Cambodia Mandala

I was first introduced to Cambodia when it was still known as Kampuchea. As part of my International Relations class in high school, I had to devise an international crisis-type of scenario and the rest of the students had to debate how the United States government should get involved. I chose to focus on Cambodia, in particular Pol Pot, his reign of terror, and the aftermath. I don’t remember the specifics of my scenario, but whatever it was, I had the class stumped. More importantly, my eyes were awakened to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the millions of people that suffered under them.

When I decided to travel to SE Asia in 2001, I knew that Cambodia had to be on the itinerary. Most people who travel to Cambodia do so to visit the vast complex and amazing temples of Angkor, and that too was on my to-do-list. But people who pass over visiting Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, are doing a disservice to themselves and the lives that were lost.

Detail Image

Of course, Angkor Wat and the various other temples in the heart of the country are miraculous to see in person. The complex was begun in the 12th Century as a Hindu temple and later converted to Theravada Buddhism. Most people recognize the main temple, Angkor Wat, but there is believed to be over a thousand temples in the area. You can easily spend weeks exploring all that the complex has to offer. And like most temples that have been deteriorating over time and lie in ruins, your imagination is put to the test.

(National Geographic published a great article on the history of Angkor – “Divining Angkor: After rising to sublime heights, the sacred city may have engineered its own downfall”)

For my Cambodia Mandala, I wanted to evoke the sadness that the horrors of the Killing Fields brought on, yet celebrate the rich history of Angkor. I feel the contrast of the two emotions is represented in the cold grays of the stonework and the brightness of the Buddhist robes. And I think that because of this dichotomy, this has always been one of my favorite mandalas. But I know it is not for everyone. Maybe it makes other people uneasy without them realizing it, and if that is the case, then I think it is successful.

Nepal Mandala

Nepal Mandala

I found myself in Nepal the month following September 11, 2001. With my flight originally scheduled for that day, instead of heading to Asia, I spent the month rearranging visas, sleeping on my couch (I had sublet my apartment), and volunteering with the Salvation Army at a recovery center in NYC. A month later I left the chaos of the city for the pristine mountains of Nepal, where our only traffic jams involved goats and the only human interaction we had was with the people of the Himalaya.

I couldn’t have been in a more completely different environment, spending four weeks hiking the Annapurna Circuit. With every twist in the trail and turn of the corner I saw new views that took my breath away – from the green rice paddies of the lowlands to the barren desert-like terrain of the highlands, with the pristine white mountaintops of the Himalaya greeting us along the way.

Nepal Closeup

Detail Image

The photo that inspired my very first Mandala was taken during the final part of our trek. Having spent the first two-thirds of the hike slowly ascending the trail so as to avoid altitude sickness, our descent was much faster and hurried – we barely had time to look up and enjoy the scenery in front of us. On this particular day it began to rain and hail for a short period of time.

As we took refuge under some trees, I was able to pause and admire the view in front of me. Looking out through the bright pink blossoms of the cherry trees that protected us I could see a varied spectrum of green in the rice paddies, whose colors took on a glistening affect because of the rain. It was such a beautiful moment during an otherwise uncomfortable period.

And in a way that summed up what my experience in Nepal meant to me – an incredibly beautiful experience during a time in which there was much turmoil and pain back at home. Nepal was my peaceful reprieve from the devastating events of September 11.