In the early hours of the morning of my trip to Phnom Kulen, I got up and was ready to be picked up by the Tuk Tuk driver. When he drove into the guesthouse I recognised him as the same driver from the night before. He looked as warily at me as I felt of him.
‘How much?’ Sandra had asked the driver when he dropped the five us from the guesthouse off at a restaurant in the city centre the night before.
‘No $2!’ I had said frowning at the driver. The owner of the guesthouse had informed me of this flat rate for all rides into the city from the guesthouse.
‘$3 for five people!’ He insisted back.
‘No all rides to city $2!’ It didn’t seem fair to me that his rate go up fifty percent because of a few more passengers. I was determined not to be cheated. It was tiresome having to navigate the variable prices of Tuk Tuk rides in Siem Reap and numerous drivers who would come over to us as we walked along the streets, asking if we wanted a ride. One after the other, five or more in a row, as if the next one would somehow get us to change our minds although we had shaken our heads and said no to all the previous drivers just a few feet behind them.
The driver eventually accepted the $2 I gave him and we all made our way to dinner and after dinner flagged down a Tuk Tuk on the street to take us back to the guesthouse. This second driver also insisted that the price was $3. One of the other guests paid the $3 while the driver angrily shouted out, ‘Lie!’ when I said that we had paid $2 for our ride into the town. Confused and no longer confident about my position, I put aside my uncertainty thinking it unlikely I would ever see either driver again as we would be leaving in two days. But here he was in front of me, the first driver, waiting to take me to Phnom Kulen, a trip that was going to take at least six to eight hours.
Just him and me.
I had initially planned to go to Phnom Kulen with Sandra and share the cost of hiring a car and guide with her, but she wanted to stay in the city and shop for souvenirs for her daughter. She had had money stolen from her at the orphanage where she was volunteering by one of the local Cambodian women who was working there so she was short on money she had set aside for sightseeing. Instead of cancelling the trip to Phnom Kulen and because I was so desperate for some time out of the city in nature, I decided to hire a Tuk Tuk to take me there. I was in search of the impressive waterfalls of Phnom Kulen and another site on Mount Kulen called Kbal Spean, which featured the 1000 lingas. It would cost much less to go by Tuk Tuk and I planned to also save money on a guide by identifying and following the big groups of tourists once I got to the site. How hard could it be I reasoned?
Phnom Kulen is a revered Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage site just outside of Siem Reap where the Khmer empire is said to have been born. It is on this mountain range that King Jayavarma II declared independence from Java in the 9th Century. Jayavarma II was also the initiator of the Devaraja cult that worshipped lingas- or phalluses, which symbolise the essence and power of royalty as the representation of God Shiva. The drive to the top of Phnom Kulen took over two hours, half of which I spent on to the back of a motorbike as the driver had unhooked his carriage on the Tuk Tuk for the last leg of the ride up the mountain. He put putted his way up the steep road around huge potholes and alongside the many air-conditioned sedans and SUVs that I envied as they overtook us and wished I was in instead of hanging on to the side of the bike. When I was dropped off at the top of the mountain, I followed the flow of traffic eventually ascending the steps to the main altar of the reclining Buddha with the other tourists while navigating the young children and beggars asking for money. I overheard one of the tourists, who had a thick wad of small notes, say to his friend in Mandarin that he could not give all the beggars money so he told his friend to give money to the ones on his left while he gave to the ones on his right. I admired his generosity and sense of obligation and questioned my decision to not change any of my big notes into smaller ones. I did not want to encourage syndicates who use children to make money for them when I believed they should be in school and preferred to spend money in local businesses and support projects which educated the population and gave them opportunities to train for careers and jobs that would help them and their families out of poverty in the long term. But when the small bodies threw themselves around my feet as I walked up the steps of Phnom Kulen, I felt cruel for not giving them any money.
