This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.
—Rudyard Kipling

The next morning we take the flight to Bangkok, and then the hour flight to Rangoon, or Yangon, as it’s now called, the capital of the amazingly odd and oppressive country of Myanmar, which was formerly Burma.

Even in the airplane we go through a time change. Everyone looks grim and shabby. The service is nonexistent, the plane old and decrepit.

Mingaladon’s airport is even more antiquated, smaller and less efficient than those that serve any small city in the United States. A few prop planes and a small one-story building mark the only official entrance to Burma’s capital of three million people. Inside, a mad chaos of passengers pushes past rows of wooden desks, filling out endless forms in triplicate over carbon paper as thin and used up as dead mosquito wings. A few ceiling fans push the hot, humid air over the shouting mob, watched over by impassive, infuriatingly bureaucratic officials.

As the driver steers us out of the airport and down a broad boulevard lined with pink oleander trees, we enter another world, a world exactly the opposite of Bangkok. Only a few ancient cars are on the road, most of them Fords, Chevys, and Hillmans, all of them cruising, like us, at no more than twenty miles an hour. As few as five years ago there were only a couple of hundred cars in Rangoon; now there are a few thousand yet the streets seem shockingly empty and, most dramatic of all, there is no noise, no sign of commerce, no industry, and no tourists.

In the sweet dusky evening we pass men and women strolling slowly about in longhis (sarongs), elders lounging in front of crisscross mat houses, an old woman leaning against a building smoking a large cheroot, a line of yellow-robed monks walking silently past a circle of giggling schoolchildren wearing black and white uniforms.

We turn up another broad boulevard, passing decayed Edwardian mansions set behind thick, overgrown gardens-remnants of the British who first conquered half of Burma in 1853, claimed total sovereignty in 1886, and ruled until 1937, when Burma was accorded separate status within the British empire. Finally, in 1948, it was granted total independence.

The old Ford turns a corner. There, in front of us on Singuttara Hill, rising over an awning of trees, is a glimpse of the Schwezigon Pagoda, the top of its stupa shimmering gold in the fading tropical night. According to legend, the pagoda is twenty-five-hundred years old and enshrines eight hairs of Shakyamuni Buddha; as well as other relics of previous Buddhas. When the Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka came to Burma in the third century B.C.E., he made extensive repairs on the pagoda and cut down the encroaching jungle. Subsequent Buddhist kings all added various improvements until 1768, when King Hsinbyushin had it rebuilt after an earthquake to its present height of 326 feet.

Our hotel, the Inya Lake, brings us back to “dependent origins,” as the Buddhists say, or mundane relativity. The Inya Lake is a massive block of concrete built by the Russians in the mid-sixties. It has all the charm of post-neo-Stalinist architecture, from the grim receptionists in the wide, empty lobby to the massive, neonlit ballroom at the end of a long rectangular corridor. Backpackers and hardcore travelers refer to the Inya Lake as “the Bunker.”

The lobby is empty except for three Japanese businessmen in identical gray suits checking out the impoverished counter of the tourist shop. They are specifically interested in a series of stamps the Japanese made during World War II when they occupied Burma. There seem to be more Japanese tourists in Rangoon than any other kind. Most of them are elderly, traveling in organized groups in new air-conditioned vans, atoning for their buried dead in World War II and making organized pilgrimages to various holy places.

Two Burmese generals, their chests full of medals, sweep imperiously into the lobby, followed by their two wives, their plump, well-oiled bodies wrapped in purple and yellow sarongs. I’m reminded that the country is under the control of a military dictatorship, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and that only a few miles away, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi has written a political overview:

Why has Burma with its abundant natural and human resources failed to live up to its early promise as one of the most energetic and fastest-developing nations in Southeast Asia?…The Burmese people, who have had no access to sophisticated academic material, got to the heart of the matter by turning to the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost, omission to repair that which had been damaged, disregard of the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning.

Translated into contemporary terms, when democratic rights had been lost to military dictatorship, sufficient efforts had not been made to regain them, moral and political values had been allowed to deteriorate without concerted attempts to save the situation, the economy had been badly managed, and the country had been ruled by men without integrity and wisdom.

The lobby has filled with even more officers and well-dressed civilians, most of them slowly moving toward the large reception room in the rear. I flee to our room.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.

The following day we cruise downtown Rangoon. There is no hustle, no urgency, very little traffic. Trees are everywhere, and the wide, shady streets are laid out in a traditional British colonial grid system. “No hurry, no worry,” as the Taoists say in their fortune cookies.

