purple lotus flowers growing in water

From the Mud Blooms a Lotus Flower

As soon as we landed in Cambodia I felt an energy that I couldn’t quite name until we got to Phnom Penh a few days later. I began to wonder if I was sensing a deep sadness or a kind of low energy from the people. We of course met plenty of service providers who were welcoming and friendly. They too, were drawn into the girls’ tractor beam and then opened up a little to tell us about their own kids at home. Our hosts at the hostel in Siem Reap were wonderful and friendly especially young Meng who is in year 11 and making decisions about going on to study tourism at the university. Maybe I was projecting this feeling upon the people because from the little I have read about the history here, I felt sad. I felt sad when I saw people begging on the street who were missing limbs or the entire bottom half of their body seemingly due to a surprise landmine that are still found in the jungles, leftover from when the Khmer Rouge was on a killing spree. My heart was ripped in two with each child we encountered who was begging or selling trinkets on the street; I can still hear their haunting, monotone song of “one dollar, one dollar, one dollar”.

Cambodia has a long, long history of war and devastation. I am positive the lasting result is a country full of people who are traumatized and attempting to heal from witnessing violence, the loss of their family members and culture. Their way of life and religion was all but wiped out at the hands of corrupt rulers, secret bombings by the US and genocide by the Khmer Rouge. The people are faced with trying to reestablish their stolen culture and heritage in a country racked with poverty, lack of schools and basic needs for survival. What I have learned in my 20 years of working in the field of Mental Health is that healing from trauma is beyond difficult when your basic needs are not met. The people here are still in survival mode just trying to find clean water, food, and a decent place to sleep. Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have the luxury of good, public education in the US or the basic infrastructures we enjoy? Come to Cambodia and find out for yourself whether or not tax dollars are well spent on schools, keeping our streets and water clean and traffic organized and safe. Come and see the trash piled high on the sidewalk attracting flies, stench and starving people who pilfer through it. Come and see what happens when the government no longer cares about the people but only themselves.

While staying at our hostel in Siem Reap we met a lovely man who is from India but is now living in Thailand. We traveled with him to Phnom Penh. He was nice enough to help us secure a bus ticket and then Tuk Tuk to our guesthouse once we arrived. Not only did he help us to navigate our way but also provided great insight into Buddhist and Hindu symbolism and practices. While visiting the National Museum in Phnom Penh he shared with me the meaning behind the lotus flower in Buddhist culture. Before we spoke, I had a vague understanding that the Buddha was born from this flower but Raj told me that its symbolism is also about learning to grow out of the muck and the mud toward goodness and beauty. It is a reminder that there will always be bad, negative and awful things in this world but if you move toward the light, led by your heart, and toward goodness then you can provide that light and goodness for others to follow as well. I know this in my heart already but my faith in humanity has been shaken for a long time, longer than the beginning of our travels. So, for me, he came across my path as a little messenger to remind me how important it is to see the lotus flowers in the world.

I held onto this symbol very tightly as we spent our last day visiting The Killing Fields and learned more about the gruesome genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh that hold over 300,000 bodies is just one of these kinds of sites in Cambodia, there are many, many more. It is estimated that 1-3 million people of Cambodia were killed and dumped into these mass graves. No one whom Pol Pot believed was a threat to his mission was spared, not even babies. He rationalized his murder through slogans used for propaganda, one of them was “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”. After we finished walking through the grounds the girls each said a prayer and made an offering of incense and flowers to the deceased souls and afterwards I had to sit down and let myself cry. I felt the pain of Cambodians, of the Syrian refugees fleeing their lands, the people of Istanbul, of Baghdad and all people who have lost their family members to violence around the world including my home country. It seems this slogan does not just belong to Pol Pot but it is also the propaganda of war.

