Making Merit

Caged Bird Offerings

Normally before hitting a new country I spend a good deal of time on the internet doing due diligence. It’s good to have an idea of what to expect, as well as which of the top tourist sites to give a pass to. As slow as my retail business was at year end, my wholesale business was quite busy and it was a rush to get everyone’s orders made and shipped before I took off. Like right up until the last day. So I didn’t have the time to really delve into what made the city of Phnom Penh tick before getting there.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover all the monks wandering about. My cursory investigation made mention of a wat or two to visit, but I never expected to see as many wats about as there were, nor to see so many saffron colored robes bobbing down the street. Silly me. And I love Buddhist monks. I have an addiction to taking pictures of Buddhist Monks. And I can spend hours talking to Buddhist Monks. It’s not the religious aspect, though I think Buddhism has a lot going for it. They’re just so exotic. And photogenic. Even the ugly ones.

First morning in town, after a rather poor, but free, breakfast at the Jockey Hotel, I was off for a morning walk and on a quest to quickly find a decent cup of coffee. Some idiot at the hotel decided it’d be nice to have flavored coffee for breakfast and the last thing I want when infusing caffeine into my system in the early hours of the day is the flavor of hazel nuts. So out the door, only to run into a monk standing patiently at the door looking inward with his alms bowl prominently displayed. Damn! And I didn’t even have my camera out of my bag.

In case you don’t know: In predominately Buddhist countries, monks make the rounds early every morning collecting foodstuff, mainly rice, to take back to their temple where it’s dividied up amongst the brethren. That’s their food for the day. Feeding monks is one way of making merit. Making merit is kinda like racking up karma points. Invariably it involves some form of financial transaction on the part of the merit maker. And while that can mean the direct handing over of cash, it’s usually a step removed from the process. So burning incense at the temple is a merit making activity, while doing so requires you to buy some incense. Get it? A lot of merit making activities are directly related to the temple. Such as the aforementioned incense burning and feeding of monks. Giving a homeless beggar a few cents is also a way of making merit. So really it’s all about doing good deeds, too.

Morning to me means ooooh 10 am or so. So I miss a lot of the morning monks on parade in Thailand as to them morning means day break. I loved that you could still catch the monks on their rice collection runs in Cambodia into the early hours of the afternoon. My kinda monks, my kinda town.

Phnom Penh's Central Market

Phnom Penh's Central Market

I saw several that morning while I made my three hour long stroll through the area around the hotel. I like taking a walk like that to familiarize myself with the immediate neighborhood. And you get a leisurely look at how the locals live, too. I made my way up to the Central Market for a photo session (markets being a great place to capture pix), found some incredibly strong perfect coffee, stopped along the way to chat and share smokes with a group of local men plucking chickens, and even bought a humongous bouquet of flowers, for under a buck, to take back to the hotel’s front desk. (My own form of merit making: scoring points with your hotel’s staff may not do much for your karma but works wonders on ensuring the hotel takes good care of you).

I think ripping off tourists is a form of merit making too, as it sure is a major activity of most Cambodians. The main indoor section of the Central market is filled with glass cased booths offering a dazzling selection of some of the most beautiful cut glass gemstones you’ll ever see. And I’m sure when they say ruby, they are referring to the color of the glass and not trying to tell you that it’s actually a ruby. Uh, huh. Likewise with the gold and silver on display. Had to have been the color and not the precious metal they were referring to.

National Museum Phnom Penh

Colors of Cambodia

I met Knock Knock, my tuk tuk driver back at the hotel with undefined plans to do the town. Lack of preparation meant I hadn’t the slightest idea of what there was to do or see, so I left it to Knock Knock to make those decisions. The first stop was the national museum. Cool fuchsia colored building. Boring collection. But the ride there was cool and slow enough I got a good look at the city streets. Next was the Royal Palace, but it was closed (uh, no really. Not the closed ‘cuz we are instead going to take you to a gem scam place like the closed royal palace in Bangkok). And now Knock Knock was perplexed as to where to take me as my quick in and out of the National Museum obviously meant I wasn’t a museum kind of guy.

We’d passed a large wall enclosed enclave that had some cool old colonial buildings inside earlier, so I suggested we head over there. Turned out to be Wat Qunalom. Which also turned out to be one of my favorite stomping grounds in Phnom Penh. The grounds of the wat are filled with old buildings and it houses most of the city’s monks as well as a large population of students. One of the buildings is home to Cambodia’s head monk, too. I didn’t even need the actual temples to be a happy camper, just the narrow streets and colonial architecture were enough to feed my photographer jones.

