Cambodia was a truly amazing destination, filled with lots of great memories. The Khmer people were warm and welcoming, the ruins and temples, awe inspiring, and the floating village on Tonle’ Sap lake, an insight into a unique culture and life style. One of my favorite memories came on the second day of the trip. It was a hot afternoon we had been hiking all day through the “lesser” temples and ruins. Hot, dusty and tired we hiked up “the elephant trail” to get to Phnom Bakheng. The temple is carved into the highest hill in the Siem Reap area and offers a magnificent view of Angkor Wat. So of course, camera guy afflicted with Indiana Jones wanna be syndrome had to charge to the top of the temple (please note, this is a temple you are allowed to climb most you cannot). The stairs are intentionally steep and narrow, making all who climb keep their head down in respect.
After reaching the top I began framing up the shot (well, after catching my breath). I looked down at the tops of Claudia and Mr Noy our guide’s heads wondering if they had conspired to send me up to the top to wear me out. True to form, I was quickly distracted with a flash of a saffron colored robe. The contrast of a Buddhist monk’s robe mixed in with the gray stone of the 9th century temple was a picture that had been floating in my mind’s eye since booking this trip. Finally I had my monk and my ancient ruins shot, but alas I was on top and he was down below. But karma was smiling on me, the monk started up the steep stairs. “Steady yourself,” I kept thinking, but I was on the hunt with adrenaline surging through my veins. I wanted the shot but at the same time I didn’t want to treat him like a character at Disney World. So slyly or so I hoped, I snapped a few pictures. The monk walked past me and sat in a stone door frame. This was it! The shot I wanted but at the same time, this was a person, not a tourist attraction.
Standing there in indecision, wishing I spoke Khmer, the monk looked at me and said “hello” in perfect English. After a moment to recover from my surprise I said hello back, pulled up the proverbial rock and began a conversation with Chong Lay. We talked for quite a while discussing a variety of topics, each of us interested in the other’s life and country. Losing track of time, I finally realized I needed to be on my way back down. I asked Chong Lay if he would mind if I took a picture graciously, he agreed to be photographed. He looked at me with humility in a pure this is who I am look, nothing fake or posed about his expression or posture (may be I should take a lesson from him). With a single frame I felt that I had captured the moment.
I showed Chong Lay the image displayed on the back of the camera. He smiled at me. It was a truly rewarding moment as a photographer, I was happy with the image and the subject appeared to be pleased as well. Then Chong Lay looked at me and asked a question that sent me reeling with logistical consequences, “can you send me a copy?” My mind kicked into overdrive with the ramifications. If I say yes, could there be a more crushing blow to one’s karma than to make a promise to a devout monk on top of a ten-thousand year old religious structure built on top of a sacred hill and not be able to follow through and fulfill it? I didn’t have a printer in Cambodia and I wasn’t sure about shipping there either. How would I get his address? Does a monk even have an address? What if I get busy and forget? I am after all a procrastinator. Karma has presented me with this amazing moment of meeting this fascinating person, sugar coated it with a great photo opportunity, and left me wondering how to pull it off. No wedding or other photo shoot has ever presented this kind of stress. I took a deep breath and accepted this mountain of responsibility by carefully asking “How could I get it to you?” He looked at me, bemused for a moment, and replied “Well, it would be easiest if you just email it to my Yahoo account.”
Of course a Yahoo account! It makes me laugh whenever I think about it. Our perception of things is often shattered in strange and unusual ways. Cambodia is a country in it’s infant stage as a stable nation, rebuilding its infrastructure, and this gentleman is a monk born and raised in a tiny village not on any map. A devout young man who has given up material things and is working towards his path to enlightenment, has internet and a Yahoo account. The world just got a whole lot smaller.
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All images are property of GW Nunn. Photos by Claudia and Greg Nunn