Seeking Nirvana: Understanding Genocide Amidst Meditating Monks and Golden Temples in Myanmar and Cambodia

Monks Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

According to Wikipedia, Buddhism is practiced by 95% of Cambodia and 88% of Myanmar’s population with Myanmar being the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population (~300,000). How, then, can these two neighboring countries, full of meditating monks and gilded temples, have fallen victim to some of the most atrocious mass killings and genocide in the past forty years?

Attaining the Vows of Individual Liberation – Becoming a Buddhist Monk

Every Buddhist Burmese boy between the age of 7 and 13 is expected to enter the monastery as a novice monk for a period of a few weeks to several months where he will have the choice to return to life outside the monastery at any time or stay on as a monk. Many families choose to send their sons to be a monk as it also leads to a free education. A monk, similar to a Christian priest, is someone who has dedicated his life to living a simple meditative, monastic life and attaining nirvana by following the Ten Precepts, or Buddhist principles. Being a monk means you have abandoned a life of pleasure and status just like Prince Siddhartha, or Buddha, and now live by alms. There are five stages within monkhood, and reaching the second step involves wearing a robe. Monks take their vows for life but can return to non-monastic life up to three or seven times in ones life, depending on the Buddhist sect you belong to.

What’s with the Spice Colored Robes?

Similar to most monastic lifestyles, whether you are a practicing Muslim or Christian, Buddhist monks wear robes, or a Kasaya, as part of living a life of alms and giving up earthly possessions. 25 centuries ago, the robes were made of rags, or what the Buddha considered pure cloth, and were dyed with vegetable dyes creating the saffron colored robes you see monks wearing today. The color typically ranges from brown to red to orange based on the prevalence of the spice dyes in the region, including curry, cumin, and paprika.

In Myanmar, you also see pink robes! I saw them for the first time at U Bein Bridge, in Mandalay. U Bein Bridge is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world spanning nearly 0.75 miles and was built from wood reclaimed from a former palace. The rose colored robes are worn by the 20,000 Burmese Buddhist nuns, or Sila-rhan, who also shave their heads, take ordination vows, and practice meditation. They do not, however, perform ceremonies and joining the order is the choice of the girl or her family – many times for education purposes as well.

Scaling Gold and Diamond Encrusted Stupas in Bagan and Yangon

During our trip to Myanmar, my friend Kara and I visited three of the holiest cities in the country including Bagan, Mandalay, and Yangon. We spent an entire day riding bicycles and scaling the temples of Bagan – an incredible site to behold. Unlike my visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which was full of tourists (read more here), Bagan was nearly deserted. Kara and I were just a handful of Western tourists on site. At times, we had several temples all to ourselves and a gatekeeper had to come unlock a few of the temples for us. Bagan is an ancient city and the former capital of the Pagan Kingdom that first unified the region that now constitutes much of modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s rule between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built in the Bagan region alone, of which 2,000 survive today. Many of the remaining temples were damaged in 2014 as a result of a massive earthquake (7.2).

What makes the temples unique in Bagan are their shape – called a stupa. A stupa, also called a pagoda, is a massive structure with a unique domed top and relic chamber inside. The stupa is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos and represents Mount Meru, considered to be the spiritual Mecca of Buddhism.

Of all the temples we visited, my favorite was Shwezigon – the stunning gold leaf-gilded stupa surrounded by smaller temples and shrines, built in 1044. Similarly, the Shwedagon Pagoda, or Great Dragon Temple, located in Yangon does not disappoint. It is a 325 foot high gilded stupa considered to be the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar believed to contain religious relics from the Buddha himself. The stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. The crown is said to be covered with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies with a 76 carat diamond crowning the tip.

Here is a little video I took of one of the weekday offering stations as well as the grounds so you can appreciate the scale of the Pagoda.

This was similar to the Silver Pagoda located at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia whose floors are covered in 1kg silver tiles and contains the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and life-sized gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds, including a 25 carat diamond at the top of the statue. I had to sneak photos of the buddhas since photography is technically not allowed.

