A HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA
Part 1

by Tim Grant

My original plan was to go to China for two weeks R&R and spend time with some friends who were there teaching video filming. As I didn't get their address in time to make the proper arrangements I decided to go home for a visit in Australia instead.

Prior to leaving I spent a lot of time with my friend Liz who was working with Maha Ghosananda, one of the Supreme Patriarch monks of Cambodia. She was involved in organizing the third Dhamma Yeitra Peace Walk and requested my landmine awareness teams to do the mine awareness training for walkers - I started to get involved. We spent a lot of time hunting out restaurants in Phnom Penh that served decent vegetarian food and discussing the value of active non-violence activities. The walk got more real for me after these dinner talks. I was asked to design a flyer for the monks to handout to the people along the way. After many hours working on the brochure, drawing feet, conjuring images - at this point I knew I also had to go. Another consideration was that my mother, Margot, had planned to go and I felt she may need my support and protection.

The Dhamma Yeitra III's motto was "We must walk". These are the words of Maha,

"We must walk where there is conflict ..... We must walk for peace ..... We must remain nonviolent, neutral and non-partisan ..... We will walk in friendship, and spread 'metta', for when we make friends of our enemies we no longer fear them."
In Maha's book 'Step by Step' he wrote "We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos and the battlefields will then become our temples."
The plan this year was to gather at least 200 monks, plus lay people to walk from Battambang, where I was living at the time, through Pailin, the Khmer Rouge stronghold, to Angkor Wat, Cambodia's fabled temple complex.

The journey was to take 4 weeks, walking an average of 4 to 5 hours per day, 12 to 15 km, being fed by the communities and resting in selected temples along the way. At each stop Maha would plant a Bodhi tree (the same type as the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment) and give a talk on compassion and nonviolent reconciliation.

Everyone was a little surprised when on the registration day 800 monks and 300 lay people turned up.

We all left Battambang on the morning of April 24 1994, with many of the foreign expat workers and towns people joining the walk to the first temple resting point 8 kilometers away.  
As I walked out of Battambang with my feet already starting to ache, I wondered what the hell was I doing!

Needless to say I was expected to make the photographic record with transparency film and so took my position at the front of the line where most of the action was happening.

Maha lead the way, always shadowed by an large ornate umbrella, his hands permanently pressed together, fingers resting calmly on his chin.

The hundreds of brightly clad monks, many with newly shaved heads, followed in pairs directly behind. Next the white clad 'Das' and 'Ngeys' (literally Grandfathers and Grandmother, who are the old people that tend the temples and monks) then the others, including local villagers and the 10 foreigners.

As with the other 2 previous walks Japanese monks, from an order whose sole purpose is to walk for peace, came along with shier drums, striking an endlessly beat in time to a melodic peace chant.
This continuous beat and harmony helped me to walk in time and it added another dimension to the experience. The Japanese are dedicated, disciplined and very organized - the complete opposite of the Khmer monks.
The Khmer monks were mostly young village kids from poor families whose only chance of getting an education, and not to work in the fields, is to become a monk.
They were not what you would call pious monks. One of the group coined the term 'punk monks' which suited them just right. In the future walks there were restrictions put on the young monks and bad behavior was not tolerated. But this was one of the first and because it was well organized, it was the largest walk to date with monks coming from all over Cambodia. The organizers were able to learn of many new problems they hadn't considered, things to avoid in the future, rules to put in place and dangers to negotiate.
Along the dusty roads whole villages would turn out to see this unusual sight. They raced to fill their buckets of water so that the monks could give them the traditional water blessing.
Old rusty buckets, water cans, plastic bottles, anything that would hold some water were hurriedly decorated with flowers and candles.
It was a very special occasion for the rural people, seldom would they see so many people, rarely would they have seen foreigners walking in their village and never would they have been so close to Maha Ghosananda.
As we got closer to the fighting the faces of the locals became more serious, there were tears and even the soldiers scrambled to be blessed. At times I thought it so pitiful, that these desperate people were pinning their hopes for a peaceful life on us ......

But we were not there to win the war, just to show them that there are other alternatives than just guns, and that there are other Khmer who respect and support them.

The first few days were enjoyable as we all got to know each other. There was a lot of joking about and the walking was fun. It was nice to be closer in touch with the locals, to feel the harder rural lifestyle, to hear the new nighttime sounds faraway from noisy city traffic. Because of security concerns few foreigners have been denied the experienced of a rural evening.

The most common opening question we got was "Aren't you afraid of the Khmer Rouge?" followed closely by "How old are you?", "Are you married with children", and if not "Why aren't you married, you are so old!?"

I hadn't really thought too much about worst case scenarios, ie. being kidnapped or shot. I had already lived in the area for several years and felt relatively safe in a large group of venerables, especially with Maha as the leader. Patty asked Maha what should she do if they were held up and kidnapped? Maha replied in his usual way by saying something like '...then they will have to take all of us as well Sister.....' on hearing that I felt even more secure.

It also didn't concern me that the NGO I worked for asked for a signed letter which would relieve them of any responsibilities if something did happen.
During the evening rest the entire village turns out to listen to Maha, to meet walkers from distant provinces and stare at the foreigners.

Large crowds of mainly children would immediately gather around us and apply the 'Khmer stare' for hours. Sometimes we chatted, entertained them, fed them, teased them.......other times they were suffocating and all one could do to escape would be to close your eyes and sleep them away.

We found about 12 guys who volunteered to be the Landmine Wardens. Their job was to stay on the perimeters of the walkers and make sure nobody walks off the main road, even to go to relieve themselves. Also to assemble at each rest stops, check with the head monks about minefield locations and mark the danger areas off with temporary skull and cross bone signs.

Most of all they had to be prepared to carry out a rescue if someone is trapped or injured in a minefield. I carried out the training and supplied them with their necessities - mine awareness bag, instruction sheet, prodder (a long blade knife) for getting out of mine fields, landmine awareness brochures for distribution and a snazzy landmine T-shirt. They learnt the fundamentals of mine awareness and the safest method for entering a minefield.

We rested every few hours, either on the road or in a temple. The villagers would bring small bags of food, usually consisting of rice with - strips of fried egg, curry, offal and other unidentifiable fillings. Some people stuck to water, sesame salt on rice and mangoes. Then we sleep.
Walking always commenced very early in the morning, usually before sunrise. I would spend most my walking time checking on the wardens, chatting, eating mangoes and capturing some of the amazing, inspiring scenes around me.
There was a happy and confident spirit that swept over the walkers - I felt safe in large numbers and secure in our missions 'mandate'.

Go to Part 2 ....

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