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.