However, this is not the end of the story. Underneath the scene of the woman picking through the pile of garbage, underneath the child begging on the street, the pollution, and the crazy traffic is a lotus flower growing out of the mud. What I know about trauma is that it takes great strength to survive and also to heal. I can feel the sadness here but I can also feel the strength. I can tell there is a movement of Cambodians who are saving their culture, who are finding their happiness once again and working toward changing the darkness to light even in the face of continued government corruption. I can feel it in the love that spices their food; in the sweet smiles we receive from locals relating to our family and in the Khmer artistry. My wish for Cambodia is to be the lotus, to find your thriving people again and lift them toward the light so they may see they are living in a field of lotus flowers.

A Prayer
Refuse to fall down
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
toward heaven
only you.
It is in the middle of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good
came of this,
is not yet listening.

~Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Faithful Gardner: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die



line of stone Bodhisattvas holding a snake, forms the railing of a bridge leading into Bayon Temple

Scratching the Surface of Siem Reap

It was hot and oppressively humid the day we visited the Angkor Archaeological Park. The heat made it feel like we were moving in slow motion and actually, slower was better to mitigate any unnecessary sweating. We made the best of it and slathered on bug spray, donned our sun hats and billowy pants (at least the girls and I had the pants, I haven’t convinced JD to purchase them yet) and then headed into an amazing day of exploration. The going rate to hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day is 15 USD. This includes the 7.5 km ride out to the park from Siem Reap where the driver will take you around to the sites you want to see within the 402 acres of the complex, wait for you while you explore and then take you back to your accommodation.

alert: USD is accepted all over Cambodia as well as their own currency, the Reil. This makes for a confusing buying experience when you pay with USD and get some of the change back in Reil. It also causes the exchange rate to be really poor. We figured we paid an extra 2.5% with every purchase.

The famous five tower Angkor Wat temple that is most associated with Cambodia is actually just one of the over 100 temples that make up this ancient city. You can spend days exploring this park, walking through temples and admiring the carvings embedded in the walls. We chose to explore the park for only one day and with just a little research we had our plan mapped out with our top three picks.

Angkor Wat view of five towers and lawn in front
Angkor Wat

Our first stop was of course Angkor Wat, which is the largest of the temples and is the most restored. The five towers that to me look like the buds of lotus flowers are actually designed to emulate Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hinduism. The green lawns shimmered with magic brought by the millions of flitting butterflies and swooping dragonflies. The walls inside were ornately decorated with scenes of Hindu stories and hundreds of Apsaras, female deities, carved into the stone. I later learned that the Apsara figure is one of the most important symbols of Khmer culture. Jacob and I took turns climbing the steep steps to the upper most towers (the girls had to be 12 or older to go). There, we were able to get close enough to see the intricate details of the towers and follow the path around the top floor for long distance views of the grounds. My favorite view was pointed out to me by the giant figure of Buddha sitting in the meditation position looking out on the grounds toward one of the gates.Apsara deities carved into the stone wall at Angkor Wat

After we left Angor Wat, Lee our Tuk Tuk driver, drove us along the forested road to the Angkor Thom complex and to see the Bayon Temple. This temple is filled with towers, which have giant, carved faces of the Bodhisattva (a Buddhist figure that represents a person on the road toward enlightenment). We learned that during the rule of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge defaced many of the sacred statues and temples in the entire Angkor Park as part of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place. At the Bayon Temple, this defacement was very evident. Many of the heads of various figures were missing and there were large bullet holes in many of the walls. However, one step inside told me that the destruction did nothing to effect the sacredness of the space. Every stone and every smiling Bodhisattva face that looked upon us at each turn radiated with a quiet calmness.

Tree roots spill down the side of the ruins of a templeOur next stop was to Ta Prohm or the Jungle Temple. Locals also call it the Tomb Raider temple, as this was the temple that Angelina Jolie scrambled through for her movie of the same name. It definitely felt like we had been transported to an ancient time or a scene out of Indiana Jones (that one is more my speed). Nature has been allowed to run wild through the stone structures and I am so glad because the reward is the gloopy (Quinn’s word) roots that pour over the walls from trees that tower overhead. Moss and lichen adorn the walls and the smell of peppery earth fills the air. Here, too, there is a palpable silence of reverence that blankets the air and grounds (even with the many other tourists). Our driver met us on the opposite end from where he dropped us at the temple. As soon as we exited we were accosted by dozens of adults and children trying to get donations, sell us stuff or offer a Tuk Tuk ride,

“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk? Hey Lady, Tuk Tuk?”