We visit Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, which features an enormous, recently built 230-foot reclining Buddha underneath a large half-open structure somewhat like a railroad shed. Very few pilgrims are about. Apart from its size, the Buddha feels without spiritual juice, its features bland and superficial, as if it had been made for theGuinness Book of Records—five feet bigger than the famous reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka.

We retreat to the Strand Hotel, a faded white stucco turn-of-the-century building in the middle of the city that the guidebook promises is on a par with the Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental in Bangkok. Distinguished past guests include the Grand Duke Cyril of Russia and William Taft, a former president of the United States, as well as the usual list of old Asia hands: Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, and Graham Greene.

We are transported into another time zone. Even though a crude wooden scaffolding is set up on the outside of the building for repairs, inside it doesn’t seem as if even the deep rattan chairs and cracked leather couches have been shifted as much as an inch since Maugham clapped his hands for a fresh lime and Mandalay rum, no ice. A ceiling fan barely moves the hot, sticky air over the few tired businessmen sitting at the round tables.

Behind us, a few clerks sit at a row of ancient wooden desks, listlessly typing on huge upright Remingtons. The whole scene reminds me of a Calcutta hotel or one of the old English colonial inns at a hill station in northern India. Another time, another sense of order, all mixed into a surreal display of dilapidated and malfunctioning comfort.

This is the second of two excerpts adapted from a book of the same name, to be published in the fall by Shambhala Publications. The book takes the form of a journal written while the author was on pilgrimage with his wife, the photographer Lynn Davis. They took the journey six months after the death of Lynn’s twenty-one-year-old son, Ayrev. The first installement featured extracts of their travels in Thailand. This, the last excerpt, finds them in Burma and Cambodia.

I pick up a copy of the Guardian, one of two English-language newspapers in Rangoon, the other being the Working People’s Daily. Both are put out by the government, and both are highly censored. My eye falls on a lead article:

Myanmar’s military authorities, in a fresh crackdown on Western influences in their country, have been arresting teenagers wearing T-shirts decorated with flags of foreign countries in Yangon, a Myanmar businessman said.

Merchants in Yangon have also been ordered to stop selling T-shirts decorated with pictures of Western heavy-metal rock bands and also pictures of sexy couples, said the trader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The T-shirt crackdown includes garments bearing foreign flags, in particular the U.S. Stars and Stripes and Britain’s Union Jack, he said. Video cassette rental shops have also been raided since January and Western films confiscated, he said. Some video shop owners had been arrested, he added.

Most of the Western-style clothing and video cassettes are imported from Thailand.

Ananda Pagoda, Pagan, Burma. © Jonathan Hill.
Ananda Pagoda, Pagan, Burma. © Jonathan Hill.

Instead of being amused, I am suddenly overwhelmed, remembering Ayrev and how we used to bring him back exotic T-shirts from such remote places as Greenland, Nicaragua, and western Australia.

We have a Burmese-Chinese lunch of mushy overcooked vegetables and potatoes, which sink to the bottom of our stomachs like leaded gruel. After lunch, we drive back to the hotel to rest up for a visit to the Schwezigon Pagoda in the cool of the evening.

Taking off our shoes, we walk up the covered steps to the pagoda. On either side of us, small shops sell flowers for offerings, Buddha images, incense sticks, and religious books and antiques. It is cool and dark underneath the covering, the crowd pleasantly subdued, the air smelling of jasmine and sandalwood. The long upward passageway has a curious effect. It seems to calm us, to prepare us in some way, as if with each step we discard more of our conceptual minds and become one with the gentle crowd walking up and down the steps. Every move, every gesture and sound around us grows slower, becoming part of a collective ritual, so ancient that its progressions are without religious vanity or self-consciousness.

We step out of the darkness. In front of us, the gilded pagoda rises up from the bell shape of the lower stupa (Buddha’s inverted begging bowl), surrounded by a cluster of smaller pagodas, statues, and azaungs (shrine buildings). We have entered a magical Buddha world, a community and promenade of pilgrims and worshipers where everything seems included, from circumambulating monks to businessmen making deals, to entire families chatting and eating snacks, children running in circles, old men and women dozing, astrologers offering advice, tourists gazing and looking in their guidebooks, silent meditators, sleepers, students reading and debating, all ages hanging out, walking, shuffling, prostrating, skipping, musing, contemplating. And above it all, holding it all together, is the giant stupa with its 28,000 packets of gold leaf which are redone every ten years, and the hti, or umbrella, at the top hung with gold, silver bells, and jewels, all chiming and jingling in the illuminated air.

