At a street food stand in Kompong Thom Province, Cambodia, young people chatted about the passing of their former king.
It was a lively scene that night—fully inhabited tables and chairs scattered across a bustling parking lot, steaming plates of noodles and bobor, lights flickering out occasionally as a generator alternated between success and failure. The hot air buzzed with tinny music, laughing, and talking, and aromas of fried noodles and durian permeated the slight breeze.
After a number of cans of Angkor beer (poured over ice if you dared), I asked the young woman who served us to point me to the loo. She beckoned. I followed her to a motorbike. She drove me to the nearest toilet, about four blocks away. #AwesomeToiletStories
As the night wore on, the expat and Cambodian who were my dinner companions translated the surrounding chatter for me: Some young girls were talking about a recent discovery, that former King Sihanouk‘s image had been seen in the waxing moon.
The girls passed us a grainy photocopy—supposedly, a photo of the moon. In one corner of the photo, an indistinct visage could be seen…slightly. It was a pretty decent likeness of the late king—who many considered to be Cambodia’s last “god-king.”
In the week that followed, I saw hundreds of memorial altars to Sihanouk—from grandiose and glittering to humble and makeshift—in cities and towns, villages and temples, homes and roadside eateries. His visage watched from everywhere, if not from the sky itself. And the widespread belief that he watched, also, from the moon quickly became a litmus test for the strength of one’s faith.
“If you can’t see the King in the Moon,” one Cambodian I met quietly explained to me, “people say you must not be a good enough person.” I say “quietly,” because he couldn’t state publicly what he was obliquely saying to me: that he couldn’t see any kings in any moons, but that admitting this meant you fell under suspicion, that you must have done something very bad indeed.
I told him and a few others the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. They hadn’t heard it; they nodded and laughed heartily. Wry smiles appeared. Meanwhile the moon, by then full, shone on; I couldn’t see anything that hadn’t always been there —clear evidence of my many sins.
I suppose it isn’t for me to say what’s true, or to comment on a community of believers I know so little about. As an outsider, I see only the barest outlines of an ancient faith: magnificent pagodas in destitute villages; elderly women in white weeping for their lost king; offerings of tea on humble altars in the market; the loveliness of saffron robes amid a multihued chaos of humanity. #MonksOnMotos
Another Cambodian I met briefly told me a story about a stampede that had killed hundreds of people at a water festival a few years ago. He explained that thousands of village people had cut bananas from trees in the countryside and streamed into Phnom Penh to sell them—for around ten times the usual price. “People put the bananas outside of their houses to chase away the bad spirits,” my acquaintance explained. And with all those felled revelers’ spirits floating around after the terrible accident, the market for bananas had gone through the roof.
As he told the story, he wryly used the phrase “king in the moon” as a metaphor for the kind of belief system that motivates people to create prophylactic banana shrines, just in case.
Faith or superstition? I usually try not to apply that question to cultures not my own; but seeing religion in action in distant places, I can’t help but look back at religion as practiced closer to home and ask myself, faith or superstition: which is which?
When self-described leaders of the faith proclaim that some hurricane was send as a punishment from God, is this belief, superstition, or a cynical bid for power? Can unexamined belief erode our perception of reality, engender bigotry towards those who believe differently, or justify acts of brutality? Or is it more important that faith bolsters people’s hope through difficult times and motivates acts of kindness? In short, is religion a net gain for mankind, or does it harm our quest to become rational beings?
I have no answers; but I remain endlessly fascinated by the questions. And although I do find religions and their adherents frustrating at times (especially when a society’s bigotries manage to worm their way into religious beliefs) I do find the stories, architecture, and imagery quite lovely, and the possibility of some inexplicable transcendence alluring.
Like it or not, religion is inextricably woven into the human experience, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And there’s wisdom to be found there, even if you don’t, strictly speaking, happen to see the king’s face shining high above.