Cambodia: The Monk Post

A look back at my records indicates that I only slept at temples three times this month.  That’s more than in northern and central Vietnam, where I don’t think I saw a single Buddhist temple, but far less than in Thailand, where I enjoyed the monks’ hospitality nearly every night.  This lack of quantity was more than made up for, though, by the particular friendliness of the monks here.    In Thailand, they mostly bombarded me with Ramen and soft drinks and then left me on my own.  In Laos, they allowed us into the temples but didn’t really interact with us.  In Cambodia…well, you’ll see.

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Well, not just monks.  Here’s a fellow Minsung and I met at a temple outside of Snuol.  He’s a teacher at a nearby school and lives at the temple during the week, since his hometown is about 120km away.  We stayed up late (later than I would’ve liked) browsing my photo collection and and transferring some of my favorite music to him.  Something tells me emo and indiefolk won’t be his cup of tea, but…

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The young monks didn’t show up until the following morning.  Not sure where they had been.

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One of those nice days where you wake up at one temple, pass then over the course of the day, and fall asleep at another 100km down the road.

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This one, like so many, seemed to be populated mostly by youngsters.  That, or all the older monks have separate quarters and didn’t want to come see us.  When we pulled up and asked permission to sleep, the monk who appeared to have the relevant authority was only 21 years old.  Most of the others were in their teens.

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They invited us to sleep on the beds (actually, just platforms) in their dorm, but Minsung has a snoring problem and we both wanted to watch movies and eat donuts in peace, so we insisted on pitching our tents.  They gave us the platforms anyway.

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We were up again late, this time doing a language exchange.  By this point, we had already mastered the numbers 1-9, and also the word for 1000, but not much else.  Now under our belt: ten, twenty, cat, dog, chicken, eat rice, another phrase for eat rice, beautiful, I love you, and so forth.  One of them even gave me camera lessons – “No no no, use the flash. Turn up the ISO!”  How the heck did he know these things?

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Before turning in for the night, I noticed a campfire under another building in the temple complex.  It turned out to be three or four pot and pan vendors.  It looks like they mostly live at the temple, too.   They’re even allowed to pick milkfruit and mangos from the trees.

It’s easy to look at the grandiose, gilded temples (and mosques!) here in villages where everyone lives in wooden huts and wonder whether something isn’t wrong, whether money isn’t somehow being grafted away from where it’s needed most.  Who’s paying the construction costs here?  Villagers without a clean source of water or sustainable sanitation system?  The government, which hasn’t provided villagers the above?  Shouldn’t they be prioritizing real material progress over this spiritual stuff?

With my limited exposure, there’s of course no way I can even come close to answering questions like that.  What I can say, though, is that the temples here do seem to be serving the community in some actual, concrete ways.  I guess there are more efficient ways to house homeless people than to build a temple, but…I don’t know, there’s a nice feeling of health and integration about it.

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In the morning, either the monks go out to collect alms or locals bring them their food for the day.  This was a stay-at-home morning, so around 7:30 some elderly villagers carrying Indian-style tiffin sets (a sort of lunchbox made of three or four interlocking metal canisters, where the base of one serves as the lid of the next) came in, ascended to the dining hall, and started unpacking.  Then something special happened: instead of the monks chanting a blessing, which is usually what they do when they received alms, the villagers themselves began a chant and kept it up for about twenty minutes, during which time the monks ate.  Sadly, the few 20-somethings that had come for the morning ceremony either didn’t know the words or didn’t want to chat along.

Another sad note: the temples in Cambodia seem to be the messiest of all I’ve seen so far.  Plastic wrappers and bags are strewn all about everywhere, and the monks tend to drink out of 500ml plastic bottles donated to them by the villagers.  The monks generally sweep the walkways and building entrances in the morning, but I’ve never seen anyone out picking up the trash that fills the gardens and lines the temple walls.  It strikes me as quite a shame – the temple is a place where young monks are ostensibly learning about morality and preparing to become the conscience of the next generation, but they seem to spend most of their time just kind of wandering around the premises, sometimes chatting, sometimes playing volleyball, sometimes using their phones.  Only a few times did I see any monks meditating, chanting, or performing any rituals.  Sad to say, but Buddhism here seems to largely have been gutted.

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Speaking of gutted…a little gruesome, but there’s nothing like a little memento mori to help keep things in perspective.  Can I recommend a song?  “The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room” by mewithoutYou.  And then the rest of that album.

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I pulled up at this temple in Khampong Chnang on my first night out of Phnom Penh and was luckily greeted by Wan Det (or was it Wat Den?), a 28 year old student at the Buddhist university there who spoke pretty good English.  He quickly got permission to host me from his Abbot and made up a bed for me in the dormitory.  The Abbot seemed to take a liking to me – while WD and I took bucket showers together in front of the worship hall (WD in his robe, me in my swim trunks), Abbot snapped a few topless pictures of me.