Wat Qunalom

Street Scene at Wat Qunalom

Walking into one of the courtyards I smiled at the old guy standing there and he smiled back pointing at a closed door saying, “Buddha”. I nodded and smiled back, not agreeing to anything but rather just acknowledging his existence. And so I was introduced to the Cambodia version of social security. The government does not take care of its old. So they have to fend for themselves. And a popular way of doing so is to encourage touri to visit their personal shrine, almost always on the grounds of a larger temple. So old guy got out his keys and unlocked the door to usher me in to a maybe 6 sq ft room. Duck, low ceiling. Sure enough there was a Buddha. He lit some incense did the wai/bow thing and then started chanting and dousing me with water sprinkled off a wooden brush. Oh goody. Buddhist blessings and unplanned for water all over my glasses. But I could hardly complain as he was quite sincere about calling down the powers of Buddha to bring me good luck. No ingrate am I so of course I immediately placed some bills on the conveniently located tray. Many smiles, more chanting, thankfully no more water. And then he tied a vibrantly colored knotted red piece of yarn onto my wrist. This is the formalized blessing. The one you get to take away with you. I managed to amass quite a few during the trip and left everyone of them on until I left the country. Now if you want to be jaded you could say that these served as a billboard to old folk I met along the way that I was willing to trade bucks for blessings. But when I got back to Bangkok and was showing my friend Noom pix from Cambodia he immediately zoned in on one where my display of different colored yard bracelets was evident. “Where you get?”, he asked, wanting to make sure they were what he thought. And then nodded his head wisely when I told him, his opinion of me obviously swooping up quite a few notches.

I spent a good four hours at the temple (on my first visit) and that clued Knock Knock into where my interests lay so he made sure we visited several more wats that day. None were as interesting as Qunalom, but I managed to get a whole slew of monk shots, so I was a happy camper.

Back to the hotel for a nap (I think an important part of any holiday is daily naps) and then back to the riverside for an early dinner as I’d read it is not safe to be out and about in Phnom Penh at night. They have built a beautifully paved walkway/boulevard along the water ribboned with flags from every nation. It’s a gathering place for locals as well as for touri and a great place to be during sunset. There are locals fishing off their ancient boats just off shore, and locals flocking to a small shrine/temple built midpoint along the quay. I got one of my favorite monk shots here. And also got to see the Cambodian version of the ‘flying bird’ method of merit making. This is common to see at temples in Thailand too. A vendor has a bunch of birds in a cage and for a few baht, or riel in this case, you buy one, cup in your hands, say a prayer, and let it fly free. The difference in Cambodia was watching the vendor scoop out the dead birds at the bottom of the cage and unceremoniously dropping them into a near buy dumpster. Cool religious rite quickly reminding me of Cambodia’s recent pass and the millions of dead, as well as of the warning it’s not safe to be walking about the streets of Phnom Penh at night. So back to the hotel once again.

Cambodia Fisherman

Fishing Along The Quay

When I checked in to the hotel, the bell hop who showed me to my room asked if I had a laptop with me and then demanded I get it out of my bags. Ok, I thought. What’s up? Well, turns out it was a combination of his being a geek and wanting to set my computer up for the hotel’s free internet service. Which he did. I certainly could have figured it out on my own, as I usually do, but ya know, it was a nice touch and a hell of a lot more service than you usually get. So I thanked him nicely and tipped him well. Well enough that every time I cam back to the hotel he greeted me with a big smile and called me by name (Mr. Rush, being my official Cambodian name).

We’d talked early that day about how much he’d love to have a computer of his own but only made a $100 a month after working for the hotel for four years, and that he had a wife and child at home to feed. Returning to the hotel that evening he greeted me as usual and asked about my day, showing a genuine interest in both me and what I had been doing and my mind made one of those synapse that went nice guy-wants computer – have old unused laptop at home . . . bingo. So I explained to him that I had an old but usable (and unused) computer that’d cost me under $20 to send to him so I needed his full name and wanted to make sure it’d reach him if I sent it to the hotel.

Initially there was some confusion on his part, his mind not being able to grasp that he was soon to become a computer owner at no charge to him. But he figured it out pretty quickly. And his excitement was . . . well, I ended up with a bigger smile on my face than he had on his. Don’t know if that qualifies as making merit, but I made an immediate friend (well, friends, but that story will come later). So I didn’t feed the monks in Phnom Penh, but I did feed a computer geek’s techno jones and made in Mr. Jeat a new BFF.

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