After chugging along National Highway 5 for the better part of this sun-drenched day, then wending its way past a few recognizable landmarks around the city, the bus from Phnom Penh pulled into Battambang’s so-called bus station, nearly two hours past its scheduled arrival. Typical. No big deal. It’s Cambodia, after all. And here I was, back again, almost unbelievably so, just two years later.
Before I could make plans of my own, in this city of broken bridges, I had a more important matter to attend to: I had to find a temple.
So, flagging down a tuktuk to the hotel, I barely unpacked, took a quick shower, and within 20 minutes was once again in a tuktuk heading back to town. The clerk at the reception desk had directed me to a Buddhist temple close to the market; and from her description and markings on the map, I was quite certain that I knew of which temple she spoke.
Sure enough, when the tuktuk pulled up alongside the outdoor gates to the Wat (temple), I recognized the temple from two years ago, even though I never made it past the front gates back then: I had walked down the street around the corner with my backpack, fresh off the bus from Siem Reap, and took this photo, one of my first in Battambang:
As I peered into the almost-empty courtyard, I saw a monk in the distance speaking with two men who appeared to be tourists. The temple itself lay just beyond the men, clearly locked up for the night. I very nearly gave up, but the tuktuk driver urged me to speak with the monk.
Rota was practicing his French with two tourists when he saw me approach. In broken but passable English, the young monk asked what I was looking for. I explained why I needed to get into the temple, and excusing himself from the tourists, promised to try and get a key to let me in. I accompanied Rota to what sounded like the caretaker-monk’s room, and in minutes he was back dangling the key.
In the dim light of dusk, Rota and I scurried back to the temple’s front gate, where the lock gave way easily. While Rota struggled to loosen the ancient lock on the temple door, I removed my sneakers, suddenly realizing that I had to walk in bare feet (oh how I pitied the thin sole of my left foot!). As we tiptoed into the darkened room, I could barely make out the tiled floor, a few mats laid out for prayer and a larger-than-life Buddha mounted on a stage in front.
Gold leaves hung from sculptured branches, porcelain flowers were arranged in large vases set on the floor, columns were ornately decorated and colorful frescos – telling the story how the Buddha achieved enlightenment – adorned the walls.
Rota slipped away, rounding the corner behind the Buddha to turn on the lights – but where was the voice yelling for camera and action?! In one of the most incongruous displays of spirituality-meets-Bollywood imaginable, the great Buddha became kitschified in front of my very eyes. So much so that I had to restrain myself from laughter when (ta-da!) a long transparent tube of hundreds of tiny light bulbs lit up like an amusement park ride, snaking itself around the front of the Buddha; and a disco-ball-like lotus flower lamp began to spin and glitter behind his massive head.
I lit a few candles with a lighter that Rota discovered in an urn. Then, the monk and I knelt on the mats, just a few feet from each other, each one in silent thought and meditation. And I prayed…
Above all, I prayed for B and his family, because his sister, whom I had met just a month ago at Christmas dinner at M & B’s home, died suddenly last week. (Although I found out only yesterday, when M sent an email letting me know.) I prayed that the angels who had watched over me in this city would send comfort and healing to B, grieving half a world away.
Then I prayed for myself; to find strength and peace in the coming days as I come face to face with the past and the present.
And then, when dusk had already turned to dark, I said a little prayer for you… and you… and you… and you…