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Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views …cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. ~ Mark Twain


Adventure vibrated on the air in the 5 o’clock dark. We had left the US on Tuesday, and it was already Friday. We passed other tuk-tuks filled with Westerners, pretty sure that we were all headed for the same place–Angkor Wat. The tuk-tuks moved en masse down wide avenues, legacy of the French colonists and replete with buildings large and ornate enough to serve as embassies. Suddenly the mansions were behind us, and we bumped along on a rural, dirt road. We reached a row of lit kiosks where we had to step out of the tuk-tuk, pay $40 each (by the way, it was all American greenbacks in Cambodia, except for small change). Officials photographed us for our 3-day passes, no niceties, quick shots. I looked down at my picture to see the likeness of a grinning toad. Regardless of the uglies, I knew I would tape it into my journal as a souvenir when I got home. We were cautioned several times not to lose these passes, as we would be required to show them at each temple we visited.

Mr. Thi pulled away from the kiosks and parked alongside other tuk-tuks, vans and buses. We stepped out and followed the flashlight-wielding crowd. We stepped onto an elevated walkway of stones worn smooth over the ages by millions, billions, of passing feet. There is something about walking where so many have gone before that calls forth visions of past centuries, a deep sense of the ancient. The sun began to slowly pink the sky above the three elongated pyramidal structures that form the entrance to the wat. The crowd was exquisitely quiet, and we had spread out enough that I had a feeling of solitude within presence. The air beat softly with expectancy, even reverence. The sky lightened to disclose large marshy areas filled with long-stemmed magenta lotus blossoms on either side of the walkway.

The three towers, which are silhouetted on the Cambodian flag and can be seen in artwork in every Cambodian restaurant I’ve visited, are deceptive. Although long stone wings extend outward to the right and left of the towers, these appear to be the entire temple. Once we stepped into them, however, we realized that those iconic towers served simply as a vestibule to a temple that goes on and on and on. When I saw a structure or set of carvings to my right, I soon realized that if I looked to the left, I would see its mirror. Everything was symmetrical--Hindu reliefs, replete with voluptuous goddesses cavorting with potent gods, or simply standing to bless. It is thought that the temple was built as both a mausoleum and to honor the Hindu god Vishnu.

At one point, in a cave-like chamber to my right, I saw a statue of Buddha that is a present-day part of spiritual practice. Candles lit the meditating statue, which was draped in orange and gold fabric. Burning incense wafted out into the hallway. Monks in saffron robes arrived on sandaled feet and began their resonant morning chant. I moved further down the hall, perpendicular to them and came upon a grassy courtyard far below me. The chant was somehow both magnified and distant, channeled through chamber upon chamber. I walked to the farthest point of the temple, overlooking a lush forest at dawn.

Coming back along a row of sheltered columns, I saw a group of Westerners engaged with something I couldn’t identify. Getting closer, I realized that small brown monkeys were out to greet us. Unlike us, they had had the sense to wait until daylight to sally forth. They were fun and funny. Like meditation and travel, their activities mirror our human frailties and foibles.

We walked away from the temple, along a road that bordered the monkeys’ forest home. They swung down from the trees to tease and mock us. On our right we saw the white buildings of a present-day wat, probably home to the monks we’d seen inside Angkor. A string of vendors’ sheds and canopies stood closer to the road. A sales force, mostly children, streamed out with scarves, fisherman pants, handwoven bracelets, and postcards.

These were the most persistent sellers I had ever met, and they had an answer ready for every objection.

        Me: They’re too small for me
        (voluminous fisherman pants).
        Kid: One size fit all.

        Me: I already have a bottle of water.
        Kid: For your driver. He very thirsty.

        Me: I don’t want to buy a book.
        They’re too heavy.
        Kid: I carry for you.
        Me: All the way to America?
        Kid: Yes, all the way to America.
        Me: Ok, let’s go.
        Both of us: laughter.

        Kid: Put this on your Christmas
        tree. If you not celebrate Christmas,
        give to your aunt. Your uncle.
        Your cousin.

Along with persistence, these youngsters were full of smiles, easy to laugh with, laughing at their own persistence, so it was fun. But it was also wearing to say, “No thank you” over and over again, to want to buy it all to support the livelihood of these experts at improvisation. At this first stop, I did buy some postcards. But that wasn’t simple either. As soon as I let one child know I was considering a purchase, six more with the same postcards clamored around me.

The children were also well schooled in countries, states and capitals:

        Kid: What country you from?
        Me: U.S.
        Kid: U.S.A?
        Me: Yes.
        Kid: U.S.A. Capital city, Washington,
        D.C. What state you from?
        Me: New Mexico.
        Kid: Mexico. Capital city Mexico City.
        Me: No. New Mexico.
        Capital city Santa Fe.
        Kid: Blank look. Smile. Nod. Mexico

A small boy, about the size of a nine-year-old but probably more like twelve, succeeded in jollying us over to the oilcloth-covered table under his mother’s canopy for breakfast. Cheyenne ordered banana pancakes, Wayne an omelet on bread. I order fried rice with chicken and veggies—very garlicky and good—washed down with a glass of hot Lipton tea.

After breakfast I was introduced to the Asian toilet, although many years earlier I had used one on Crete that operated on the same principle. I walked a narrow dirt path to a long building with several doors, part of the present day wat and behind all the shops. The boy that had inveigled us to breakfast, ran along beside me. “Toilet 1,000 riel (about 25¢). I can pay for you.” This made his establishment a restaurant with bathroom facilities, I guess. It was lucky for me, because I still had no riel. The toilet itself consisted of two porcelain footprints set in the floor. You place your feet on the footprints and squat over a porcelain hole. Next to the toilet stood a cistern with a plastic dipper for heaving water down the hole after your product–a truly manual flush.

Lessons from the Journey:
        1) Solitude can exist within
        2) Mirrors are all around us,
        if we look.

© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved
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