You are what you focus on.
Am I the only one who wishes we could hit the reset button so the human race would vanish altogether? Nature, amidst the rubble of civilization, slowly reclaiming all that was once man-made. Like the Chambak trees, or the Chheuteal, growing over the crumbling walls of Ta Prohm Temple in Cambodia. Like Petra or Machu Pichu—lost cities unknown to the outside world for centuries.
Am I the only one?
Who wants to hit “refresh?” Who thinks maybe it would be for the best? Only this time let Mother Nature reclaim all cities on Earth. Not just a few ancient settlements. And not for mere centuries. But forever.
That’s how I felt at Cheung Ek, a killing field outside Phnom Penh. After Thailand I traveled there to explore Cambodia before moving on to Myanmar and my final destination, Bagan: The Valley of Five Thousand Temples.
I’d heard of Pol Pot—leader of the Khmer Rouge—as an adult, though I was not taught about him in school, growing up. Not till much later did I read about that particular genocide. Two million Cambodians tortured and sent to their deaths for no reason except that this lunatic felt threatened by any free thinkers, anyone with an education or ounce of critical thought. Anyone who might question authority.
I can almost understand killing in the name of religion because you think some prophet or god asks you to. For a greater good, Allah or Jesus might want some followers to shed blood for the right reasons. As a means to a justifiable end. But to kill in the name of an idea, like Communism? To worship not a deity, but a State!?
I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. But there I was. Staring down at a mass grave where I saw for myself that there really were bone fragments still rising to the surface after each heavy rain as I’d been told. Strips of victims’ clothing encased in the dirt at my feet. The self-guided tour took me to other gruesome sites, like the Killing Tree, where the Khmer Rouge swung babies from ropes to crush their skulls against its trunk.
Finally I came to a giant stupa in the middle of the field. Inside, stacks upon stacks of human skulls rose several stories high. Some bashed in with bamboo rods. Others with garden hoes.
I couldn’t shake the image. Even after travelling here to Angkor Wat, where I now sit on the ledge of a crumbling temple overlooking the largest religious site on Earth, where people from all walks of life come to find meaning. This first night I’ve climbed halfway up one of the countless temples to watch the sun set. Lush rainforest stretches in all directions. Some temples rise above the highest canopy of jungle, growing smaller and fainter beyond the horizon. Even from here I can’t see the entire complex. Once the largest settlement on Earth and, even a thousand years ago, Angor Wat was more expansive than New York City is today.
Over the next few days I tour the major temples of the complex. Preah Khan. Baphuon. Bayon. But Ta Prohm becomes my favorite, because it symbolizes this idea I can’t turn off: nature reclaiming civilization.
And after seeing the Killing Fields that’s still what part of me wants. Because other animals kill, but usually so they can eat or feed their young. Other species are violent, but I don’t know of another creature capable of systematic torture.
Just the human animal.
So let’s refresh. Re-boot. Give this place back. A little bit of hope would be nice right now. At least I’m headed to Bagan and if five thousand temples can’t elevate the mood I don’t know what will.
It’s a four hour flight from Phnom Penh to Mandalay where I take a shuttle to the bus station, which turns out to look more like a bazaar. And when my bus arrives it’s an ancient mini-van full of Burmese men, chickens, and miscellaneous supplies. No one on “the bus” speaks English and I wonder if it’s even headed for Bagan. At least once we're on the main road the sun is setting to my right and I know we’re headed south--the general direction.
But that’s all I know for sure.
And yet, hours later, we arrive. In the middle of the night. After several stops in tiny villages to drop off supplies. I check into my hostel and try in vain to sleep, excited to lay eyes on Bagan in the morning.
But the next day I’m disappointed. At first, just by how busy Bagan is. The south end of the valley, near Quang Nyung, has a strip of Western hotels and is certainly not the pristine place I’ve heard so much about. At least not where I’m staying. Still, I find an electric moped to rent and leave the pavement, heading down dirt roads to get away from the crowds. It’s beautiful at first. Cow pastures and thorny groves. Then, without warning, I come to a golf course and a looming viewing tower. Who would build a golf course and viewing tower in the middle of this sacred valley? And which politician did they pay off to make it happen?
So the next day I decide to set out on foot, shouldering a small backpack full of food, to see what Bagan is really all about. I hike for hours, beyond the golf course and viewing tour, and out into the more rugged terrain of the Burmese Savannah. Beyond the reach of electric bikes. For that matter, it’s been hours since I’ve seen another human being.
There are crumbling, ancient temples everywhere. I feel drawn to one in particular and walk in to meditate.
I don’t know how long I’m here, eyes closed, in front of Buddha. The stillness is palpable. As if I'm sitting on top of it. Almost hovering in this temple. When I open my eyes again I feel a kind of serenity I haven’t known in years. Buddhist philosophy claims we come from Divinity, not Original Sin. And I feel that now. Inside this temple. Inside me—a flawed and sometimes broken man. The same peace I’ve felt in churches, cathedrals, sweat lodges, mosques, and mountain tops. And I feel this: That we really are what we focus on. We become what we seek.
For weeks now, as I’ve travelled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar I’ve wondered why the people of Southeast Asia have been the kindest and happiest I’ve ever met. It’s what they focus on. Serenity. Beauty.
A smiling Buddha.
Not a symbol of pain, death, and guilt. Like a crucifix. Not that Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is right. Not at all. But somewhere along the way the human leaders of organized religions changed the focus of what prophets like Jesus and Buddha were trying to say. Maybe for power or control. I don't know. But I think most religions started out pure. Sublime. And a lot alike. Focusing on the same virtues and principles.
I decide to sleep in the temple tonight. I’m not sure it’ll be comfortable, but as soon as I lay down on this stone floor I instantly fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. It’s womb-like. Embryonic. Warm and safe.
Early the next morning I’m wide awake. Just before dawn. Outside the temple, once my eyes adjust, I find a low hill and climb to the top. As daylight drains into the sky, sun rays burn distant mountains crimson, shooting orange and red flares toward the heavens.
To focus on peace and happiness. These really are choices we can make.
More and more light, seeping from the eastern horizon, spreads out above these five thousand temples. Across ancient ruins, hurtling toward an uncertain new day. But rising, also, above the same Human Race that filled this valley with sacred sites.
I keep watching for hours. The sun is well overhead, beating down with palpable weight when I finally stand, shoulder my pack, and retrace my steps. Back toward the world I woke up in yesterday.