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Published: February 11th 2008
The Chinese clocks had just struck RAT when we rolled in to Khmer speaking Cambodia by private taxi from the Thai border, the transition from Bangkok was easy and to travel in such luxury cost nearly nothing. We headed for Siem Reap, most famous for the Angkor Wat ruins and temples. We had not been in town more than 12 hours when we found a man named San. He told us about a very rare event that comes around once every 100 years, which was happening that night. To celebrate Chinese New Year, they had the opening of a pagoda which had just been built. San drove us in his tuk tuk 8 km out of Siem Reap to Wat Po Village. It was a humid evening as we followed a light trail of baubles, tinselled flashing Christmas trees, strings of fairy lights and pink paper lanterns, it was very Disney. San parked his tuk tuk and said “READY?” within seconds we had naked children begging at our feet, the elderly pulled at my t-shirt, crippled and maimed land mine and polio victims started to drag themselves towards us then pulled at my skirt.
San negotiated a massive bundle of
Cambodian riel for $5, similar to Monopoly cash. Since the Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1999 the country has been steadily getting used to living fear free, enjoying such small luxuries as money, normally in Cambodia they prefer to use the US dollar, the cash machines pump out small $1, $5, and $10 dollar notes as things cost next to nothing here. So we thought to hell with it lets get $10 worth and be ultra giving. This was no normal event; the money was in 100 bill notes which are worth about 1p. With this stash we had instructions to give it all away to the poor and needy because “To give money is to receiving merits”. The thing was, we really were the only tourists in this entire site, so we were not only amassing karmic merits for attending their ceremonies, we were also amassing an unusual selection of local entourage who followed us everywhere, there was a distinct lack of flashing cameras as no one had one except us.
Wat Po is a grand new pagoda and for the next 14 days the locals, invited religious guests from the pagodas of Phnom Penh and us from
London England came to celebrate the Chinese new year, its celebrations continued for 24 hours. Our new entourage followed as we crossed a hump bridge, along its path there was twinkly flames ignited by propane canisters, they lit up many hand written cards that explained all about the Chinese signs. Before each animal sign was a bowl to place money, but there was bowls everywhere with money in them, the poor had not stolen a cent as it was sacred and karmic to steal. The hump bridge brought us to the grand gold ornate entrance, surrounded by fairy lights, balloons incense sticks and candles. When we entered word got round, the white tourists have a stash of karma cash, the tugging and pulling continued, we gave to one person and fifty more people would turn up, but we had plenty to give and loads of time to give it. San was trying to explain the customs and traditions; it was like being at a cross between Notting Hill carnival, Kumbh Mela and Mardis Gras. I felt like a frog in a sock, the whole place was crazy.
The ladies were selling real currency money in exchange for the same
My fav begger
He didnt move at all.....
kind of money, which did not make sense; you give them what you feel the real money is worth by using other real money. We heard a screeching, a theatre show had started with a real actress from the TV dressed in jangling gold wraps and a diamanté tiara, she sang some kind of love lament, she performed this in a very high pitched s c r e e c h i n g, as she sung with brain frying feedback, the amplifier sparked, even the children in the audience who normally adored the beautiful TV goddess put their hands over their ears.
An impressive big gold Buddha stood 50ft tall in the centre of the main temple, he was mesmerising due to a circular 21st century flashing disco disc placed right behind his head like a vertical halo, and it displayed various graphics that was very Saturday night fever. The boy monks were huddled together beneath the Buddha's feet, they were still in training as they gave distracted blessing, and many locals would donate this silly money in bundles in exchange for a blessing. I went up on stage to give my wad of cash and my respect
for the training monks and the boy monks tried their best to contain their excitement when my 6 ft white female frame blocked the light as I stood before them, I was poised in bow position head to the ground, waiting and waiting for a blessing, which I finally received as they tried not to giggle, but I didn't realise until I checked my photos later that as I was bowing down I had my t-shirt gaping open exposing ample female flesh. Me, big old sinner.