I walked around the site for over an hour ascending and descending the paths to and around the various scattered altars in the forest and surrounding areas, viewing the reclining Buddha before deciding that since I did not know how to say waterfall in Khmer, I would ask people for the way to the ‘1000 lingas’. There are only so many times you can ask for the whereabouts of phalluses before you start to feel very self-conscious. And after approaching several people who did not seem to understand what I was saying or how to give me directions, a man in a worn white t-shirt and black cotton pants caught my gaze. I recognized his dress as one commonly worn by South-East Asian men who had taken monastic vows after being married, when their children had grown up and they had completed their duties to their families. He beckoned for me to come closer then bow my head slightly above a dark grey stone water fountain whereupon he poured water on my hair from a large wooden ladle, indicating to me to wash my face and hands. He motioned me to follow him back into the forest down the same earthen paths I had trodden on for over an hour looking for the 1000 lingas and the waterfall.
We stopped at an altar imbedded into a rock. He spoke in Khmer while looking at me in an ever so earnest way for some time before lighting incense sticks which he then held with his hands in prayer position. Shaking the sticks back and forth, then pointing to himself and me, he spoke in whispers and chants, before leading me to altar after altar. After the first seven I lost count. I knelt, bowed and prayed when he instructed. We walked for over an hour at which point I started to think of how I might make a polite escape.
At one point he lit a cigarette that he held in one hand as he steadied himself with the other on the boulders along the meandering paths we walked on, limping on his wooden leg. He genially greeted the vendors selling effigies of the Buddha, prayer beads and other religious items and souvenirs as well as locals along the way that I had passed before who now looked confusedly at me walking with him.
This man had likely lost his leg because of a land mine during the time of the Khmer Rouge and had every reason to be angry or disenchanted, unconcerned with the likes of a lost tourist but instead he was generous with his time and his attention, seemingly explaining his beliefs and religion to me, even though I never responded to him in his language. He prayed for me and taught me to pray in the ways he knew to. Here was a man who had been through so much pain and loss and yet lived with such simple grace and no discernible self-pity.
All at once I felt foolish for wishing I could afford to stay at the luxurious Amansara in Siem Reap, instead of appreciating the charming guesthouse I was in- filled with guests who were there to do volunteer work in the orphanages and hospitals, run by a woman who had herself set up an NGO to give work to single mothers so they would not sell their babies.
The money I had spent on daily massages in Siem Reap, while rating them on my threefold system of energy, technique and atmosphere and then complaining often they were not quite up to standard began to feel over-indulgent. Many Cambodians were clearly just trying to get their basic needs met and surviving their horrific history of genocide, war and the current abject poverty and here I was having massages every day. I could have put aside some of that money for donations to a local NGO or charity. I cringed when I thought back on how I argued with the Tuk Tuk driver the night before over US$1. US$1 would never mean as much to me as it would to him and I could well afford it. Maybe he did not know any other way of making money in a country riddled with institutionalised corruption, bribery and likely many others that had cheated him in his life, even the police, government officials or his own family and friends.
Being neither Buddhist nor Hindu, I did not intend to go to Phnom Kulen for any religious or personal pilgrimage as many of its visitors do, in fact I was only on holiday in Cambodia to enjoy some time off with Sandra and see Angkor Wat. But while I was on this mountaintop I prayed I would remember my time there when I forgot to appreciate the important things in life. For it was there that I had an encounter with the embodiment of the triumph of the human spirit after unimaginable adversity and tragedy.
I did get to the waterfall as the driver took me there after I left the man with the wooden leg. It was a glorious time appreciating the majesty of the waters and sight of saffron robbed monks, locals and tourists bathing together in the waters with a rainbow suspended in the air above them. Later I found out that Kbal Spean was thirty km away from Phnom Kulen, at least thirty minutes away from where I was, on the southern slop of Mount Kulen. I was never likely to make it there that day but a wooden-legged man with kind almond eyes gave me something more.
He gave me perspective.
The sleepy ride back to the guesthouse came to an end just before dusk. I gave my weary driver a few dollars as a modest tip when I paid him and he smiled at me instantly like a weight had lifted from him and he was free now to be open to me. All was forgiven from the night before because of this small gesture of appreciation of his efforts. It caught me off guard and caused a chink in the armour of my complacency and sense of entitlement that had already started to crack. And in that chink, I glimpsed a little more of my humanity.