Temporary Diversion

No posts for a bit. We’ve decided to just get on with it and open our guest house. In this spirit of total commitment, I have sworn that until said guest house is a fantastic success, I will type no more. Except for drawing up all those costs spreadsheets that mysteriously trail off into the red…

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Three days of religion

The Siem Reap conference, ‘Religious Studies in Cambodia: Understanding the Old and Tracing the New’ (9-11 June) was a grand affair. For three days, the headquarters of the APSARA National Authority, a new building in the shape of an ancient temple, was packed with Khmer students and restorers, academics, and assorted grandees. In the front row were some very venerable-looking monks. One kept pulling out smart phones and other photo-taking gadgetry, as if he had Mary Poppins’ carpet bag hidden under his robes.

After some elaborate introductions, the talks kicked off. Six were in Khmer, which is probably a sign that Cambodian scholarship is in good health. I’m not entirely sure, because the live translation wasn’t hugely helpful – which was a shame, as you could tell from all the chuckling that the Khmer speakers had the best jokes.

The talks ranged across archaeology, art history, history, anthropology and sociology, and were roughly organised into three chronological groups.

Vittorio Roveda spoke first, about Buddhist emancipation from the body, and in particular the meditation on death practised by monks, who used to go into the forests to find a putrefying corpse to look at. He had the best PowerPoint visuals of the weekend. The rest of the day was given over to the region’s prehistory. Julia Estève argued convincingly that different belief “streams” were not mixed together – the “syncretism” so embedded in Cambodian historiography – but rather coexisted in a relationship that reflected political realities.

Day Two focused on the last of the great temple-builders, Jayavarman VII. Speakers explained their “sleuthing”, as the chairwoman put it, investigating the temples’ art and architecture for clues to the gods they celebrated and the functions they served. The last talk of the day, by Napakadol Kittisence, shifted to more modern history, the Sinicization of religion in mainland SE Asia. The shrines you see in every Khmer house are a Chinese import – traditionally a place to make offerings to the building’s “landlord”, now absorbed into the Khmer world of spirits.

Apart from Ang Chouléan, who spoke on Angkor and myth-making, Day Three was all contemporary – spirit energy and sacred places, funeral music, religious performance. Maurice Eisenbruch talked about traditional explanations for mental illness, and how seemingly innocuous afflictions, like ‘love sickness’, could manifest in particular forms of violence. Courtney Work, an anthropologist who’s spent a year living in a small rural village in Kompong Chhnang province, described temples built in the area with donations from urban elites connected with land concessions, and argued that this merit-making activity tied the monks and villagers into a power network that left them unable to object when the bulldozers arrived.

It’s been a while since my last contact with the competitive bubble-world of academia, and between talks I concentrated on balancing coffee cups and fruit plates, and trying to unwrap bamboo leaf-packages of sticky rice and eat them with a fork. But the conference was really useful, and I learnt many things aside from never introduce yourself as a journalist if you don’t have to – including that pigs’ heads are central to all kinds of rituals, “thinking too much madness” is deadly, and a bribe can be just as effective as an offering to the spirits.

Image (not used in talk): Thai temple painting of a monk meditating on death. Credit CC by 2.0/Flashpacking Life

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A time of rain and magic

This last fortnight, Cambodia has mostly been on holiday. Last week was the royal ploughing ceremony and this week is King Sihamoni’s birthday.

The royal ploughing ceremony, held every year at the start of rainy season, is part of the king’s traditional rain-conjuring duties. It is also a day of prophecy, when the triumphs and torments of the coming agricultural year are foreseen.

On a day deemed auspicious by astrologers, six oxes plough a furrow in sand near the Royal Palace. Rice seeds are scattered behind them and blessings are chanted. Then, they are presented with various foods, and from what they choose to eat the royal soothsayer predicts what the future holds – if they drink wine then there will be gangsters, thievery and debauchery; if they drink water there will be too much rain. This year, watched on TV by nervous farmers all over the country, the oxes chowed down on beans, corn (= plentiful bean and corn harvests) and grass (= disease and pestilence).

Originally a Brahmanic tradition, as the child prince Siddhartha, Buddha meditated under a rose apple tree during a royal ploughing ceremony (above). The tree’s shadow never moved from him. It was this revelatory meditation that he would remember, years later after giving up on asceticism, and which started him on the path to Enlightenment.

I missed this whole glut of magic-making pageantry, mostly because it’s started raining. Really raining. There were flash floods during the first storm when the drains were still blocked, and the rain thunders down on the tin awnings every afternoon – you have to shout just to be heard. I’m not exactly enthusiastic about leaving the house. We went running at the weekend, out in the countryside. We got soaked getting there, soaked running, and soaked trying to get our truck out when it got stuck in the mud. Eventually just as it got dark a tractor made entirely of biscuit tins came to the rescue.