Outside the temple there were big holes in the ground, these are called The Hole and there was one on every side of the pagoda to represent north, east, west and south, all owned by rich families who donated the cash back to the temple. Surrounding them were barriers made from sticks and a sheet that was suspended inside, it was a real money well, with real money being thrown in. It was optional what you threw down it, either you could buy a clear plastic pack that had beauty products stuffed inside; this pack is to ask for physical beauty so it was mainly the women that brought this bundle then drop
An old lady
My best pic....
the beauty bag in to the hole. The other option was to drop an English grammar book in to the whole to learn more languages and to travel, but most people dropped cash in to the hole.
I spotted a monk who was hanging out with his mate guarding the money, but from whom as no one would steal it anyway as its bad karma and strikes off any good credit in the afterlife, both monks had intricate and decorative tattoos all over their bodies, one monk was smoking a cigarette. He handed me my shoes back, he didn't kick them over to me at all like the Dhammakaya monks did to avoid physical contact, so I asked him who his leader was. He said that his immediate boss is the abbot of this temple, but the big guy of Cambodian Buddhist is The Dalai Lama of Tibet. The tattoos are markings from particular temples that they are from, and there is a slight difference in styles of robes. I asked if they had heard of Dhammakaya but they had not. So far I had seen the monks chat casually to ladies, smoke fags, one was eating a chicken
wing, and they lavish their bodies with beautiful tattoos. Compared to Dhammakaya monks it was a world away, the monk told me that all monks practise daily the main 5-8 precepts, don't kill, lie, steal, ect, same same no different on that front.
We walked from the temple through the food stands, when I saw an ice cream trolley that was lit up with a bunch of live, hot, flaming wax candles nestled amongst the crushed ice, this was so people could see what ice cream they are buying, yet it also melted the ice. We walked into the funfair area, local people showed a bit more affluence as they strolling around amongst the destitute, there was a clear divide of people, the temple surroundings housed the very poor, where the funfair entertained the well off.
I had my fortune told, the words of my future lay wedged within a narrow wooden book decoratively written with elaborate scriptures, I had to think of a question and place this book upon my head, then select my answer at randomly placing the marker inside the concertina pages. The man read my answer “My next job will be very successful and
it will bring much joy to the world and many riches to me”, at this point in time I have not got a clue what job I’ll be doing next year, I pulled another wooden book mark it said "My heart will be filled with the love of a good man whom I do not know yet" I gave him one million riels for his time. The beggars came in all shapes, sizes and speeds, sadly it probably took them this long to slide, hop and drag themselves across the floors, some had no legs and only one arm, then no legs and no arms at all, a couple were just a body getting by on ingenious skate boards or in adjusted wheel barrows. I was greeted by a Cambodian albino named Koom whose eyes and skin hurt him in the day as he was photosensitive, he had a leg missing, how does he ever cope? The dog pictured was incredible; he sat in the same position the whole time, his mouth clasping the begging bucket handle. He didn't flinch growl or bark once.
We could not miss the daytime celebrations so the very next morning we arrived with
two hands full of paper cash and a very full camera battery, this time no one hassled us, the vibes felt different. Still the only travellers in town, I felt privileged to be part of this big secret. The Abbott is currently 86 years old and his name is Abbott Non, he was sat upon a podium carried by six buff monks. They circled the parameters of the temple three times and each time the chanting and yodelling got stronger. It was tribal and very raw, which brought a glide to my stride and a goose bump to my skin. I cheered and sang, clapped and chanted along with the excited kids and people with the most terrible growths and skin diseases The Abbott looked at me with a calm curiosity. I could hear him thinking. After the third lap of honour, I had gotten to know nearly everyone; the procession took a right turn and was moving inward to the temple.
I ran ahead to take pictures and just as I got up the steps to the temple I could see the Abbott was soon to be garrotted by the string that was criss-crossed everywhere, I assisted the
Abbott by lifting the string up as high as I could on tip toes, because I was the tallest person in the whole site, so his raised platform with his royal self sitting on it could go under it with ease and dignity. He looked in to my eyes and with his wise aged eyes he blinked and bowed his head to me, I felt honoured to assist.
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