by Nathan Brown
I have never felt taller than when travelling in Cambodia. In Australia, I am a little above average height; in Cambodia, I am almost giant. The first word of Khmer I learned while travelling there was “thom”—big—as used to describe me by stallholders in markets, by passing traffic and by the people I was introduced to, with only smiles to communicate. The usual method is to reach up to measure my height with their hand, sometimes by climbing on a nearby step or box, then loudly proclaiming with much laughter to the quickly gathering crowd, “Thom! Thom!” And then, of course, there are the cramped travel space in passenger vehicles, the low doorways and the short sleeping spaces that serve to emphasise my unusual thom-ness.
In Phnom Penh where tourists, aid workers and business travellers are more common, it is not such a big deal but in more remote villages, my height and whiteness always attract attention. After a few weeks in Cambodia, one of my greatest adjustments on returning home to Australia is to again become used to not be the centre of attention merely by walking along a road or visiting a marketplace.
In Chambuk, a small rural village in central Cambodia on the high northern bank of the Mekong River, I am privileged to have family. My wife’s brother married someone from this village and my wife and I are greeted as family, hosted generously and encouraged to see the highlights of village life and the surrounding sites—even though we have little language in common beyond smiles and need to rely on limited translation.
Our visit coincided with the most significant annual community festival at the village pagoda. Barely had we arrived, exchanged hugs and smiles, and unloaded our bags from the hired car in which we had travelled, and we were urged to visit the festival further along the main road that was the central artery of the community.
We were unable to miss it. From the raised wooden house in which we were staying, we could hear the distant but insistent sounds of a village festival. From such a distance, the inevitable bank of speakers emit a sound that seems to alternate between chanting with the reverb and insistence of a spiritual race caller, and over-amplified dance-party mix of traditional and contemporary Cambodian music.
As we neared the pagoda, the stream of traffic of which we had been a part—pedestrians, bicycles, small motorcycles, pony carts, ox carts, lumbering trucks and the occasional car—slowed for the festival crowd spilling across the road. Stalls had been set up along the roadside and around the pagoda grounds offering food, cheap toys, games and simple carnival rides. The pungent smells of smoke, food cooking and burning incense sticks wafted through the afternoon’s heat.
Just inside the pagoda gates, an open-sided tent had been set up to shelter a group of monks, who were collecting money from festival-goers, but the late-afternoon sun was slanting its way into the shelter causing the monks’ bright orange robes to glow. Incense, insects and dust hung in the warm light but I—the thom white man—was their immediate focus of attention.
As many as 20 young men—aged in their late teens or early 20s—with their shaved heads and varying shades of orange surrounded me, in a friendly way. Not only was I a likely source of donations but I was also someone with whom to practise speaking English. But I was also foreign and there was hesitation in their approach.
As a self-appointed spokesman stepped forward and began asking me questions, the others pressed forward too, not to speak but to listen. His English was better than my Khmer—or conversation would have been impossible.
He began by asking where I was from. My answer precipitated a string of questions about various Australian cliches and landmarks, his details of which were limited. In answering my return question, he told me he and some of the other young monks had travelled from a nearby pagoda to attend the few days of the festival. At times, our limited common language let us down but we persisted.
He asked what I did for work and I asked him about being a monk, something that many young men, particularly from rich families, do for a time but how long he would remain a monk was not something for him to decide. “We cannot say what we will do next,” he told me.
With the background noise, I needed to focus intently on what he was saying to understand and we often had to try different ways of explaining what we were trying to say to be understood. But we were able to maintain a conversation so I commended him on his abilities. He told me he had studied English for a couple of years in the city.
He asked me if I had studied any other languages to which I replied that I had studied German for five years at high school. At his prompting, I reached into my memory and recited a sentence in German. He repeated it after me. I could hear the echo of my broad Australian accent in his repetition—and it was only the next day that I realised I had given him the incorrect meaning of the German sentence I had shared.
I was anxious to learn more about the religious aspects of being a young monk. He explained they practised various forms of meditation and instruction, and that the money they were collecting at the festival was for giving to the poor in the village.
“So how do you receive enlightenment or salvation—or your ultimate spiritual goal?” I asked.
“Two things,” he replied, counting them on his long fingernails, “—advising myself and learning from my mistakes.”
I asked him more about what he meant by these two steps and he talked about mediation and searching inside oneself for meaning and direction in life.
With my own faith in mind, I said, “I need a Teacher, someone to teach me how to find the right way to go and how to live.”
We wrestled with the language differences as the theology became more complicated but I thought I had a way of explaining what I meant. “How did you learn English?” I asked.
He looked at me, perhaps thinking our conversation had already touched on this.
“You didn’t just learn to speak English by making up sounds by yourself and learning from your mistakes,” I continued. “You need someone who can speak English to teach you and maybe to correct your mistakes.
“Maybe it could be the same with spiritual knowledge or enlightenment,” I pressed on.
Perhaps my analogy was too simplistic for his understanding of the path of enlightenment, of which I knew little. He seemed not to see the point of my argument—or perhaps I should not a have been trying to win an argument with him.
Yet it was a conversation that helped me better appreciate my faith. I recently read in a Christian book about the spiritual practice of pilgrimage a similar differentiation using a different metaphor: “The Buddha’s last words to his disciples were ‘Walk on.’ The first words of Jesus to his were rather different: ‘Follow me.’ Jesus said some other things, too, but as a summary of the four Gospels, ‘Let’s go for a walk together’ is not bad” (Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey).
I appreciate a Teacher—who also is God—who doesn’t leave us to make it on our own. I’m not sure I can find enough inside myself—I’m not thom enough. And I’m not sure I can learn from my mistakes fast enough to stop making them so often.
The monk in Chambuk helped me better understand my spiritual experience but I’m not sure if I did anything for him.
Perhaps I was simply not speaking his language, literally or philosophically.