We join the dreamy crowd, walking clockwise around the giant circle on gray and white marble tiles, cool now in the night air. I feel for the first time on this trip that I am inside a living refuge, a place of the spirit where every thought, every passion, every emotion becomes an offering. Lights come on; a display of candles, bulbs neon and technicolor diffusing gently with the brightly colored red, purple, yellow, green of the Burmese longhis and the glittering shrines and statues, all resonating from the central golden display of the pagoda.

Despite all the activity, everything is quiet and harmonious. No separation between keeping still, stopping, pausing, or moving on. Noise has become silence, movement has become stillness, speech has become prayer. With each inhale and exhale I feel myself slowing down. All the brittle mental speed, the endless distractions, the compulsive informational devices, the increasing acceleration of my “time-filled” world spins out of its manic journey toward inevitable entropy and becomes, for a moment, a spiral toward renewal.

We have one more day in Rangoon, and we visit the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center off Pagoda Road, ten minutes from our hotel. It consists of several three-story; buildings set around a small courtyard. Immediately upon entering, we feel a sense of diligence and calm. We stand outside a small office while our guide goes inside to ask if we can have a brief audience with an English-speaking monk. In front of us, descending down an outer staircase, we notice a parade of young girls, teenage novices wearing pink robes. Their eyes are lowered; each movement, each step is considered. Their concentration is ferocious.

The monk motions for us to approach. As we walk into the room he gestures for us to sit in front of him. He looks at us sternly. In perfect, distant English he tells us that one has to observe the 227 precepts, or rules of conduct known aspatimokkha, in order to become a member of the sangha. The schedule is from 3:30 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., and basically the practice involves labeling every gesture: “I am breathing in. I am breathing out. I am writing. I am intending to sit. I am sitting. I am intending to take a step. I am taking a step. I am feeling anger. I am feeling pain. Like that.” He pauses, sipping tea. “I will give you an example of how we practice with the mind. Without any wishing or wanting to come here, can you come here?” We look at him blankly. After a pause, he questions us again. “What is the cause and what is the effect? The act of coming is the effect, the intention the cause. Why are you sitting on the floor? It is attention that makes you sit on the floor. Is there any sitter? If you think there is a person who sits on the floor, then we should bring a corpse from the hospital and make it sit on the floor. It cannot sit because there is no intention. It is only intention, the mental process, that causes an action or movement. So who is sitting now? A man or a woman? Neither. It is a physical process supported by wind. That is why we have to observe intention before every action.”

I tell him about Ayrev and that we have come to Burma on a pilgrimage as well as to various other holy places in Thailand and Cambodia. He nods, his eyes suddenly compassionate. “We never know the moment of death. It is so important to realize that every phenomenon is subject to impermanence. Your son has died. Anyone of us here in this room can die at any moment. There is great suffering when we do not fully realize the instant arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena.”

He looks at his watch and abruptly stands up. He has to officiate at an ordination. Would we like to come? We follow him down the stairs and across the courtyard to another building. A small crowd has gathered inside a large green reception room. The furniture looks like it belongs in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Topeka, Kansas, circa 1950. The abbot, an elderly man with thick glasses, sits on a couch with white doilies on the armrests. In front of him, kneeling on the floor, are two middle-aged men dressed in the stiff, newly bought white robes of novices. Behind them, also on the floor, are their families, perhaps fifty people in all.

Rosie, our guide, explains that they are a ship’s captain and his first mate and that they both are about to be married. Before their respective marriages, however, they are committed to doing a ten-day retreat in the monastery.

The monk, who is obviously used to this sort of ceremony, leads them through their vows, which they receive kneeling on the floor, their hands pressed together in front of their chests. As laymen, they vow to obey eight precepts: abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, and using any kind of intoxicant or eating food after noon. The seventh precept is refraining from dancing, singing, playing music, or adorning yourself with anything that will beautify yourself, such as flowers or perfume. The eighth precept is abstention from a high and luxurious bed.

The abbot explains that when the eight precepts are fully observed, their moral conduct will be purified. The purification of sila, or moral conduct, is the prerequisite of a meditator to make progress in his meditational practice. When sila is purified, one never feels guilty. When one does not feel guilty, one’s mind becomes steady. Then the mind can easily focus on the object of meditation. Purified moral conduct leads to deep concentration of mind, which, in turn, gives rise to insight wisdom in one’s meditational practice.

