The Monks of Cambodia

Cambodia is a beautiful country (And I’m sure you can tell from my many posts about my trip how much I loved it). Ancient Temples. Kind warm people. Great Markets. Amazing food. A sometimes troubled history.  

Cambodia is a country dominated by the color green. Dirt roads wind through grassy banks. Trees slowly eclipse the mossy stones of Angkor Wat. Green tinted water snakes its way through Phnom Penh. The green is so dominated that the Monk’s are shocking. Bright pops of orange against an otherwise cool backdrop.

A monk speaks to a woman in Phnom Penh
A monk speaks to a woman in Phnom Penh

I became fascinated by these men behind the robes. I took pictures of them whenever I saw them. At first I felt awkward, only snapping photos of their back from far away.  Eventually I would greet them and ask permission to take a photo. They would always silently agree, and line up in a solemn line facing the camera.

A monk blesses people with water at a temple in Phnom Penh
A monk blesses people with water at a temple in Phnom Penh

Afterwards we would exchange low bows and I would continue on my way. I was the only one who ever spoke.  The monks seemed so mysterious. Men of god, cloaked in their orange robes. One day while biking along the Mekong I saw a clothesline hung carefully with orange monk robes. Lines up neatly next to the robes were several pairs of matching orange boxer shorts. Monk Underwear. It felt scandalous.

Monks on the Ferry in Phnom Penh
Monks on the Ferry in Phnom Penh
Trio of Monks hiking near Siem Reap, Cambodia
Trio of Monks hiking near Siem Reap, Cambodia

It poured during my visit to the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh. For the most part we were able to walk through the drizzles to see the grounds, but during a particularly nasty downpour we got trapped under the eaves of the main building. While most of the tourists huddled near the front, we walked around the side to see the view of the other parts of the ground.

A young monk holding a journal leaned out of a nearby window. After a few minutes I asked him if it would be possible to take a photo of him. He nodded, and I took a photo, thanked him and began to move on.

“Wait,” he said. “Can I please see my photo?”

Monk at the palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Monk at the palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I immediately handed him the camera (Being careful not to touch his hand as I heard monks were not supposed to come into contact with women.) After looking at the photo I took, he asked for my name and introduced himself. As it turns on he was studying Foreign Affairs at university and was only a year younger than me.

He explained to me that most men in Cambodia were expected to serve some time as a monk, but most leave and pursue civilian life.  As the rain poured down, we talked more about his life and our lives in the US. After posing for a few more photos, he gave us his e-mail and asked if we would send him the photos once we got home.

Conversing with Sokney at the Palace

Conversing with Sokney at the Palace

Needless to say, my encounter with Sokney completely change my view of the mystique surrounding the monks. All the sudden I recognized them for they were. Modern people, living in a modern world, celebrating their faith in an ancient religion.

Have you ever had an encounter while traveling that changed your previous perceptions?

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4 Responses to The Monks of Cambodia

  1. Hannah says:

    I was lucky enough to spend time with some monks in Dharamsala, India – one of whom was the official translator to HH the Dalai Lama. Rather than change my previous perceptions though, this experience merely strengthened them. These men were gracious, kind and strong, with hearts as open and pure as the mountains around them. It was a very special time and I’m so glad you have taken me back there with this lovely post :) Thank you!

  2. Arielle Tabb says:

    “Thanks for sharing, this can be a fantastic article. Really Cool.”

  3. Pingback: A path to an education. Monks in Cambodia « Vision Questions

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