Two strangers drove up on a motorbike. We met in the lobby of the Golden Gate Hotel in Phnom Penh. (Establishments in this neighborhood appeared inclined to jam the word “Golden” somewhere in their name.) Stranger number one was Aunt Sareat, a sweet-faced woman who I had only seen in family album pictures back in the United States. Stranger number two was her son, Sopeaneut. They had come from Phnom Oudong to take me out to dinner.
Once we performed the ritual Cambodian greeting and introduction, Aunt Sareat immediately but gently shoved in front of my face what I first took as a bouquet of flowers – a lovely gesture, except the foreign flora made my brain jump and screech like a mangy cat. The alien stems, green and furry like a caterpillar, were bound together tightly in plastic string. What I assumed were the blossoms looked hostile and dangerous. Medusa’s mythical Southeast Asian counterpart could have hosted these organisms sprouting from the top of her head.
But what was I thinking? Only the wives of prime ministers receive things like bouquets. The average amiable Cambodian gives gifts that are both symbolic and practical. In this case, what Aunt Sareat gave me were not Medusa’s lovely locks. They were lotus pods, a popular snack. Inside the pods are seeds, about the size of a marble, that have a nutty quality to their taste.
This social exchange and offering took place when I was a student in the country back in 2008, and that was just one of the many moments of greeting and introduction that I’ve had with the most ubiquitous lotus in Cambodia since then. This time around, lotus forms have been:
- Posed elegantly in vases, as dignified as a ballerina, a queen
- Bowed in respect and mourning for a royal funeral
- Floating in vessels of water, releasing a modest waft of fragrance
- Vying for the attention of a curious two-year old
- Emblazoned onto a flashing neon sign
- Molded into a pot, ready for crowded mounds of incense
- Laying in disheveled piles, inside temples where myths were born
- Left behind, a solitary bloom, on a path, laid with blocks of dusty laterite stone
- Scattered, as petals, on cement soaked with water, encircling a bucket marked with white Khmer script
- Firmly held in the hands of a girl, swiftly folding back the tightly clenched petals
- Clutched lovingly in the trunk of a white, majestic elephant
- Etched onto the concrete steps climbing up a mountain
- Painted in faded gold color
- Stretching out from beneath the mud of a pond, framing the four corners of the stupa, flying straight up and above the water’s surface, the baby blooms growing hesitantly, desperately gasping for air
- Painted roughly, in pink, on the edge of a set of circular steps – a pedestal, fit for the meditating Buddha, but in this case, for the stupa containing the bones of the anonymous dead
Lotus forms in Cambodia are decorative trinkets, holy objects, versatile ingredients in food, symbols of life’s progression, sights in rubbish piles, visual elements at sites of remembrance.
Lotus forms, sacred and profane.