Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School
  ► Travel Abroad  ► Narrative Travel Writing Contest  ► 2008 Contest Finalist
Narrative Writing Contest Finalist

The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha

A Travel Story From Cambodia

Statue at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
A moment from Angkor Wat.

Towns are made of houses and streets. To get from one place to another, you walk or take a car. Bidget cross rivers. Streets connect to other streets that connect to other towns. That is what I learned when I was a child. Back then, I couldn’t imagine the counterpart. I had never been in a place based on a completely different concept. I had never been at a border where the street ended.

“To cross into Cambodia, you take the boat,” the man in the Sawadee guesthouse in Trat tells me. “There is no bus?” I ask. He shakes his head, realizing I still haven’t got the point. “There is no street,” he explains. I don’t believe it. “How do people get from town to town then,” I object. “They take the boat,” he says, bringing us right back to the starting point of the conversation.

So I take the boat. Which, in this case, is the one ferry that crosses the border each day at exactly 8 o’clock. Neither sooner nor later. Mini boats get you to the docking point named Kroh Koh Kong. There is also a hotel right there at the dock for all those who missed the ferry. For all the others, moto-taxis are waiting at the exit ramp of Sihanoukville. After all, there are some roads. Also, a beach called Serendipity. Restaurants with extended menus that range from fried crickets to lizard curry. Guesthouses have running water, both warm and cold. And with a tiny temple next to the door to give the gods and ghosts of this piece of land a sheltered place to live in. The incense sticks in front of the temple door glow in the morning, noon, evening, and night. Next to them are symbolic offerings. Rice, in a small pile. Tiny bananas. And water in a plastic bottle, with the cap neatly placed next to it so the gods and ghosts can take their sips without effort. Beggars won’t take from it, I learn. It would give bad karma.

“And for good karma?” I ask the woman in the restaurant.

She looks at me as if I am an alien. Maybe I am, in her eyes.

“I will travel to the North tomorrow,” I explain.

She circles her head three times in thought.

“Go to the temple and offer,” she finally advises.

It sounds simple, but I don’t know where to start. To which temple should I go? And what should I offer? On the way back to the guesthouse, I wait for a temple to appear along the road. None does, so I skip the offering and start to pack my things.

The next morning, I boarded not a boat but a bus. Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, deluxe, the ticket promises. Turns out it tells the truth. The bus comes with air conditioning and upholstered seats. The road is new. Yet, that doesn’t mean things have changed. Rumors have it that the streets of Phnom Penh still aren’t safe after dusk. In a belated gesture of committing to karma, I take a room in the Bodhi Tree guesthouse. A sign in the room announces that checkout time is 11 a.m. and that all weapons are to be given into the custody of the guesthouse owner.

“It’s the law to have those plates,” Nohn, the receptionist, explains. When he saw my concerned look, he told me there was no real reason to worry about safety.

“It’s not that bad,” he says. “Just make sure that you don’t walk in the evening, but take a moto taxi. And for all cases, have a ten dollar note in your shirt pocket, easy to access.”

I don’t get it. “For what cases?”

He puts up his thumb, then points at his shirt with his index finger. His shirt is black, with a white line printed on it. “I have a lot of dreams about flying,” it states. But it’s not what he means. “Ten dollars,” he explains. “It is the running rate for being held at gunpoint.”

“So I won’t run. But just stand there.”

His face beams. “Yes!” he says. The alien has understood.

I swallow and then search my bag for the guidebook. “Maybe I should read the chapter about Phnom Penh again, before I head for the city center,” I say, withdrawing into the shade of the trees that frame the small guesthouse terrace to find my orientation again, at least on the map. There is no spot marking the guesthouse, but I know it’s somewhere between the icons that locate the Russian Market and the Toul Sleng Museum. Other icons suggest visits to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Also, there are the temples Wat Phnom, which gave the city its name. Wat Ounalom, at the riverside of the Tonle Sap, is the river that will carry me to the next destination: the jungle temples of Angkor Wat. But that is yet to come. Now, it’s figuring out what place to visit first and how to get there. I study the map again. Then I walk back to the reception desk to ask some more first-timer questions.

“How would I get to Wat Phnom? Can I walk?”

“You could, but I would rather take a moto taxi,” he suggests, “you don’t want to get lost on your first day here.”

“Not really, no,” I admit, and move to the next place. “And the Toul Sleng prison museum?”

”It’s just across the street,” Nohn says.