This was the first time we had experienced this level of begging and I’ll call it, one to one advertising. Like a little island oasis in the chaos, Lee waved to us from his Tuk Tuk across the sea people.

The night before our exploration of Angkor Wat we had planned to go into the park to experience the sunset that so many travel sites and people recommended. We made arrangements with our taxi driver from the airport to take us there but when he arrived at our hostel at 4pm, a huge black rain cloud had filled the sky to the north in the direction of the temples. So, as any good salesmen will do, our taxi driver convinced us to head to Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating village and the sunset from there instead. Oh, those moments when you know you have just been sucked onto the tourist conveyor belt can be just the thing you need to wake you up to find your travel legs again. We should have seen the trap a mile away but our three-month break from trekking had dulled our senses.

Nevertheless, there we were piling into a small fishing boat with a guide sitting at the front and at the back (not sure exactly why he was needed) and the boat operator. Because of the drought, the lake was actually really shallow and once we arrived to the village we could see several people wading in the water pushing their boats instead of motoring them. Even though we were ushered to a floating market and asked to pay $50 to buy a 50 pound bag of rice to give to the children of the floating school (we didn’t have enough cash so made a $10 donation instead) and then taken to the crocodile farm where our “tour guides” proceeded to drink 4 beers each and attempted to get us to join the party, despite these unfortunate surprises, the village was actually really beautiful. We learned that because it is too dangerous to be out on the water during the rainy season storms, the residents tow their homes into the jungle that surrounds the lake. For the rest of the year they bob around, their houses rising and falling with the level of the water; fishing and tourism their prime source of income (please don’t take me as insensitive to the needs of the children at the school but if your gut is telling you something is awry it probably is. Who knows how much of that $50 actually ends up going to the school because I know that bag of rice did not cost 50 bucks).

bright yellow cocoons inside a spiral basketOur last excursion into the cultural world of this region of Cambodia was to visit the Angkor Silk Farm that is located just a little outside of town. They offer free, guided tours to learn about the process of making silk (of course the end of the tour conveniently drops you at their silk shop with beautiful things to buy). The farm has several structures that are scattered around beautifully manicured gardens full of flowers and butterflies. Participants are only allowed to view two of the structures so that the silkworms’ exposure to humans and disease is kept to a minimum. The most interesting part of the process for me was to learn that the bright yellow cocoons of the silkworm actually hold the material needed for the thread. They are boiled to make it easier to extract the fibers. Sadly, if the worms were allowed to complete their metamorphosis and leave their cocoons, the fibers would be broken and therefore could not be made into silk. So, the worms are boiled in their cocoons (brutal, I know) and then after the fibers are removed, the worms are then savored as a nutty snack (the farm saves about 10% of it’s worms for reproduction). Our guide helped himself to a few and offered some to us; Jacob was the brave one. Witnessing the process from making the threads to then weaving them into fabric was truly educational and allowed us to have a further conversation with the girls about how cotton fabric is made as well.

Jacob holds a boiled silkworm in his hand
First this…
Jacob pops a boiled silkworm into his mouth
…then this







Our visit to Siem Reap was a brief glance at the surface of Khmer culture. Because of wars the Cambodian people suffer extreme poverty and live in cities and towns with little to no infrastructure. Witnessing their way of life opened up questions for me about whether or not this community can thrive in such a seasonal business that is tourism. The utter desperation of stall owners in the market, kids begging in the street and the Tuk Tuk drivers all piled up on the side of the roads unsuccessfully trying to drum up business was overwhelming to say the least. However, I feel very fortunate to have been able to see the amazing Angkor temple complex and learn a little bit about the spirit of the people that refused to be beaten as well as the strength of the spirituality that survived oppression.