I’m feeling a bit daunted at the prospect of another six months of this. But the kids love it and the farmers need it, so I am resolved to think more positively. It’s just a bad English habit, bitching about the weather. Still, I could kiss those oxes for not drinking any water.

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If They Were With Us Today

A new exhibition at Sa Sa Bassac gallery imagines the heroes and villains of the Reamker transported to modern-day Cambodia. Artist Chan Dany abandons the epic storyline of the original, and instead uses the juxtaposition of fabled beings and materialist capitalism to comment on today’s Cambodia.

Cambodia, on this evidence, is utterly disenchanted. The Reamker characters are adrift in a world where magic is impossible and everyone must earn money to survive. The great monkey warrior Hanuman is reduced to hawking balloons. Even Preah Ream now uses his archery skills for spectacle rather than the defeat of evil demons.

These reimaginings produce some nice humorous moments, like Neang Seda sitting at home singing karaoke, desperate for a quiet life. But while sometimes the futures are a logical consequence of the subjects’ character – a fortune-teller becomes a teacher of English, the “language of the future” – often there seems to be no connection. The future, frequently, is a non-sequitur, used to make a point. Menchanub is a pizza waiter because Chan Dany wants to paint kids on their phones in a restaurant. Sometimes, the message is even more explicit: “Dan Kourn is unaware that it is important for tourism to throw her trash in a bin.” The setting can overpower the sitter.

This unashamed didacticism actually sits comfortably within the folky concept of the piece. The Reamker is a form of moral instruction; the difference here is that the artist’s concern is with society rather than individual character. That the work should be read in this educational manner is indicated by the accomplished use of painting styles traditionally used in in temple and court murals, and by the display of the pieces on podiums rather than along the walls.

‘If They Were With Us Today’ uses ancient Khmer techniques – painting to tell a story to convey a message – to raise questions about the project of modernity.

‘If They Were With Us Today’, by Chan Dany, runs at Sa Sa Bassac gallery until 3 June 2012. For contact details and opening times, see the gallery website www.sasabassac.com

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The Incredible Exhibition of Buddhist Practices

Siem Reap can feel like a hall of mirrors – wherever you are, you’re surrounded by ‘night’ markets (open 10am) and feet-massaging fish – but it is possible to escape somewhere more… unusual. The ‘Incredible Exhibition of Buddhist Practices’ at the Wishing Hall museum will be of no use to you if you’re concerned for the state of your soul, but if you’re after health, happiness and piles of cash then it’ll be just the brand of religion you’re looking for.

To get your cosmic dice loaded, head way out of town on the road to the airport. If you find yourself getting bored of the identikit rich people’s hotels, with their fountains and classical detailing and muddy colour schemes, you can pass the time pretending you’re in a Chinese remake of The Prisoner.

Eventually, you’ll reach what looks like a small industrial park. This is where the Tibetan Buddhist magic is generated. The museum introduces itself thus: “Many highest attained practice would not want to show their supernatural power, but since the supernatural power is generally accepted by the sentien beings, the highest attained practician have to inevitably show it. Please do not misinterpret the supernatural power and create bad Karma.” You may have to concentrate hard on not misinterpreting, as some of the captions use English creatively. There’s also often no link between exhibit and caption: alongside a photo of (probably) a faux Angkor Wat, for example, is a paragraph about a lama with a reflective forehead.

The exhibition opens with a display about Angkor Wat. It turns out the temple was actually built according to Vajrayana Buddhist precepts, which’ll mean a lot of academics have got some serious rethinking to do.

Then you come to a series of big poles. They’re colour-coded so you simply decide what you want to wish for – a new job, rich boyfriend, cure for cancer – and then pray to the appropriately-coloured pole.

The museum boasts a scrap of holy cloth, a “relic falling down from sky”, and a “relic grown from water” that can change size at will; most amazingly, there’s also a strand of the Buddha’s hair, “still growing!”

Holy medicines (top, with hand impressions blessed by lamas) made by highly attained masters promise to cure all your standard complaints – deadly diseases, pestilence, epidemics. If you’d rather not get hurt in the first place, “The Combination Holy Medicine of Black Medicine of Karmapa 17th and Zuba Rainbow Medicine” (above right) can keep you safe even in battle.

If you’re after more general good fortune, pass your hand over a “protection seal” (above left), first revealed in a cave to Guru Rinpoche (the Second Buddha), who it protected from evil spirits and demons. It’s made from metal, and carries a charge of “positive energy” that you can feel.

The best of all this is, a door out of the museum leads into a showroom full of designer clothing. The museum was empty the whole time we were there, but the showroom was full, one minibus-load of tourists shuffling out as the next lot shuffled in. If you wish well in the museum, you can pop next door afterwards and spend the money you’ve ordered on a nice new Gucci handbag. Make Buddha proud.


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