I turned around and tried to identify it in the line of houses.

“It used to be a public school,” Nohn explains. “Then the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison.”

“A school?” I ask, still startled by the fact that a place where hundreds of people were tortured to death can look so casual in the street. It is not somewhere remote but right in the middle of a neighborhood.

Nohn looks at me. Then he circles his head in thought in the same way the woman in the restaurant did. And like her, he offers a clue of understanding.

“At that time, they shot people who wore glasses,” he says. “It was a sign of being an intellectual." 

I still try to grasp what I just learned when walking on the street. There are already moto taxi drivers waiting. “To Wat Phnom,” I tell the first of them and add the fare that Nohn suggested, 800 riel. The driver nods. I get in the back seat and let the buildings and streets of an unknown city float by, catching glimpses in passing. A street corner store on wheels. A family with five children on one motorcycle. An obelisk in a roundabout, shining in white. An avenue that looks like it was built in France.

When we drive around the oblique for the second time, I know something is wrong. I gesture to the driver, but he keeps driving. Then he abruptly stops at a crowded corner between other moto bikes. He waves to a guy in a leather jacket, who turns around and reaches for something in his jacket. That’s it, it hits me. Now, he will draw a gun. Even before it’s dusk. Even before I took the time to put the ten dollars in my shirt pocket.

Now what? I stare at the man in the leather jacket, trying to devise a plan. And see him – drawing a map.

“Towat, towat,” my driver says to him and gestures at me.

Then they both stare at me. “Towat, towat,” the driver says again.

It takes another minute until I understand. The driver doesn’t know English and has no idea where I want to go. But he knew that the man in the jacket had a map, so maybe it’s not that unusual.

Together, we try to find Wat Phnom on the map. After we solved that riddle, he got me there, no problem. It’s not even far from the obelisk. Just a couple of streets down, and there they are, the temple gates, and beyond them, the ornamented buildings with steep roofs that rise in three symbolic levels, one for the Buddha, one for the Dharma, and one for the Sangha.

“Thanks,” I say to the driver and pay the fare. Then I turn and walk through the gates towards the temple to offer ten dollars worth of my present life. Kneeling there, in front of the incense sticks, I wait for some kind of emotional echo to the offering, a feel of outer serenity—or at least security—reflecting inside. The shine, though, stays distant. It would have been too easy, I think.

It’s only later, when I walk the street surrounding the temple and take a moto taxi to get back to the guesthouse, that something has changed. The world outside feels denser, closer. There are details, moments that leap into the presence of now, touching me: an older woman carrying a basket full of wood on her head, her hair covered in a krana, one of these black-and-white patterned scarves that protect the hair from the dust. A young girl lighting some incense sticks in front of a house temple. A kid appeared on the street, looking at me with big dark eyes, eyes that greeted me in a language I didn't even know I was able to understand.

Back at the Bodhi Tree Guesthouse, Nohn asks me how I liked Wat Phnom. “It’s special,” I say.

He studies my face for a moment, and I wonder whether the story that happened is written all over it. If so, he doesn’t comment on it. “You want a ginger tea?” he asks instead.

“That would be perfect,” I say, looking for a shady place on the small terrace. I opened the guidebook again and turned the page to Angkor Wat. The photos of ancient stones and gods lost and found in a jungle feel strangely comforting. Being there will be like being in a museum. Or not?

When the ginger tea arrives, I expect a cup with a tea bag inside, accompanied by some sugar cubes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I am served a tall glass that holds a flurry of ginger pieces in hot water, accompanied by a pot of honey.

Amazed, I stare at it. Ginger soup, I think.

This time, Nohn doesn’t understand.

I point at the tea. “That’s how Cambodia is,” I explain. “Back home, you would just get a taste of it. Here, you get the full flavor.”

Nohn looks at me, then at the tea glass. I think of a way to tell him about the soup without being offensive, but before I try, Nohn’s eyes start to shine with understanding and amusement, and we both start to laugh.

The next day, I asked him about Angkor.

“It’s like ginger tea,” he says. I could tell you stories about it, and you could read all those books about it. But there is no real way to describe it. You need to go there.”

“Yes,” I say and smile as I return to the question that seems to accompany me through this journey. “But how do I get there, by road or by boat?”

Nohn smiles. “There’s no road. But there is a boat.”

Of course, it leaves at dawn, when dreams merge with reality. Travel Time, I write in my tiny diary and pack my bags once more.

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection