankful for this ability to incorporate so many different factions of my life that I love and make them one. Where others see a contrast, I create a melting pot. Buddhism is playing a greater and greater role in my life, and I welcome it with open arms. I sit in the meditation room of Wat Langka and stare at the paintings on the wall that tell the story of Buddha, I stare at the shining gold Buddha at the front of the room and the shimmering gold curtain that shelters him. Somehow being in this temple makes me reflect on how all my religions play a role for me. I can hardly believe each day that, at 5 o'clock, I am meditating in a beautiful Buddhist temple in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this mysterious, enchanting, and wonderful country that is so foreign and yet so comfortable at the same time. It is then that I realize that this is my greatest blessing.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Return to Phnom Penh

I'm back in Cambodia! Lauren and I landed around midday on Saturday after a loong trip and lots of in-flight zhou breakfasts from Los Angeles to Taipei to Phnom Penh. But as we sat in the taxi to our hotel, it felt like I never left. There are a lot of new, modern buildings, but I can still recognize where we are and certain landmarks. Everything even smells the same, and it feels right. It's weird though, being here without the Cambo Crew from 2010. I find myself pointing things out to Lauren like, "Last year I went here with everyone.. and I did this with them..."; I miss everyone from PWP 2010, and every experience that we shared together, but I don't doubt that Lauren and I are going to have an amazing time.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the area close to our hotel, re-familiarizing ourselves with the excruciating heat. LA is hot, but Cambodia takes the cake. It'll take a few days to get used to. There is a temple across the street from the hotel that last year we always saw young monks looking out of the windows or hanging their bright orange robes on the balconies to dry, but we never ventured inside.

But yesterday the gates were open (were they always open? Maybe we just never noticed) so we decided to tip-toe in and check it out. A group of young monks were standing around and stared at us, obviously foreigners, but they gave us no trouble, so we took off our sandals and walked inside the temple. The air was so still, so quiet even though we're in the center of a city. I think it's one of the most beautiful and cleanest temples I've ever been inside, everything perfectly placed. The floor is covered with red carpet, and at the front of the room sits an elaborate golden shrine to Buddha, every statue glistening. In front of the shrine, someone has placed an arrangement of flowers that were so fragrant you could smell them from the back of the room, incense, bottles of water and cans of coke. That I've never seen before! We sat inside with our legs tucked under, feet pointing away from Buddha as is respectful, while some monks who were about our age came inside and started to talk to us. They were very nice and eagerly said that anything we wanted to know about Buddhism, they could tell us. Their English was halting and broken at times, and you could see the effort they put into forming the words, but they somehow managed to find a way. They told us there was a meditation session in the temple upstairs at five o'clock, and that we were welcome to come. Suddenly, the monks motioned that we should get up and leave, and we saw what seemed to be an important, high-ranking monk approaching the temple with his small retinue. We scrambled to put our sandals on back outside, and ducked out of the temple.

As we left, some dark clouds began looming. We were just getting back to the hotel when they opened up and the afternoon downpour began. This is the pattern of day that I remember from last year; hot and humid, and around 4 o'clock the sky darkens and it begins to rain. But the storm was quick to pass, as they always are.

At 5 we returned to the temple. We took off our shoes again and walked inside, and saw that someone had perfectly placed orange mats with orange or purple cushions on the floor. We were the only ones around. We each chose a mat and sat down, facing Buddha, and began to meditate. Well, I don't really know if what I was doing is meditating; mostly I just sat there with my eyes open and let my thoughts wander. It was so peaceful. At some point, the high-ranking monk from earlier stood at the back, watching us. I held up my hands, fingers to forehead, as a sign of respect. The monk stood with his hands clasped behind his back, and he gave me a smile and nod of his head. I closed my eyes and began to meditate again, but when I opened them again, the senior monk had gone.

In the evening, we took a tuk-tuk to Friends Restaurant for dinner. It's the place where they take Cambodian street kids and train them to be servers or chefs, and they all work at this restaurant. The food is amazing, and the staff are so nice. After dinner we decided to walk back. It's the King's birthday and a national holiday, so everyone was out dancing and playing. There were fireworks, and the royal palace was lit up with lights. We walked in silence, drinking it all in, trying to figure that this was real and we really had come back. I suppose I sort of can't believe it yet; less than a year and I've already returned. But I'm so happy I have.