The smoke of wood fires dulls the sunrise, silhouetting the spires of Angkor Wat as hazy apparitions.
The incomparable beauty of these temples, the soul of the Khmer nation, are a surreal backdrop for the tale of horror I have come to record.
I see Pan approaching, fingering his prayer beads, his saffron robes seemingly ablaze in the yellow mist. He walks as though he is not really there, feet barely touching the ground, a saint incarnate to the world at large but in his own eyes, a simple, humble, monk. He carries a quality I cannot assign to words but people sense this as I notice heads turn with slight bows as he glides past.
He is bent from time and suffering, having lived through and seen more than anyone should, and I know through mutual friends he wishes nothing more than to spend his remaining time in secluded meditation, but upon hearing of my book project he readily agreed to speak with me in the hopes that no one should have to relive it.
Pan is a Theravada monk, one of about 350,000 throughout Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge, and now one of but 30 to have outlived their regime. Besides surviving personal atrocities, he bears the weight of trying to re-establish a religious order dragged to the brink of extinction under a barbaric reign.
Theravada means, “Teaching of the Elders.” It is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia until it was introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century via monks from Sri Lanka. It is a personal religion that worships no deity but rather teaches self -control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. Most Khmer men spend time as a novice before deciding to take the saffron robes or return to a secular life. For many it is the only escape from an existence of dire poverty and only hope for at least a minimal education. For Pan, it was a calling that almost killed him.
It is hard to understand how university educated people could evolve into the senseless butchers that were the cadre of the Khmer Rouge, and yet their reign has become just one more footnote in a long litany of genocide that is the history of man. Whatever the base reasons for a government slaughtering a quarter of its own population for a political agenda, it was the Buddhist monks who bore the brunt of the assault here in Cambodia.
Their modest education made them a threat to the powers that wanted to return the nation to a stone- age agrarian commune of illiterate peasants, and since they do not work in the traditional sense of the word, they were easily made into the national whipping boy, publicly declared useless and a drain on society to be removed. Under the Khmer Rouge, the saffron robes were turned red.
Pan sits next to me on the stone railing of the Angkor moat bridge, lightly as a butterfly, radiating peace. From under his robes he produces an old oil cloth to reveal a small, shiny bowl; his rice bowl as he calls it.
In a matter of fact voice he tells me it is the top of his brother’s skull, killed by the Khmer Rouge, and in true Buddhist fashion, he has kept it as a daily reminder of his own frailty and impermanence. After my initial shock I decide it is a fitting prop to begin telling his tale. He stares at his dangling, sandaled feet, too short to reach the ground, as he speaks.
His story begins with the first night, when he was still a novice and was lighting candles around the monastery when the door burst in and everyone was herded outdoors at gunpoint. Outside, in a huddled mass, the Abbott and all elders were singled out and summarily shot with a single bullet to the back of the head. By now, the attendant nuns were being stripped by the soldiers, intent on a long night of debauchery.
Next he tells me several monks were hung in the trees by their thumbs with small fires built underneath them, not enough to kill but just large enough to singe the skin. One of the nuns, now hysterical, was stripped, held down, and a monk was made to kneel between her knees. A pistol was put to his head and he was ordered to copulate with her in front of all present. When he refused, a single shot rang out to the applause and cheers of the “soldiers” and another monk was brought forward. According to Pan, this went on for quite a while, until several monks had done the deed while several more had died in refusal. The fate of the nun was left unspoken.
I search his face at this point for some sign, some emotional reaction, but see only tranquility. He has removed himself from this physical world and now occupies a separate reality. His roadmap face is a spider web of creases but his eyes burn bright. I pray his religious advancement had brought him true peace and that he is not simply numb in relating such unspeakable events. He returns my stare with a slight smile and says, “Tell this story once so it might never be told a second time.”
There is no self- pity or regret in his voice. To him it is karma, and all that surrounds him now is Maya, an illusion to wander through until he reaches true enlightenment. The realization of his unshakable faith hits me like a fist and at that moment I yearn to find that level of peace.
We begin to walk into the main courtyard of Angkor and though surrounded by thousands of tourists, I hear only Pan as he continues in his soft voice.
He was sent to the countryside and made to rip up railroad tracks, brutally physical work under a blazing sun while enduring non- stop blows from the fists and whips of his overseers. Soon, slowly starving, and with only putrid river water to drink, he was near death, the final plan for him from the beginning. In the end, his will to live overcame his belief in karma as he crawled away one night, into the jungle, and there, lost all track of time.
He recalled his first morning of this illusionistic freedom, waking in the crook of a tree, sucking the dew from leaves to ease his parched tongue, covered with ant bites. Dropping to the ground his weakened legs would barely support him as he made his way into the bush, surrendering to the most basic human instinct, survival.
He was not sure how long he stayed in the jungle, but once there he soon found others like himself, survivors, all with an unspeakable story, all wishing to live. Everyone had a talent, some could fish, others snared small animals; Pan knew a lot about medicinal plants and soon became a gypsy doctor, moving every few days, avoiding roads and villages, helping the more needy for a handful of rice, defying the odds at the bottom of the food chain.
One day, while foraging near a village he spotted a saffron robe and, not believing his eyes, knew he had to talk with this brother. The Khmer Rouge were gone but the damage had been done. Pan listened to the monk’s litany of atrocities all day but told me he fell asleep while doing so and the next morning, he woke up under a roof, on a cot, for the first time in months if not years.
When he revealed his identity, he was called to the capitol of Phnom Penh where he was received as a revered elder and met a delegation of Theravada monks from Vietnam who had come to help re-establish the religion. Only then did he realize the extent of the genocide, the monasteries destroyed, the sacred texts burned, countless brother monks slaughtered, and for the only time in our conversations, I saw a single tear roll down his cheek.
Two subsequent visits with Pan were deliberately kept light hearted and fun, and I learned that he loved shave ice and to laugh, but it is more of a sustained giggle than a laugh that spares no part of his face. His joy in all that surrounds him reminds me of a small child and though I could not see it, I often felt his aura.
When I left, Pan was in great demand, traveling around to various monasteries, imparting the old ways, “The Teaching of the Elders” to a new generation of monks who now use the internet, have cellphones and I pods, and ride motorbikes, but this does not seem to bother him in the least; how could it? Karma.
His goal has always been to spend his life in meditation and I am sure that since our time together he has merged with the cosmos. I allow myself the fantasy to think he has been looking over my shoulder as I write this and knows that his story has been told, one more time, for the last time.
Today there are close to 60,000 Theravada monks throughout the country and almost 5,000 monasteries, all because men like Pan refused to give up their faith, and though he would laugh and shake his head at the thought, he is one who made a difference.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, artist and photographer who has traveled extensively in 44 countries. His principle interest is documenting remote cultures in Africa and Asia. He is a 7 time SOLAS category award winner for best travel writing from Travelers Tales and has written for COLLIERS, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, LOS ANGELES TIMES, BBC, and UNITED AIRLINES. Other frequent publications are Natural History, WEND, Sea Kayaker, Perceptive Travel, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune,and Travelers Tales book series, plus several in flight magazines of African airlines. His first book is entitled, Tears, Fear and Adventure, and his work has appeared in five separate anthologies. His photography is represented by the NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION, SHUTTERSTOCK and CAMERAPIX INTERNATIONAL. His work has twice been chosen as Kodak Internationals Photo of the Day. He has appeared on National Public Radio’s Weekend America program. He is a Fellow of the Explorers Club And a former director of the Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club Website; www.Jamesdorsey.com
“Fish Trader Ray” won the Grand Prize Bronze Award in the Eighth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.