Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong

Bakong

Bakong is another temple in the Roluos area near Siem Reap, Cambodia. This temple was the first temple built with a temple mountain design (where the temple has tower(s) that symbolizes Mount Meru in Hindu mythology). This design was then used in constructing many of the temples in the later era in the city of Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. Another aspect of the design is to have a moat around the temple complex, symbolizing the ocean surrounding Mount Meru.

Today Bakong is still used for worship. There is a working monastery on the grounds of the temple. When we visited the temple, unlike other temples we visited, we actually saw more locals coming to worship than tourists coming for sightseeing.

This was the last temple we visited, and by that time in the afternoon, I was already pretty tired and I didn’t really feel like climbing the steps up to the top of the temple tower. So I decided to just wait down there with our tour guide Vanna while Kristi went up to see the scenery from up there.

The photo below was taken on the way into the temple complex, after we passed the bridge crossing the moat. You can see the tall temple tower in the distance, and the shape of the tower is similar to what you can find at the Angkor temples like Angkor Wat.

Bakong

Preah Ko

Preah Ko is a temple in the Roluos area outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was the first temple built in the ancient city of Hariharalaya, the seat of the Khmer Empire before it moved to Angkor. Similar to Lolei, the temple was built using bricks rather than sandstone. In the recent years, it had undergone restoration project. When you visit the temple, you could tell, however, the old and new bricks on the temple towers; it’s interesting to see the difference on one side seeing the original structure and on the other side seeing the new, restored structure that gives you an idea what the structure would look like back hundreds of years ago. Some of the intricate sculptures were still there. You could also see some inscriptions on the wall that helped the archaeologists to understand the ancient Khmer culture.

We went to Preah Ko after our visit to Lolei. When we arrived there, there were not many visitors around either. At the entrance, we saw several young children standing and waiting for visitors to come. We saw a lady accompanied by a tour guide walked in, and the children greeted the lady with a bow, saying ‘Hello’ and hoping that the visitor would give them a little cash. For us, they thought Kristi and I were Chinese (well, they were somewhat correct) and they said ‘ni hao!’ Vanna smiled and told them that we actually spoke English, so then they changed to say ‘hello!’ Our tour guide Vanna discouraged us from giving money to these kids, as that would encourage them to pursue the wrong way to earn a living.

Later on we saw a tourist doing something that I thought was pretty admirable. He knew that the poor kids would come and approach him for money. But instead of giving them money, he had balloons in his pocket that he would blow and give to the kids. In the end, kids were kids.. and they were equally happy being given balloons by this gentleman rather than money. I took the photo below as I observed the interaction between the tourist and the children when he gave them the balloons. His travel partner watched and took a photo of that interaction as well.

Tourist handing out balloons

Lolei

Lolei is one of the temples in the Roluos group of temples in near Siem Reap, Cambodia. These temples were part of the city of Hariharalaya, the seat of the Khmer Empire prior to the move to the nearby Angkor area. The temples built during that era were different than those at Angkor as they used bricks as material. Currently only the ruins of Lolei’s four towers remain, though there is an active monastery still operating nearby.

We visited Lolei after our snakehead fish lunch. When we arrived at the temple, it was pretty quiet and the only other visitors we saw were a couple who happened to eat lunch at the same restaurant where we ate and sat next to our table, and a gentleman who came alone on a chartered tuk-tuk. The couple was met by several young Cambodian girls who tried to sell souvenirs to the lady. Her husband took photos of her and the girls as she peruse the goods that they offered her. The lone gentleman came by himself and went straight into the temple to observe the ruins. We went there around the same time. As we passed him, our tour guide Vanna said hi to him and asked him where he came from. He said he was from Spain, and after a short conversation, he moved on to observe the details of the temples alone.

I took the photo below from a distance. It was the Spanish gentleman looking at his guidebook and observing the ruins, and there were a couple of young Cambodian boys sitting on the remains of a naga sculpture and observing the tourist checking out the ancient ruins. I thought it’s interesting to have a tourist coming from far away to check out the ruins of an ancient civilization, and here were two boys who lived around these ruins and not caring much about the significance of the ruins, but more interested in seeing foreigners coming in.

Lolei