Sacred Spaces through Travel

By: Brian Craig, Greenheart Exchange Work and Travel Partner Relations Coordinator

Third and Sacred Space

When I was in the process of writing a collection of essays for my college senior capstone, I came across the idea of third space for the first time. Third space aims to describe the places that we spend time with one another when we are not at home or at work. This includes pubs, parks, theaters, and more. One subsection of third space, where many people spend this time, is called sacred space. This includes traditional locations of spiritual practice like churches, mosques, and temples. Exploring the concept of third space is a great way to understand how people and cultures spend their free time, whether in your own region or on the other side of the world.

For the first four months of 2015, I was lucky enough to travel to five countries in Southeast Asia and saw ways that people spend their free time. Some of my most interesting days were spent in sacred spaces. After this trip, I came to realize that the range of sacred spaces was much broader than I previously thought, and their importance in our lives to be more impactful than we may think.

Bangkok, Thailand

My first look into these spaces was during the first week of my trip, in the capital city of Bangkok, Thailand. While home to one of Asia’s most vibrant nightlife and culinary scenes, Bangkok grand Buddhist temples are a spectacle. As a huge majority of Thais are Buddhist, these temples are the most sacred spaces in the country. Stepping inside the temple grounds, you instantly forget the bustle of the streets around. You feel a sense of awe as you are surrounded by the colorful and elegant pagodas, imposing temple buildings, and finely manicured shrubs that all somehow align themselves in whatever direction you look.

What one feels, even more, is a deep sense of peace. Soft winds ring the small hanging bells to life. In front of a large golden statue of Buddha, dozens of Thais kneel in deep prayer. They pray under painted scenes of Buddha’s life, his path to enlightenment, and Thai folk scenes. As I witnessed this, I realized how little I knew of Buddhism and meditation. I could tell, however, how deeply important a place like this is. Visitors and monks there were visibly calm and meditative. Just being surrounded by all of it soaks some of the spiritual importance into your own bones. By definition, a temple is the most obvious example of a sacred space. As I would learn later, it is certainly not the only kind.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

 Almost two months later, I found myself at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At this site and at dozens more throughout the country, millions of Cambodians were slaughtered by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. I walked the site with an audio tour, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. I learned of the horrors committed on this site and across the country. I heard personal stories of terror, anguish, and guilt. It is an incredibly sobering place.

I felt anger, distress, anguish, and guilt. Sometimes I had a thousand questions to ask.  How could people do this to one another? How do we continue to let this happen in our world? At other moments, my mind went blank, like listening to folk music that was blared through the grounds to cover the screams of the slaughtered.

The last stop of the tour was a tall memorial pagoda, housing neatly arranged bones and skulls of those found in the open graves here. For a time, it was very discomforting to be staring into the empty, blank eyes of the skulls. The sight sent a shiver through my body, and as I exited, amongst the questions and confusions, I felt deeply moved in spirit.

Through this site, the dead are given a chance to tell the story of their cruel fate and an opportunity to connect with those who have never known about it. This sacred space memorializes the many killing sites around the country that have never been discovered, and the millions of voices and stories that remain silent and unheard.

Luzon, Philippines

A few weeks after my time in Phnom Penh, I found myself in northern Luzon, the northernmost island in the Philippines. In the small mountain town of Sagada, there are regular cemeteries to which most Americans are accustomed. Past one of these cemeteries, a winding dirt path leads to the face of a cliff, where coffins of different sizes and shapes are supported by iron bars that have been driven into the rock. These are the most recent iterations of the region’s famous hanging coffins.

There are many reasons why indigenous people have buried some of their dead in such a manner. Being closer to heaven, as well as protection from water seeping into the coffin and rotting the corpse are just two reasons for the practice. The bodies are placed in the fetal position, departing the world in the same way they entered it.

This gravesite is an odd sight to behold and is fundamentally different than any other cemetery I have seen. They demand attention in a way that being buried in the ground does not. Perhaps part of that is the thought that this practice has existed for centuries. Surrounded by towering pine trees and an orchestra of birdsong, there is an undeniable serenity as well. The prevalence of this practice is diminishing as the younger generations in the region embrace Christianity, making this dying tradition even more mesmerizing and special.

 Sacred spaces go unnoticed

Sacred spaces often seem to be overlooked. They allow us to address, examine and question our own lives. Even for those who aren’t religious, the spiritual feelings in these places can enrich our lives, perspectives and emotions, and deserve a little more attention. The opportunity to witness a variety of sacred spaces through travel helps us to see people and cultures from a different perspective. It also leads us down a path to a more empathic and connected planet.

What are the sacred spaces you have visited during your travels and how did they impact the way you view that country’s culture or history? To share your program experience, visit our Greenheart Exchange website.