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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kramer meets Swamiji at Angkor Wat, cosmically

Kramer meets Swamiji at Angkor Wat, cosmically

The enlightened, mystic master guided the famous, disgraced actor on an posh travel

tour of Angkor Wat, and it all came down to some spiritual healing.

American comedian Michael Richards joined an exclusive 10-day retreat held in Siem

Reap by a Los Angeles-based group that follows the teachings of Nithyananda, a 29-year-old

Hindu monk referred to by his flock as "Swamiji."

In an interview Richards told the Post of his recent engagement to his traveling

partner, actress Beth Skipp and said he had retired from stand-up comedy following

last year's debacle in which he hurled racist slurs at hecklers in an LA club.

"That night, when I was insulted and disrupted, I lost my heart; I lost my sense

of humor. I've retired from that. I'm taking time off to feel myself out, get to

know myself and appreciate other people," Richards told the Post on July 6.

Richards, 57, and actress Skipp, who appeared in the 2006 LA production of "Me,

My Guitar and Don Henley," booked into a $380 per night deluxe spa suite at

the Hotel De La Paix in Siem Reap on June 29. They joined the Nithyananda group after

several days of sightseeing independently at remote sites including Preah Vihear.

"We went way out into the country. Preah Vihear was unbelievable. And the way

we got there: we went up this crazy road in a funky pick-up and when we got to the

top there's this magnificent temple," Richards said. "We did it all old

school."

Richards, famous for the eccentric character Cosmo Kramer on the popular television

series "Seinfeld," flattered Cambodia and its people, and was described

by hotel staff as "normal" and "nice." Nithyananda members called

him "approachable" and "inquisitive." Richards maintained he

was just a tourist, and denied being a full-fledged devotee of the spiritual group.

"I don't wear club jackets or belong to organizations of this nature. I do my

own personal work. We came to see this amazing country," said Richards, who

Nithyananda members claim began attending foundation events in March. "I listened

in, but often my fiancee and I went on our own, to feel the temples in our own way.

They're magnificent structures. It's great to just be in them and watch time go by.

We'll probably be back."

Richards, who generally wore a wide-brimmed hat and safari-style shirt, was curious

about local media and expatriates. He said the couple plans to proceed to Chiang

Mai, Thailand, and eventually the ancient city of Luang Prabang.

"At first, I was a little bit struck by the poverty, but when I leaned in I

could see how open hearted the Cambodian people are, and I was touched by it,"

said Richards.

"I'd always wanted to take a trip to the Far East. It's a place I'd never been.

I knew of Angkor Wat and I'd seen pictures, so we decided 'Let's go for this.' It's

amazing: you can walk around and it's all hands on in the temples, it's not roped

off. Seeing spirituality in stone is inspiring."

Richards, born in Culver City, spoke candidly about the much publicized November

17, 2006, incident in which his stand-up routine digressed into what has been described

as a "racist tirade" aimed at hecklers present at the Laugh Factory comedy

club. He denied that this trip was any kind of "karmic rehab."

"No, I've been doing other personal work since [the incident]. I'm trying to

learn to enjoy myself.

The tour, officially a fundraiser for a Nithyananda internet university, featured

daily lectures by Swamiji at the hotel, followed by visits to the nearby Angkor Wat

Archaeological Park where the leader discussed depictions of Hindu cosmology. Born

in Thiruvannamalai, India, Nithyananda is described in the group's literature as

"on a mission to re-establish the science of inner bliss on planet Earth."

A spokesman for the Nithyananda Foundation, said Swamiji has gathered 1.2 million

initiated disciples in 21 countries, after "going public" in 2003.

The foundation's headquarters, located in Duarte, Southern California is described

in the group's brochure as "a grand meditation hall pulsating with cosmic energy."

The movement began as the Nithyananda Meditation Academy in Bangalore, India. The

brochure describes the Bangalore facility as "Exuding mysticism and equipped

with modern amenities, this is a space where mere existence is meditation!"

"It's not a cult, it's a culture," said Nithyananda follower David Herold,

president of a drug and alcohol testing company headquartered in Redlands. "I

call it the enlightenment express."

Herold began to study Nithyananda's meditation techniques just four months ago at

a 12-person beginner's program also attended by Richards.

"Swamiji helps you to reconnect to the self," said Herold. "His teachings

are a tool to cleanse and relieve stress, addiction and negative energy. It clears

your chakras and all desire and emotion fades away."

Some Nithyananda followers believe Swamiji has astounding properties.

"He can see in 11 dimensions and go in and out of his body," said a man

who gave his name as Nithyananda Muni, and said he has been a thoracic surgeon in

Pasadena for 20 years.

"He's an archaic angel. He was sent down because the planet is going the wrong

way. Now he's started a global operation to bring back the Vedic tradition. I call

him a hybrid of Einstein, Bill Gates and whoever happens to be in the White House

and the Vatican."

Swamiji, exuding mysticism, described the group as polite and silent and pledged

to be back every year.

"Our ultimate plan is to work with the government and renovate one temple and

bring the whole thing back to life," Swamiji said. "The people are wonderful,

simple and honest. I was struck by the street vendors - how innocent. Honest is the

right word."

Swamiji added that he hoped to gain an audience with the King.

The Nithyananda Foundation made a $2,000 donation a program aimed at helping poor

local children obtain access to school and school supplies.

By the end of the tour, Nithyananda members said Richards was not seen at morning

seminars and often went on his own.

"I'm not a part of the group. I'm not a devotee. Like I said, I don't wear club

jackets, but I honor all the clubs," Richards said. "Life is not always

about making people laugh. I'm trying to understand the humanity that I am, that

I belong to. So, in that sense, I'm part of a group."

Richards was open with his views on spirituality.

"What constitutes spirituality is heart. Making people laugh is something else.

I did Seinfeld for ten years-it lightens things up, helps people enjoy the world,"

he said.

"But you go through a country like this and see the people close to the land.

I see the heart they put into their homes and their lives. I see their children:

open eyed and cheery. You're in the middle of the country and their waving at you

from a motorcycle. When you're right there at that living connection, that's spiritual."

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