Everyone has tea, and the abbot has an attendant pass around snapshots of his trip to Japan, where he visited Mount Fuji, several parks, and quite a few monasteries.

This is the second of two excerpts adapted from a book of the same name, to be published in the fall by Shambhala Publications. The book takes the form of a journal written while the author was on pilgrimage with his wife, the photographer Lynn Davis. They took the journey six months after the death of Lynn’s twenty-one-year-old son, Ayrev. The first installement featured extracts of their travels in Thailand. This, the last excerpt, finds them in Burma and Cambodia.

On the way out of the monastery, I stop in front of the office where the daily meditation schedule is posted.

TIME                      PROGRAM
4:00 A.M.               Wake up
4:30 A.M.               Walking
5:30 A.M.               Sitting
6:30 A.M.               Walking
7:00 A.M.               Breakfast
8:00 A.M.               Walking
9:00 A.M.               Sitting
10:00 A.M.             Walking
11:00 A.M.             Lunch
12:00 A.M.             Rest
13:00 P.M.              Sitting
14:00 P.M.              Walking
15:00 P.M.              Sitting
16:00 P.M.              Walking
17:00 P.M.              Juice served
17:30 P.M.              Walking
18:30 P.M.              Sitting
19:30 P.M.              Walking
20:00 P.M.              Dhamma lecture
21:30 P.M.              Sitting
22:30 P.M.              Private meditation

Early the next morning we take a small plane to the ancient ruins of Pagan near the Irrawaddy River. The plane flies over green jungle, lakes, rivers, and fields. From the air, Burma seems unspoiled, as if it has somehow escaped the toxic and murderous disasters of the twentieth century.

On the ground, however, it is another reality.

Reclining Buddha, near Rangoon, Burma. © Jonathan Hill.
Reclining Buddha, near Rangoon, Burma. © Jonathan Hill.

The small airport is empty except for a few soldiers lounging outside the one-room terminal. Apparently we are the only tourists on today’s flight, which is understandable, for the heat almost rocks us backward as we walk toward our jeep accompanied by Kyi Kyi, the young woman who is our guide.

On the way to the hotel, we stop in front of a small, partially collapsed pagoda standing at the edge of a field. Tufts of grass grow over the pagoda’s three receding terraces. On top, the finial has spread across the bell-shaped stupa like a mushroom as the entire shape slowly descends into the earth, a process that began over nine centuries ago.

While Lynn shoots some pictures, I wander across the dusty overgrown field. Around us, on the vast plain, are a scattering of pagodas and temples, part of several thousand that are left from a religious city that included over thirteen thousand stupas and temples and seventy thousand monks, as well as a university which was equal to the great Nalanda University in India. The whole Buddhist succession of kingdoms lasted only a few hundred years.

“What happened?” I ask Kyi Kyi.

She sighs. “What always happens. Everything disappeared.”

Now, aside from the ruins, there are only a few poor villages left, which until recently included Kyi Kyi’s own village, one that had existed for hundreds of years in the same place within the temple grounds. But the government forced the entire village of five thousand people, who were noticeably pro-Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990 elections, to move to another site, all to be done within four days. By removing the last village of Pagan, SLORC turned the site into an archaeological museum: sterile, safe, and lifeless. Now only pagodas and temples are left, as all other structures, including the king’s palaces, were made of wood.

While Lynn photographs the pagoda, Kyi Kyi gives me a brief history lesson: the first Buddhist king was Aniruddha, who ascended the throne in 1044. The eleventh and last was Narathipati, who became known as “the king who fled from the Chinese” when he tore down ten thousand buildings in 1287 to defend the empire against a threatened Mogul invasion by Kublai Khan.

After that, it was over. The hills were eroded and treeless after two hundred years of compulsive building. The food and water supply could no longer support a large population, and when the Tatars rode into the city, nothing remained. The Buddhist renaissance was over.

Kyi Kyi tells me the story of Aniruddha’s conversion to Theravadin Buddhism. He was initiated by a learned monk sent to him by Manuha, the Mon king of Thaton. The monk was so successful in his conversion that Aniruddha asked Manuha for a number of sacred texts and relics, including thirty-two copies of the Tripitaka scriptures (the essence of Buddhist religious writings).

Manuha, however, was suspicious of the quality of Aniruddha’s response. How could such a self-important king be so easily won over to the Theravadin scriptures? Aniruddha must have another, baser motive.

