Treasure in the ruins: Lessons from Cambodia

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.
— Rumi

If you are travelling to Cambodia everyone asks you the same question, “Are you going to the temples at Angkor Wat?” When we first started to work with leaders in Cambodia we soon found out that many of the Cambodians themselves had not even visited the temples of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by King Jayavarman II in the early 12th century, and it encompasses Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While Europe was in the grips of the dark ages, Cambodia was building a temple complex that had irrigation and libraries.

The leaders we were working with in 2003 through the UNDP and the NAA had not visited the temples primarily because of the Khmer Rouge war -- actually the area was still a site of armed conflict in the late 90’s. The temples had been cut off from them—by armed guerrillas, by landmines, by lack of passable road, by sheer lack of capacity to travel.

My colleague Fran decided that as part of the leadership development program they would go, and explore their history and their history of leadership. Going to the temples would give them a means of restoring a sense of inspiration and vision about their country,  and connect them to the aspects of their history and culture that was thoughtful, beautiful and strong. Hidden in the ruins were sources of strength for the Khmer** culture. It was a powerful trip and many of the participants talked about how important it was to them to have been able to go. Over the years they have returned with their families.

To find the treasure you have to head into the ruins. In some ways in those first couple of years of working in Cambodia, the war was an unspoken presence. The full stories had not yet been told, but the trips to Angkor Wat were a way to have some of the story present. Not the story of what happened to them during the war, that is what most of us think of when we think of trauma. We think of what happened. And that is a big part of the experience of any trauma survivor. But it is not all of the experience.

Repeated trauma is always three forms of trauma: what did happen, the protections you create to survive, and what didn’t happen. It would be years before we would hear stories about what did happen, but the trip to Angkor Wat would allow for some of the conversation about what didn’t happen—and allow them to begin to expand their ideas and possibilities for themselves as individuals and as leaders.

Our temples are not as tangible or beautiful as Angkor Wat. When we experience difficult days, or meltdowns, or deep grief, or wild panic, we don’t see our experience as temple ruins. We don’t realize that instead of running away from or denying those feelings, we need to paradoxically head toward them. Visit them. Explore them. Honor them. It took a lot of courage for my Cambodian colleagues to visit those temples after so many years. And it will take courage from you as well.

Our ruins many not be easy to find, but it's worth the search. They are the parts of ourselves that have been hidden for so long. They survived for years in a war zone. They may need repair. They may need to be deforested from all that has grown over to cover them. But they hold beautiful aspects of ourselves. And they deserve our time. And they deserve our patience and they deserve our reverence.

Those difficult feelings? Ruins. Those struggles? Ruins. Your grief? Ruins. Head in. Keep struggling. Keep feelings. Walk around. Sit down and journal. Look around and be amazed at what survived. What is there after all of these years. Let yourself be amazed at what is there. It will come in flashes. In small views. It's hard to take in all at once. The treasure isn't something small, though there may be small things that you appreciate. Take it all in. Get the wider view. Then you may begin to take in the treasure..

**Note: People in the West often mistake the word Khmer to mean Khmer Rouge—but this is not the case. The word Khmer is the name of the primary ethnic group of Cambodia and is also the language of the Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were the followers of the communist party of Cambodia, founded in 1968. It was an offshoot of the North Vietnamese People’s Army. 

To virtually visit the temples at Angkor Wat you can look at them on google street view here

To read more about our work in Cambodia and other UNDP projects you can read about them here.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015