All of the temples we visited in Myanmar had Buddha statues and murals inside, from large to enormous. The Buddhas had varying poses, including the protection buddha – right hand raised and facing outwards, meditation buddha – both hands in the lap, Enlightenment – right hand pointing to the ground with the palm facing inward and left hand palm facing up, Nirvana – lying on the right hand side.

Outside of the temples, local men and women were selling beautiful handicrafts including hand painted umbrellas and hand carved wooden figures.

Our last few temple stops included a small temple by the river, where we witnessed monks working on a restoration project. We also stopped by a temple where a lovely local boy named Peso gave us a tour of the property.

Finding Understanding – Cambodia and Myanmar’s History of Genocide

Despite all of this beauty and peace, the one thing I keep coming back to is trying to understand how genocide can come about in two countries where such a large portion of the population is Buddhist. Despite my best efforts, I don’t understand it and never will except that at times when there is a vacuum of good leadership in the world, evil can take over. As with any religion or government, when taken to the extreme, can result in devastating effects. Or perhaps it is that Buddhists are so passive that it is easier for a dictator to come into power.

The Cambodian genocide was carried out by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 where an estimated 2-3 million Cambodians died after forced relocations, torture, mass execution, forced labor, malnutrition and disease led to the death of 25% of Cambodia’s population. In Cambodia’s case, the Khmer Rouge, under the Pol Pot dictatorship, was intent on bringing agrarian socialism back – essentially vaulting Cambodia back to the stone ages and getting rid of everyone or anyone they suspected to be part of modern society – entire families of professionals, intellectuals, ethnic minorities, monks, celebrities, Muslims, urban dwellers, anyone with glasses, government officials. I am not going to try to explain what happened, but my friend Kathrin did a phenomenal job of recapping the atrocities that took place in our recent lifetimes. If you don’t know much about the genocide, do yourself a favor and educate yourself with this short video.

I had a chance to visit The Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, and the stories told were heartbreaking.  If you would like to read a first hand account of the genocide, First They Killed My Father recommended by my friend Lisa, is an excellent book.

Myanmar’s genocide is less talked about because it is happening at this very moment targeting Rohingya Muslims. Rohingya Muslims originally came from India but have lived in Myanmar for thousands of years and are still today forbidden to vote and denied citizenship. There is even a sect of Buddhist monks who are proponents of violence against this group – fueling ethnic tensions. Since 2012, over a thousand individuals have reportedly been killed and more than 100,000 forced into camps flaring up Myanmar’s military to launch deadly attacks on Muslim villages. There is evidence of massive and systematic rape and sexual violence and deliberate destruction of food resources as well. Many say this is due to the dictatorship currently in place though little is known to the outside world.

We are currently in a situation today where, unfortunately, the bad political leaders outweigh the good, and we have to be very watchful of the political playing field unfolding in the world. We are all responsible for looking out for our neighbors and, in the end, love always wins. We are all part of the same universe – or uni (one) verse (song) – so be good to each other.

Saying Goodbye to Cambodia

During my last week in Cambodia, my goal has been to simply enjoy living here. I’ve had the chance to meditate, go on a spa date with my flatmate, enjoy a DJ set by a fellow Remote – @djtinat, take a fantastic mountain bike ride in a jungle area outside of the city, play volleyball and get a haircut. I will absolutely miss this country, its inspiring and beautiful people and look forward to seeing where the country takes itself in the next decade. Stay strong, Cambodia. You will rise up out of the ashes.

Next up is my transition to Bangkok, Thailand – my fourth remote home in 2017.



2 Comment

  1. Christina, your pictures are fabulous and you have figured out how we can zoom into pictures – and they are now very clear! You are a wealth of information and how lucky you are to be able to do this journey- you deserve it! I had no idea what is currently going on in Myanmar since 2012! Frightening!
    Now you have just arrived in Bangkok – it will be a total different experience I think – with a county full of European tourist. I’m sure you’ll get a chance to have a taste of the true Thailand – away from the tourist spots!
    Love You 💕

  2. Incredibly stunning photos! Thank you for informing me on past and present sad that genocide is still happening there and I had no clue.

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