When Manuha refused the request, Aniruddha immediately declared war and conquered Thaton, bringing back to Pagan not only the Tripitaka but the city’s monks and architects and even King Manuha himself.

As if to prove his conversion was real, Aniruddha immediately engaged in a frenzy of building, which not only continued after his death but went on for roughly two hundred years, until it burned itself out.

After lunch we climb to the top of Thatbinyu Temple, the highest building in Pagan, built by King Alaungsithu (1113-1160). After climbing a narrow, claustrophobic flight of stairs and passing a huge Buddha image, we finally emerge on an upper terrace. Beneath us, bathed in an orange and crimson sunset, stretches the flat plain of Pagan. We can see hundreds of temples and pagodas, most of them in decay. Farther away, the Irrawaddy bends in a great sluggish curve, empty except for two wooden barges moving slowly toward Mandalay.

A wave of futility overwhelms me. Why are we here? Is it just to see or witness these monuments to impermanence? Are we just collecting and cataloguing sacred images that will soon disappear like dreams? Our journey is nothing more than an insane kind of visual materialism, a precarious prop to cover up our grief. What is the point of distinguishing this temple from that pagoda or finding that Thai sculpture is more ornate and decorative than that of Cambodia or India? We cannot be soothed. Only the compulsive hardships of this journey seem to distract, and even those for not very long.

On the other side of the terrace, Lynn is staring, transfixed, at the Ananda Pagoda, the setting sun shining off its white graduated terraces and golden spire. She has no need to photograph. Only to look. Only to be. She turns to me radiant, ecstatic. My mad little mental dance dissolves as suddenly as it arose.

The next day we journey out again in an orgy of pagoda and temple gazing. The dream of this religious city begins to permeate us. What must it have been like to be totally surrounded by Buddha-dharma, to live in a community that was, for the most part, dedicated to the evolution of the human psyche? Perhaps there were hundreds, even thousands of realized beings living here, teaching, meditating, transmitting. Is it possible that at one time a culture could exist without consumerism, without worldly manipulations or ambitions, without even the idea of progress? Of course, the three poisons are always present, but perhaps their antidotes were available as well.

The night before we are to leave for Rangoon, the electricity goes out. The windows don’t open. If we go outside, swarms of mosquitoes eat us alive. It is so hot that we can barely breathe. It is as if we are trapped in a tomb, at the mercy of the failed mechanisms of progress. We spend the next day looking at monuments. We stumble into a low red-brick building, thinking it might contain monk cells or perhaps wall paintings.

Totally dominating a low-ceilinged rectangular room is a reclining Buddha. The figure is sixty feet long and is about the width and length of a sperm whale. The head points to the south rather than the north, the traditional position assumed by Buddha when he was lying on his deathbed between two sal trees at Kushinara.

The light is very dim, and as we stand in front of the huge figure lying only a few feet in front of us, we feel diminished and insignificant. The black hair is coiled, the smile serene and infinitely tender and wise in its acceptance of death. But it is the position of the feet, with the left foot resting gently on the right, that expresses an almost unbearable vulnerability and intimacy.

We sit down on the dirt floor. It is cool and there is no sound at all. The rest of the world has disappeared. We sit without speaking. We both know why we have come all this way.

Lynn stands. She takes a small package from her purse and approaches the face of Gautama Buddha. She removes a small pile of ashes from the package: the remains of a picture of Ayrev that we burned after the traditional forty-nine days of mourning. She places the ashes next to the flower offering by the Buddha’s open right hand, along with a copy of one of the last poems Ayrev wrote.

The next day we fly back to Rangoon, and then to Bangkok for an overnight stay before we fly on to Cambodia and the sacred ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

The Phnom Penh airport is pure chaos, totally unlike the surreal control of Rangoon or the modern international efficiency of Bangkok. In the oppressive, drenching heat, everyone is shouting, waving forms, paying off duty taxes, grabbing suitcases. There are no tourists. Only U.N. officials, Cambodian soldiers, and a few businessmen.

We take a cab to the Cambodiana, a large French hotel on the Mekong River. The influence of the French is everywhere, from the large, well-laid-out boulevards to street cafes and pastry shops. The city feels frayed and exhausted, as if poised for another invasion or civil war. Prince Sihanouk is once again supposed to be in charge, but he is still hiding out in China. And yet, for a moment, we feel comfortable here

This is the second of two excerpts adapted from a book of the same name, to be published in the fall by Shambhala Publications. The book takes the form of a journal written while the author was on pilgrimage with his wife, the photographer Lynn Davis. They took the journey six months after the death of Lynn’s twenty-one-year-old son, Ayrev. The first installement featured extracts of their travels in Thailand. This, the last excerpt, finds them in Burma and Cambodia.

