This is Saturday. I went to see a few of all those Wats in Phnom Penh. One of the moto drivers gave me company. He studies tourism and appears to be well educated and interested.
I though this is a beautiful temple. It belongs to Wat Sarawan, which was among the first five Pagodas in Phnom Penh. This particular temple is from 1936. Unlike most major temples in Phnom Penh it is not yet renovated. However, it does not seem to be in a particular bad shape. However, my companion told me the head of this pagoda is sort of uneducated and wants to replace this beautiful temple with a modern concrete one. For a student of tourism this is irresponsible. I realized in many places that it is quite a common praxis to replace old temples. So it is not easy to find really old pagodas. I do believe many of those temples, among them this one, should be kept because they are bearers of history and cultural identity.
This monk was standing near the gate of the temple and my companion arranged for a short conversation. He is 30 years old and came two years ago from I forgot which province. The pagoda gives him the chance to live in Phnom Penh and to study. What he studies is Pali and English. He smiled skeptically when I asked him whether he wants to remain a monk for all his live. He indicated that he would prefer a rather worldly career.
This is inside the temple. There are many Buddha all over the place. The structure is decorated with complex ornaments.
Walls and the ceiling are covered with paintings representing scenes from the live of Buddha. Some people where praying in the temple so I avoided using the flash. This is why I could not take pictures of those beautiful paintings properly.
There was a group of monks sitting in one of the corners when we entered. This group did not exactly embody the persistent images of monks I have. One of them had fixed a hammock to the pillars, was laying in it and listening to pop music with his walkman. Apparently all of them had made themselves comfortable. I commented something like ‘those are quite modern monks’ which my companion felt free to translate. They found it funny. All of them were not even properly dressed, wearing only the bottom part of their robes. The guy in the window dressed up for this picture whereas the two other guys preferred not to be in the picture. I should stress that I do not want to spoil the images of Buddhist monks here. Rather I try to give an authentic picture of my experience.
This stupa is standing next to the temple. I learnt it is only since recently that the head of the pagoda allows monks to actually live in it.
This is at the bottom of this stupa, where a group of people is having a relaxed discussion. Only about halve of them appear to be monks.
After we visited this pagoda we went to the next one, which is close by Wat Ounalom. It was raining by the time we arrived. I mentioned earlier that my companions spend about 8 years of his live in a pagoda and it was in this pagoda where he has spent those 8 years. So he knew many of the people and the environment quite well.
He introduced me to some monks. Because it was raining they invited me to join them in one of the many houses on the compound, which apparently serves as some kind of living room. There were a number of monks watching soccer on TV. However, not only monks, but some students as well. We got into some kind of conversations. The monks where sort of sluggish and it was not easy to keep it going. However, I asked some question about them being monks and got some interesting answers. Only one of them intended to remain monk for all his life. He does so because he thinks this is a good way of helping sinful people, promoting his religion, and developing the nation. When I asked him what he thinks about other religions and their members he told me any religion is valuable and helps people to act good. When I asked him how it is to live up to the strict rules that apply to monks he told me when he is bored of being a monk he quits for some time to do what he cannot do while being a monk.
Since those monks were not very enthusiastic about conversation I ended up having a conversation with one of the pagoda boys. He is 19 years old, came from the countryside as well and studies English. His English really was pretty good, unlike the English of many people who claim to study English. He pointed out that all those restrictions for monks do not apply to him and that he does not intend to become a monk. Interestingly, all of those monks and students had exercised their right to vote. More interestingly, the pagoda boy kept the secrecy of the ballot while the monks who did not pointed out that they voted for change and for Sam Rainsy. I was surprised because I heard earlier that monks are not supposed to be partisan. However, those young people appeared to be both knowledgeable about and interested in current political affairs to a high extent.
Later another man arrived who was maybe 40 years old. He was not a monk and dressed rather like a clerk. I did not bother to start a conversation with him. I learnt that he is actually policy maker working at the Senate. This sounds better than it is because the Senate does not seem to have much influence in Cambodia. However, this guy is in touch with ongoing law making and turned out to be a very good chat.
Quickly the current political situation became subject of this conversation. Nobody in the room seemed to be a strong supporter of a party other than Sam Rainsy. I asked the Senate person whether or not he expects violent demonstrations after the official result of the election is announced on August 8. Without hesitating he said yes. We spend quite some time elaborating on the options of forming a government right now, how likely an intervention of the king might be and how likely a three party coalition is. This seemed to become more interesting to the monks as well and from time to time one or the other of them participated. However, at this point boxing was in TV and some of them spend close attention. Later I learned that the Senate guy actually teaches law at more than one university and has a very good standing among the monks of this pagoda. And I learnt that he actually lives on the compound of the pagoda. Once again politics and religion appear to be closely tight to each other.
I cannot present the entire discussion here. However I found most of those monks quite politicized and some pretty active in thinking about contemporary politics. All of them appeared to be rather skeptical of the current government. I start to understand that those wats are so much more than just physical structures housing meditating monks. Many and diverse people live here and pagodas are in various ways influential institutions serving important purposes. Among others they serve as housing for poor university students.
When the rain stopped we continued our tour through the compound of this pagoda. Unfortunately those monks did not want me to take a picture of how they spend their time in their living room.
This stupa is said to house an eyebrow hair of Buddha himself. This might sound rather not very exciting. However, eyebrows seem to have some meaning among monks. Monks do not only shave their head but their eyebrows as well. From what I understand this is to abandon worldly enjoyments. It is meant to prevent monks from looking handsome or in some ways attractive to women. Monks do not shake women’s hands.
This is inside the stupa. Somewhere in here is the eyebrow hair but I do not know where exactly. The candles upfront are said to burn about 3 month.
This is what appears to be some sort of halo. It is cheap electronic from plastic including tiny chains of lights which run constantly from the periphery to the center and back. In subtle and not so subtle ways the religious institutions in this country seems to be subject of significant changes.
This is a laying Buddha above the door to this stupa. I learnt that it is old. This Buddha as well as the others in this stupa has been newly painted. This, however, seems to be subject of controversy.
This building houses the head of Cambodia’s Buddhist hierarchy. I heard that his predecessors have been quite intelligent (“clever”) while he is not.
This is a stupa next to it housing the remains of an earlier Patriarch.
The roof in the background belongs to the main temple of this pagoda. It has two stories and an “Angkor Wat style” roof. It is built in the 70s and not exactly a master.
Afterwards we went to this Khmer place close to riverside to have some food. My companion is on his phone, which he holds in high regard.