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After I had finished wolfing down my food stash (mostly sweet potatoes), WD asked me an unexpected question: Hey Mike, can you drive a car?  There was a brand new Camry in the driveway just waiting to take a late-night joyride around town, but the Abbot wasn’t allowed to be seen driving.  No license, hardly any driving experience since 2006, severe muscle fatigue, Cambodian roads in the dark, Abbot continuously stroking my beard while driving…what could go wrong?

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First stop: 15 minutes down to the river, where we looked out at the hotel boats where foreigners (and probably a few wealthy Khmers as well) pay exorbitant prices to be pampered while floating on the Mekong.  I’m not saying I would turn it down if it came my way, but give me my adventures any day.

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Then a 30-minute ride out to another, more remote temple.  Holding hands with the Abbot.  I told you he liked me.  Another reason I know this: he showed me a video on his phone of one hundred roosters taking turns mounting and then inseminating what must have been the most miserable hen in the history of the universe.

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My general rule of thumb is that it’s OK to take pictures of stone Buddhas, which by their nature and because of their environs don’t usually feel too sacred, but not of golden ones.  WD and the Abbot, however, were a bit trigger-happy.  They insisted that I pose thus.

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We weren’t just there for a photo session – my Abbot was dropping in on an old friend…who also happened to be an Abbot.  These are the gifts that we picked up at the convenience store on the way.

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This abbot asked me some interesting questions (translation thanks to WD), mostly about why I wanted to travel in the first place.  I always find that hard to answer, since all of the things I really enjoy about traveling (good food, smiling children, nice scenery) could also be enjoyed at home.   I think the truth might be that I just like being homeless, and that that’s acceptable (to myself as well as to others) when you do it with a bike and tent and are abroad, but that it’s shameful (and probably boring) to do it at home.

It’s also pretty difficult to look people in a post-genocide, highly corrupt, very slowly developing country in the eye and tell them that I don’t like waking up every day and going to work at a job that pays well but isn’t “fulfilling” enough for me.

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Oh dear monks, if you only knew how thought-provoking you are.

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Dharma Studs.

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As if simply letting me sleep for free wasn’t enough, the monks showered me with gifts, too.  They said that thanks to the Abbot’s excellent monking skills (mostly giving advice to people with marital and familial problems, it seemed), the villagers were happy this year and giving them way more fruit than they could eat.  They gave me a whole platter after dinner, laden with longans, tanerines, apples, sepodillas, and dragonfruit, and insisted I keep the leftovers for the next day’s ride.  I feel a little bad taking stuff like this – particularly apples imported all the way probably from the USA or northern China – which had probably been purchased at substantial costs by villagers without too much money to spare.  There’s nothing to do but accept it gracefully and promise myself to pay it forward somehow.

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WD gifts me a passport photo.

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A gift from the Abbot that nearly brought tears to my eyes: a $2 bill, widely regarded as lucky in Korea and I suppose all over the Orient, embossed with the Abbot’s own…Buddhist doodles?  Buddhles?

Puns aside, I will treasure this thing forever.  Hopefully it brings me all the good luck that the inscriptions are calling for.

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Dharma Studs, again.  Oh, I should also mention that at this temple I did meet a few youngish monks who seemed really, seriously interested in Buddhism.  After we came back from the car excursion, WD took me to a little shack next to the Buddhist Universty dorm to use the wi-fi.  Inside were four monks a little younger than me, all of them there on Facebook, all of them spreading the digital Dharma by way of sharing pictures of Buddhist sites, quotations, etc.  High tech!

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Some NGO friends took me on a morning bike ride out to a surprise mega-Buddha at a giant temple complex in the middle of nowhere.  Note my bicycle there at 7 o’clock.

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This was the only temple where I saw anything that I would call “religious” happening.  We entered the main hall and found about fifteen people, mostly older, sitting on the floor surrounded by random materials – cans, candles, banana leaves, and who knows what.  Over in the corner, five monks were seated in a not-quite-pentagram (kind of like the outline of a house a child might draw), with one man in the middle.  Each monk had an aluminum can in front of him inside of which was a lit candle.  A white string ran around all five cans, giving the sense that the man in the middle was imprisoned for the duration of the ceremony.  As the monk at the head of the pentagram chanted, the novices at the other four points replied in kind.  While doing so, each of them would occasionally dip a sort of mini-broom in water, then flick it at the man in the middle, spraying tiny droplets all over his head and back.  All this time, an older person with shaven head but layman’s clothes sat in the back, did his own chanting, and spritzed perfume.  All of it was slightly creepy and definitely the most superstitious thing I’ve seen at a temple out here, but it also felt the most authentic.

Nobody has yet been able to explain to me what this was all about.

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I see this a lot out here – a Bodhi tree (the kind of tree under which Buddha supposedly gained enlightenment) behind either a painting or statue of the Buddha.  I like this style of incorporating nature into the religious stuff.

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From the other side.  Note the giant Buddha in the background, visible through the trees.

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Oozing symbolism.

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One Response to Cambodia: The Monk Post

  1. ian chen says:

    i guess the full loaded pots and pans would be supplied to the wedding dinner ,or the owner is a totally different cycling guy on the way!^^