The Bayon temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.
The Bayon temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.

The flight to Siem Reap, the next day, takes an hour in a small plane. There are about twenty passengers: a few French tourists, the rest Cambodians, including an ancient white-robed nun, the first official Buddhist we have seen. There is no air-conditioning, but the pretty flight attendant glides up and down the plane as if she’s part of a tourist commercial.

It is about twenty degrees hotter and much more humid in Siem Reap than it is in Phnom Penh, the temperature hovering around a hundred and ten degrees. When the Vietnamese occupied the region, their troops cut down huge tracts of forest, taking the lumber back to Vietnam or selling it to the rapacious Thais. This clear-cutting caused the temperature to rise ten to twelve degrees, a disaster for the local agriculture. Outside, the terminal is surrounded by U.N. troops, and as we walk toward our guide waiting outside near a van, it feels as if we’ve entered a war zone.

Our guide, Samban, is a small, thin man in his twenties. He seems strangely removed, as if he is just going through the motions with us. When I ask him about the Khmer Rouge, he nonchalantly admits that they have been “causing a little trouble” lately, but there is nothing to worry about as long as you don’t walk away from the paths leading to and around the temples. Sometimes, at night, the Khmer Rouge plant land mines and trip wires attached to grenades.

We pass a convoy of U.N. troops riding in white Toyota jeeps and then a Union Jack flying outside of a ramshackle two-story building, the Mine Field, which serves as a bar for U.N. troops. The U.N. presence is everywhere. A few days ago twenty-six Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and security is tighter than usual.

Siem Reap has the run-down, desultory air of a frontier town, which, in a sense, it is. We are staying at the Ta Phron Hotel, since the French hotel we had initially booked is now without water. The Ta Phron is a white four-story building across the street from the polluted Siem Reap River, which runs through the center of town.

Small children bathe in the stagnant water, apparently unconcerned that over 40 percent of the population of sixty thousand sooner or later come down with malaria. There are no phones or public transportation in Siem Reap and the electricity is constantly going off and on. Our hotel is clean and subdued and even has a small restaurant that serves French, Cambodian, and Chinese food. Amazingly, there is a TV in the room, which, when the electricity is on, has a BBC Asian news station, now almost entirely devoted to the situation in Hong Kong between the British and Chinese.

After lunch, Samban takes us to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The first European to “discover” Angkor Wat was an eccentric French botanist, Henri Mouhot, who stumbled on it by accident in 1860. His notebook, which later became a sensation in Paris, is full of romantic ravings about finding a monument equal “to the temple of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo.” But neither Mouhot nor the few Englishmen who wandered by at that time saw anything particularly spiritual in the ruins. There was a lot of speculation that the Romans or even Alexander the Great was responsible—anybody but the Cambodians, whom they considered primitive, congenitally lazy, and decidedly inferior.

Going inside the outer wall, which is pockmarked with bullet holes, is like being enveloped in the mechanism of a huge esoteric clock, only we are unaware of what time it is or what calendar is being followed. We are forever outside the inner workings of the Angkor Wat mandala, unaware of the generosity of its ancient transmissions or even of its cruelties. All we have is travel information and history books and a dull litany of facts from our guide, all of which seem, when confronted with the actual presence of Angkor Wat, totally inadequate.

We stumble around the massive solemnity of this tomb, or temple mountain, which offers not so much solace or refuge as it does awe and even a shiver of atavistic fear at the omniscience of its precision. It is a place of power, a city of the dead, once ruled by Hindu devarajas, or god-kings, under whose totality religious art and sculpture reflect Shiva and Vishnu as much as Lord Buddha. Giant lingams, stylized phalluses, exist side by side with statues of the Buddha and endless bas-reliefs of scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. One huge bas-relief in particular stuns us with its fluid elegance in depicting the Hindu creation myth, “Churning the Sea of Milk.” In a meeting between gods and demons, the giant serpent Vasuki is pulled back and forth between the monkey god Hanuman and a line of demons. Vasuki, who has wrapped himself around Mount Mandara, is supported by a giant turtle in the Sea of Milk, the ocean of immortality. As Vishnu oversees this divine rhythm of opposites, the gods and demons rotate the mountain and churn the sea into foam, releasing a seminal fluid that creates a divine ambrosia, or amrita, the essence or elixir of life. Much of the bas-relief has faded from centuries of worshipers rubbing their hands over the figures, but overall it is still exquisitely defined.

