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Getting to know the modern work Generation M

By: Expat Advisory Posted: January-01-2006 in
Expat Advisory

Orange-robed monks are a dime-a-dozen on Phnom Penh's streets. According to Jordyan Edmiston and local monk Nhean Pov, they are always up for a good chat.

Take a stroll around Phnom Penh on any given Sunday, and you are bound to encounter a pack of teenaged monks,hanging in the afternoon sun or cruising the museum scene. More likely than not, they will smile at you, ask you where you are from, and inquire if you like Cambodia. Embrace them in conversation and you'll come to learn that Khmers choose the cloth over the conventional for different reasons than young men and women in the west.

It is traditional in Cambodia for all men to join the monkhood for at least three months to show devotion to their temples and their families, but the current generation of student monks has a practical as well as spiritual reason for sacrificing their Friday nights hanging out with their peers.

Today, being an apprentice monk not only provides (mostly rural) students an opportunity to learn the teachings of the Buddha, it is also provides them the chance to access a high school and university education in Phnom Penh they would otherwise be unable to afford.

Young teenagers apply to be a temple boy in Phnom Penh through a temple in their home province. Once accepted, they live at one of the many temples dotted around Phnom Penh and attend Buddhist high school (putti ka wityealai) to learn Buddhist doctrine, Pali and Sanskrit languages, and the usual public school subjects. English is an emphasized part of the curriculum. Upon graduation, they attend private and Buddhist universities (putti maha wityealai) while continuing to live at the temple.

Today, times are changing. A new program allows teenage girls to apply to be nuns, live at the temple, and study at Buddhist and public high schools. Ten nuns joined Wat Langka in 2007, and several other temples are opening their doors and dorms to this new standard of equal education. The nuns blend in at school by wearing the secular navy and white school uniforms, then don white clothing at the temple for daily chants with the older nuns.

Moving to Phnom Penh is not a free ride. Although temples offer free housing, food and classes at Buddhist high schools and Buddhist universities, the monks have to pony up the cash for private university classes, mototaxis, utilities, mobile phones and hours spent in internet cafes. On the plus side, motodops and people in the community occasionally give them a pious discount

Budgets are tight for the families left in countryside. They make ends meet by accepting offerings from the community for presiding over temple ceremonies and attending afterhours gigs. The bread-and-butter earners for student monks are weddings, funerals and blessings. With the real estate boom in Phnom Penh, 'preah pisnukar' groundbreaking ceremonies are on the rise, asking forgiveness for disturbing the spirit who guards the location of a new building. They preside over 'lerk reah sai' ceremonies to bring happiness to a new house or bless a child's birthday and conduct 'katta ngu' so children can give thanks to their parents.

The temple schedule makes learning the focus of the day and frees them from distractions that lay students encounter. Mornings start with chanting from 5:30-6:30am, breakfast at 7am, then off to Buddhist schools that dot the Phnom Penh skyline. Their second (and last) meal of the day is taken at the temple at 11am, unless they are tight on time and use pocket money to grab takeout between classes before the clock strikes 12noon.

After a mid-day snooze, they pack off back to the free Buddhist schools from 2-5pm, or outside university and English classes if funds allow. Temple boys and monks brush up on their English in part time classes from 5:30-6:30, while older students might attend private university classes from 5:30-8:30. After winding down with a half hour of chanting until 9, they disburse to tutor younger students and study, then it's lights out by 11.

Sundays are their only day off from school, but there are no lie-ins allowed due to pressing chanting obligations. Their day off lets them study with friends, do community outreach and wander to government-approved locations. You won't find them in cafes or restaurants, mooching along the riverfront or on weekend trips to Sihanoukville, but you'll run into monks sipping iced coffees next to the Royal Palace (only liquids are allowed after noon), visiting the tigers at Phnom Ta Mao Zoo and sitting in the sun at the National Museum trying out their English with the tourists.

Older monks act as role models to younger students to share their teachings with the community. Many spend Sundays teaching public school children about Buddhism, hygiene and respect for teachers and elders, and encourage them to set goals for success in the future.

Whether they split their education between religious and secular schools or stick with the temple curriculum, monks sitting sidesaddle on motos swinging laptop cases blend Buddhism and capitalism in their university degrees. They squeeze classes in finance, law and English between Pali and Sanskrit to prepare for their post-temple lives. It's not uncommon for monks to be working towards a degree in finance, accounting, law, English, or computer science. Most monks leave the temple when they find a job after graduation but they will often donate back to the temple to give other students the educational opportunities they received.

Student monks can be a great resource for non-Khmers to better understand the country we live in. So take a twilight stroll around your neighbourhood temple to meet your neighbours or introduce yourself to a monk on a Sunday afternoon outing. You might learn about Buddhism or hear their opinion about Cambodia's WTO membership. You will give them the opportunity to expand their book learning with questions about outside culture. Plus, having that much time on their hands to reflect, they might just hold the answer to the eternal question: Why do they call the delightfully fishy prahouk dish 'Cambodian cheese'?

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