Friday, June 27, 2014


Young Buddhist monks (photo:Wikipedia)
Although much of Cambodia’s cultural heritage is decaying, one important part is thriving: Buddhism. Much like Vientiane, numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, (wats) are all over Phnom Penh. There are more than I can visit, and they are grand. Cambodia may be a very poor country, but you’d never know it by looking at their Buddhist temples. They are far more elaborate and grandiose than those in neighboring Vietnam.

In recent years, many new Buddhist temples have been built, and old ones are being restored. The French may have brought Catholicism here, and the communists brought atheism, but Buddhism survived them all.

Tonight, a friend is introducing me to Cheuh, a 24 year old Khmer with a different view on life. Originally from Kampong Thom in the countryside, he has lived for years in Phnom Penh. Cheuh loves books, and has a real thirst for knowledge. He speaks a fair amount of English that he learned back in school. His occupation, is a common one in Cambodia.

Cheuh is a Buddhist monk, and he’s been one for ten years.

We’re meeting Cheuh at Wat Sarawan, a monastery and pagoda downtown. As we enter the living quarters, it resembles a dormitory. Curious monks look at me as I walk down the hall; once again I’m venturing where few white people go.

We walk in, and Cheuh gets up to shake my hand. Short like most Khmers, his head is shaved, and he wears the bright saffron orange robe that all monks wear. I already saw many more robes hanging out to dry on clotheslines in the hallway.

Buddhist temple on the Mekong River
Cheuh shares this small room with another monk. He invites me to sit on his small twin bed, while he sits across from me on his roommate's bed. He apologizes for the room’s size, but I say it’s no problem. This is about the size of the dorm room that I occupied for two years back in University. The shelves above his bed are loaded with books, in both Khmer and English.

As we chat, more monks gather in the doorway, curious about the tall foreign visitor. Many monks come from poor families; it’s likely they don’t understand my English. I ask Cheuh how many more monks live here in this large dormitory.

“Wat Sarawan have 200 (to) 250 monks,” he tells me.

Like all monks, 24 year old Cheuh leads a strict, celibate lifestyle. His is the monastic life, even more conservative than that of Catholic priests. Buddhist monks in Cambodia neither smoke, nor drink. They are not allowed to touch women at all, not even to shake their hands. If a Khmer woman hands a glass of water to a monk, it is common for her to place the glass on a plate first. This manner respectfully avoids physical contact.

Statues of Buddha in a temple (photo: Wikipedia)
“Is it difficult for you to lead a life, with no touching of women?” I ask curiously.

His answer to me is a bit evasive. “The rule,” he says, “I respect.”

Back when the Khmer Rouge were in Phnom Penh, Cheuh wasn’t here, but he knows all about it. “They don’t like the Buddhism,” he says of the radical communists, “they hate (it).”

Cheuh relayed to me how when the Khmer Rouge took over the city, they immediately invaded all the Wats. “They make the monk leave the pagoda,” he said, speaking of the forced exodus. “Go work in the field, feed the animal(s).”

The violently atheist Khmer Rouge targeted the wats, pagodas, and the monks too, aiming to eliminate all facets of Buddhism. 

“Some of the pagoda, they destroy,” Cheuh told me of those terrible days. “Some monk, they kill.”

But for Buddhists, everything is temporary. After the war ended and the Khmer Rouge were demobilized, many of their former fighters returned to their Buddhist faith. These killers had returned to the very religion, that they had once been ordered to destroy.

Like in Catholicism, I’m learning that forgiveness is also important in Buddhism. Among the world’s religions, Buddhists are certainly among the more tolerant that I’ve met. Cheuh and I briefly discuss other religions, and he says, “Buddhist, Catholic, Islamists, we can respect other religions.” Indeed.

A Buddhist spirit house
As it’s getting late, I thank Cheuh for his time, and take my leave. As I head for home, I ponder the simple, yet admirable life that Cheuh and other young monks are leading. Their life seems to be totally detached from the rat race that us westerners know too well. Beyond his books he has few possessions, yet he truly seems to be content. Just by speaking with Cheuh, I felt a sense of calm, an aura of peace.

So much of what I’ve heard about Cambodia before I had came here was negative, and I’m pleased that I’ve seen a new side of the Khmer spirit. The chaos of the capital and the government corruption may have blinded me during my days here. True, I'd seen corrupt policemen with AK-47's, shaking down street vendors. I’d also seen politicians with too much power shut down entire streets, simply so that their motorcades could pass at high speed. They are all chasing the dollar, all pursuing more power.

With all these pessimistic scenes, I had forgotten that most Cambodians don’t live solely for those worldly, empty pursuits. The tenets of Buddhism remain a part of that honorable culture.

It’s been refreshing to get to know Cheuh tonight. He represents the real spirit of Cambodia, far more than those in power.

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