I think of the line of Khmer kings whose reigns seemed to shift so easily from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again. All of them built their monuments with slaves and were surrounded by a hierarchy of priests, merchants, and peasants, a system which, on the surface, seems similar to the class structure of ancient Egypt and the Mayans. Suryavaram II, who built Angkor Wat as a monument to himself in the twelfth century, was a devotee of Vishnu. He was preceded by Suryavaram I, who, even though a Hindu, encouraged Buddhist scholarship. After his death, Suryavaram II was succeeded by Dharanindravarman II, a fervent Buddhist.

It is this unself-conscious mix of Hinduism and Buddhism that gives Angkor Wat its peculiar singularity. But its abundance of religious and heroic narrative surrounded by massive verticality is finally too busy, too formal to absorb, as if Suryavaram II, by his inclusion of religious power and politics in this monument to himself as dharmaraja, had compromised the experience of emptiness inherent in spiritual attainment.

A rifle shot splits through the dense air from the surrounding jungle, bringing me back to the present and to the Khmer Rouge, who have no problem when it comes to killing Buddhists and Hindus alike, or, for that matter, the odd tourist or U.N. observer.

Lynn is standing in the shade of a half-enclosed balcony. Behind her, a bas-relief cut into sandstone displays a grotesque assortment of beings struggling through the tribulations of hell. Some are being devoured by tigers, while others are in the process of being flayed and decapitated by demons. Above her rises a towering temple, massive, unforgiving, a withholding fortress rather than a refuge for tired pilgrims.

Another shot rings out. This one closer.

“Shooting birds,” Samban mutters nervously. “The Vietnamese killed all the monkeys for food. Now there is no food left in the jungle.”

The next morning, after a night of violent dreams, Samban drives us to Angkor Thom, the reason we came to Southeast Asia in the first place. After Ayrev’s death, Lynn became haunted by a picture she saw, in a book on Eastern architecture, of four stone Buddha faces carved into the south gate of the Bayon, the temple at Angkor Thorn. The half-closed eyes and enigmatic smiles of the Buddhas seemed to promise, with an almost divine humor, an awareness and acceptance of suffering. And indeed, this religious city built by ]ayavarman II in 1181 resonates with images expressing the Mahayana ideal of Prajnaparamita (wisdom), Lokeshvara (compassion), and the Buddha (enlightenment).

We walk toward the giant gate, passing on one side giants (asuras) and angels (devatas) pulling the body of two huge snakes. On the other side is a row of Buddha heads. Several of them are missing, and Sam ban stops to inspect an empty space. The head has been freshly sawed off. “They’re stealing them all the time,” he informs us. “Across the border, thieves get three or four hundred thousand dollars for one head.”

The Bangkok Post gives a further report:

The latest statue to disappear from Cambodia’s Angkor temples had been in the courtyard of a modern palace, 200 meters from a police station.

The statue had survived 1,000 years of tropical weather, the hammers and chisels of nineteenth-century European souvenir hunters and decades of war and rurmoil in Cambodia.

The statue, as tall as a human and weighing more than 100 kg, had been stolen the night before from the courtyard of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s northern palace.

The rare ninth-century piece, a female divinity who had lost her head to a previous generation of plunderers, had been in the courtyard only since January.

In the same week, five stone heads were reported stolen from the northern gate of Angkor Thom temple.

Siem Reap police chief Colonel Chea Suphat said his force did not have enough men or resources to effectively fight theft from Angkor.

Inside the Bayon temple, all thoughts of contemporary and historical strife cease. Even our own physical ailments, which are severe, seem suspended. Inside the walled city, we are surrounded by dense silence. The silence leaks into us, permeating the stones and thick corridors. Above, in almost claustrophobic profusion, rise fifty-four towers, each adorned with four Buddha heads, each smile, each gaze different, and yet somehow the same, all of them reflecting the gaze of wisdom and compassion. The faces are personalized, as if Jayavarman, as a dharmaraja, imposed his own singularities on the more abstract face of the Buddha. Underneath, covering the thick walls from top to bottom, are bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of ]ayavarman’s reign. Unlike the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, which are concerned with Hindu myths, these carvings show a concern for the common people. A stele to the king reads: “He suffered more from his subjects’ infirmities than from his own, for it is the people’s pain that makes the pain of kings and not their own.”

