Thursday, 21 July 2011

The spectres of spirituality

Cambodia – Kep and Siem Reap

I’m not a very spiritual person.  That was my conclusion during our visit to the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  I see wonder, and I would like to see it more, but processing and understanding this wonder has never had a spiritual dimension for me.  The truth is that I don’t, or perhaps can’t, really understand what ‘spiritual’ actually means – is it a faith in something grander, something extra-human, without the baggage of a religion?  I just don’t know.  It’s a filter on my existence that I just don’t have.

I pondered these questions of spirituality, and many others (are people on group tours really as bored as they look? Will the parents of that brat actually mind if I clip him around the head when I walk past him?) as we picked our way through the temples, playing dodge the photographer.  Whilst I can marvel at the incredible architecture, and try to extract from the stone an understanding of what these walls have seen over the many centuries, I simply can’t feel anything greater, or higher, or more profound.  These temples are the largest religious site in the world and have, over the centuries, been a home for animism, Hinduism and Buddhism so it seemed appropriate to think about spirituality, and to think about what truths and insights could be revealed.  It seemed funny to me that a collection of physical edifices could, over the years, be the site of worship for different religions, religions that all stake their own claim to universal truth.  And perhaps that’s the deeply ironic moment of profundity for the non-spiritualist - the great paradox of universal truth.  The game of celestial tag that goes on and underpins the building of civilisations that says ‘I have the truth, no I have it, no I’ve got it now, and this time it’s really real’.  A universal truth is, by definition, unequivocal and the same for all humanity, and yet time and again spiritualists, and the front man of an organised religion, claim conflicting versions of this truth.  If these walls could speak I suspect they may wearily sigh and say ‘would you lot just bloody well make up your mind’?

So there was no epiphany for me at the temples.  There was humidity, a million whirrs from camera shots, and there were people, lots of them.  Take enough photos and perhaps your experience becomes greater, the millions of pixels laughing in the face of transience and ephemerality.   Slumping into the back of the tuk-tuk (named ‘Black Wolf’ and painstaking hand decorated with gold paper) our driver, Vantha, turned expectedly and said ‘where next’?  Back to the guesthouse we said, the dawn start catching up with us, an extra urgency added by the discovery that yes, parents do mind if you clip their child around the head.  I jest, didn’t touch the kid.  Just whispered that this was the location of child sacrifice and that young spirits still roamed the corridors looking for children to take into the afterlife, especially ones that whinge.  

It was, in fact, the burnt out shells of once grand waterfront houses in Kep, on the southern coast of Cambodia, that made a far deeper impression on me than the temples of Siem Reap.  They spoke of the, still relatively recent, atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the devastation wreaked on this down-at-luck nation.  And it was the faces of the Cambodian people I met, of a similar age, who were children during the atrocities.  I was not bold or confident enough to ask them of their past, or enquire about their families, for fear of opening up a past that they were maybe trying to forget.  Fascinated though I was there lingered the unsettling prospect of being a voyeur, a passing and nosy voyeur, on their private grief.   

If there are spirits that roam this nation then it is in these places one sees them most, not in the architecture of millennia-old temples.  And if there are universal truths then they speak of the barbarity at the core of the human condition, but also the capacity for forgiveness, for rebuilding, and for walking on into the future to leave the past behind.

Spirituality helps many to process, interpret and understand these truths.  Not me though – I don’t understand them, perhaps never will, but trying to understand is, perhaps, the end in itself.         

L: Angkor Wat at dawn, the brochure shot.  R: the reality of unwashed hordes.

Panorama with a ghostly presence at the centre.

1 comment:

  1. That's the thing with a photo, three steps back or one meter to the side can totally alter your perception of a place. Peaceful and tranquil to over crowded tourist route in the same spot. Good blog mate, much enjoyed, thanks! In the words of R.Crumb Keep on truckin'.