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HIV the focus of Buddhist pilgrimage for truth


For a moment, on the steps of Preah Vihear temple, the legacy of past violence stood

still as the peace movement walked solemnly by.

Over 140 monks, laypersons and volunteers walking on a narrow path through minefields approach their final destination, the mountain-top ruins of the Angkoriaan-era Prasat Preah Vihear, after traveling 375 km from Kampong Thom.

Put more plainly, a blue-vested deminer from Halo Trust watched as 140 monks, laypersons

and volunteers from the 14th Dhammayietra, or "Pilgrimage of Truth", organized

themselves for the final ascent to the spectacular mountain-top temple in northern

Cambodia.

This year's walk of peace and understanding started in Kampong Thom and covered 375

km over 21 days to reach the summit of Preah Vihear on March 22. Along the way locals

gathered to be ritually soaked in water blessings, a particularly well-received ceremony

for those baking in the dry season heat.

Aside from a good natured cooling-down, organizers say the aim of the march is to

promote awareness of the five precepts of Buddhism and to promote the ideals of compassion,

lovingkindness, generosity, honesty and tolerance.

This year, Cambodians who met with the Dhammayietra were also urged to treat people

affected by HIV/AIDS with compassion. Informational videos were shown in villages

and booklets distributed on the topics of HIV/AIDS, protecting the environment and

cultivating a peaceful heart.

The Dhammayietra movement began in 1992 when Cambodia's most revered monk Samdech

Preah Maha Gosananda led a month-long walk of reconciliation by refugee Khmers living

on the Thai-Cambodian border.

But peace can be a dangerous business in Cambodia. Two people were killed and several

injured in 1994 when government soldiers accompanying the Dhammayietra met with Khmer

Rouge troops and a firefight ensured. Since then the event has stressed its neutrality

and insisted that no military or political parties escort the walkers.

While numbers might have been down from the days when 700 people took part, this

year's entourage still made a colorful procession as it headed up the mountain to

Preah Vihear temple, carrying banners and plenty of water.

After traveling 375 km from Kampong Thom.

It was to prove an arduous hike, 6km of steep rocky path in the afternoon heat. While

the pacesetters were being amused by Battambang monk Sam Raing, 22, who dealt with

his exhaustion by letting out somewhat hysterical bouts of laughter, further back

77-year old Dom Chem was bent double most of the way, a testament to the 'step by

step' philosophy of the march for peace.

After a night spent in hammocks at the active temple just below the summit, the Dhammayietra

finally made its way to the Angkor-era ruins of Prasat Preah Vihear.

With incense burning, the procession paused to sing the national anthem and chant

a prayer, before the Venerable Gongthy led a slow procession up the steps of what

was once one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Cambodia.

Then, as the white robes of the achar followed the orange-clad monks up the steps

to the temple and the street clothes of the volunteers brought up the rearguard,

it was back to work for the deminer, dealing with the more practical aspects of Cambodia's

efforts towards to peace.

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