This is the second of two excerpts adapted from a book of the same name, to be published in the fall by Shambhala Publications. The book takes the form of a journal written while the author was on pilgrimage with his wife, the photographer Lynn Davis. They took the journey six months after the death of Lynn’s twenty-one-year-old son, Ayrev. The first installement featured extracts of their travels in Thailand. This, the last excerpt, finds them in Burma and Cambodia.

In the late afternoon, we visit Ta Prohm, another temple complex built by Jayavarman in 1186 in honor of his mother and Prajnaparamita, the goddess of wisdom. Near the walled entrance a shouting voice from a blaring loudspeaker asks for contributions to help rebuild a local monastery. They have a long way to go. We are so tired that we can barely move. And yet we press on, as if only by witnessing all the temples of Angkor will we finally be able to rest.

Inside Ta Prohm, all is chaos and disintegration. The jungle has invaded the walls and archways. The roots of strangler figs and banyan trees, like giant pythons or octopuses, have split apart the massive slabs of rock of entire temples, strangling images of gods and demons alike, obscuring corbeled archways and corridors in a profusion of twisting tentacles. We sit down in the shade of a crushed wall. It is unbearably hot and humid. There is no birdsong, no monkey chatter. A bat flying out from underneath a portico is the only sign of life.

We struggle on through the ruins, Lynn walking in a daze toward a huge stone lingam while I drift across the rubble of a courtyard. Turning a corner, I almost bump into two young monks in ocher robes leaning against a headless statue of Lokeshvara. The monks are idly chatting with two French tourists lounging on top of a broken stone slab. The Frenchmen, who seem vaguely stoned, have their heads wrapped in red bandannas. The older of the two passes a lighted cigarette to one of the monks, who inhales deeply and passes it to his friend, who, in turn, takes a deep drag. Giggling, he whispers something to a brightly colored parrot perched on his wrist.

South Gate, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.
South Gate, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. © Peter Guttman.

I find Lynn leaning against a smashed statue of a goddess. She is so weak and faint that immediately I ask Samban to take us back to the hotel.

While we can still move, we decide to get on the next plane to Phnom Penh.

In Phnom Penh we decide to continue on to Bangkok. If we stay here, we might find ourselves in the middle of the civil war that seems ready to break out at any moment.

Our plane won’t leave for another three hours. To fill the time, we go back to the Cambodiana to pick up several dharma books I had forgotten to pack.

The books are not at the hotel. Perhaps it is time to give up the dharma quotations that have surrounded me on this trip like a security blanket, reminding me of the endless subjectivity of my mind as it jumps through its habitual hoops like a rat in a cage. As we ride back to the airport, we confront an enormous traffic jam around the scene of an accident. U.N. troops are everywhere. A dozen soldiers try to direct traffic, but the only machines moving are bicycles and motorcycles. We have only half an hour until our plane leaves, and we are suddenly panicked. Everything seems to depend on making this flight. All our hopes and fears are crystallized into this one goal. As quickly as we had congratulated ourselves for what we learned on this journey, we have forgotten mindfulness. Forgotten the action of nonaction. Forgotten “neither coming nor going.” Forgotten the illuminated stares of the walking Buddha in Sukhothai proceeding toward His own becoming.

The driver shrugs, saying that our only chance is to get on a motorcycle.

We stagger out of the taxi with our bags. The driver waves at two motorcycles, telling the drivers, both teenage boys wearing Adidas and Guns ‘N’ Roses Tshirts, that we have ten minutes to make a plane.

Holding our bags, we climb on the back of the motorcycles. The drivers grin maniacally at each other, then Lynn’s driver kick-starts his machine, and she disappears down the jammed, chaotic street. As my motorcycle coughs into life, I can see her silver curtain of hair streaming out behind her like a diaphanous halo. And then she is gone. Perhaps I will never see her again. Images of the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon flood over me…of refugees everywhere fleeing from disasters beyond comprehension, without portfolios, without destinations. A wave of the homeless washing across the earth. And then, for a moment, I let go. No more Lynn, no more Ayrev, no more grief, no more fear, no more hope, no more happiness, no more suffering. No more letting go. There is just the wind and the shifting, leaning exhilaration of the motorcycle as it maneuvers past obstacle after obstacle looming up on all sides of us, life arising and passing and arising once again.

We arrive at the airport as the gate closes. We are the last travelers they let through.

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash oflightning in the sky. Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.

-The Buddha.


Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .