Photographing Pagodas, Buddhist Monks in Cambodia
Big or busy cities have little appeal to me photographically or as a tourist. The only reason I even stayed in Phnom Penh was to buy an external hard drive for my laptop. Fortunately there were some unplanned special moments during my stay.
I found the above sleeping cat nearby a pagoda; I choose this picture as my main photo for this post to demonstrate my deeply buried (but still existent) sensitive side.
Phnom Penh does have some great architecture and what is immediately visible is that its people are very very poor. In contrast there is the modern Sorya shopping center which besides lacking super luxury retailers is a top notch mall. Who would have thought I would have my most modern and western experience here in Phnom Penh since arriving 2 months ago to Asia.
The mall was quite a sensation, interestingly also with the poorest Cambodians after it opened but not for shopping reasons. I heard there were crowds visiting just to ride the elevators and escalators (no doubt for the first time in their lives). Yes, the gap between the haves and have nots in Cambodia is immense.
Due to the poverty and the high number of tourist shopping and strolling around I was hesitant to do too much street and people photography.
It just did not seem right to stick a camera into the face of the poorest Cambodians. It is strange but I do not feel the same when I am in non-touristy places where people are more welcoming anyways.
But who can blame the poorest not being all smiles in touristy areas; who wants to have their photo taken and their souls stolen 200 times a day by overweight tourists with expensive cameras who hardly ever drop a dollar for beggars.
So as usual I made a random turn into an area which did not seem too touristy, just a small street with houses. It turned out to be housing area for monks and pagoda boys.
These “neighborhoods” are visually great for photography, they are definitely lack tourists and there is no danger of having to crop out a dreaded mobile phone shop from any picture.
Many monks in general are curious to walk up to tourists to conversate for a few minutes in English, some allow their photos taken and some do not, the later being the majority. It is a rare when someone actually requests their picture taken but it can happen.
At one time I was approached by a monk who wanted me to proof read a letter he wrote to thank some donators. So I did fix some minor mistakes after which we walked the grounds of the pagoda for a quick tour.
I am saying a quick tour because a few minutes after we started our walk the monk asked to sit down on a bench and talk there.
Being the not-so-bright, ignorant foreigner I only later put two and two together: since monks cannot eat after 1pm for the rest of the day (only drink water, soda or juice) they are probably not really interested in any extended physical activity by late afternoon or evening time.
I did tell the monk about how long it took me to realize this; he asked me if I thought he was very lazy to sit down so soon (I told him yes, at the time I did) which made him embarrassed to be a bad host. But I ensured it was understandable and we both had a good laugh about it.
By this time it was getting late and I promised I would return next day to continue our chit chat.
The next afternoon when I came back (bringing a couple quarts of fruit juice as gift with me which I called the monk’s dinner) I was invited into the monk’s house where I talked to him and his friends for three more hours about various very educational and entertaining topics.
I really do not know much about Buddhism and being a monk so here are some of the highlights of what I learned.
- a monk cannot kill, steal or lie (pretty straight forward)
- a monk cannot touch females (I asked him if he has seen the inside of the Sorya shopping center before or tried to ride the escalators; he said the mall is not really a place for a monk but he could only go when very few people are in there; by avoiding crowds he would avoid accidentally brushing against a female)
- no meals after 1pm (he said this was tough in the beginning but no problem now)
- a monk can only speak about 6 sentences to a female (I asked if per conversation or in a lifetime; the answer is in a lifetime – but I can only assume it is per female but I forgot to ask)
My private opinion: this last rule demonstrates the true wisdom of Buddhism, this one rule of not having to talk or listen to females can add years to a man’s life, speed up the journey towards enlightenment and to the attainment of inner peace; haha could not resist to write this down!
There is an unfortunate reason (once again just my opinion) why some monks sometimes return to being common men and do not continue for the rest of their lives, and it is a financial reason. If their family needs their assistance they may have to find a job.
This just does not sound right to be forced to give up being a monk for money, kind of goes against the point of (practicing and teaching) Buddhism but it is reality.
I asked to hear a monk joke of course, most of the details got lost in translation but it had something to do with balls being exposed from underneath the robe during prayer.
The monk I talked most also told me he was very shy about his level of English and usually is very hesitant to approach foreigners.
I was a bit surprised by his insecurity and told him he can only improve with practice and I believe many tourists are also shy to approach a monk for a conversation out of respect or for other reasons but would really enjoy an interaction [with a monk].
I asked him how much he knew about Tao or Taoism which he was not familiar with (at least by the name: Tao) so to further encourage him I drew the easy to understand parallel between learning English and climbing a mountain.
He was seemingly interested about the concept and as I was doing this I realized I was teaching – lecturing – advising a Buddhist monk about how to handle his insecurities and life’s struggles. Definitely not an everyday experience in my life.
He did acknowledge I was a wise man (I did not argue with him, it would have been impolite) and me being 40 years old might have had something to do with it too. It is refreshing to be on a continent where the elders are respected. He is 22 years old and have been a monk for the past 7 years.
I was in Phnom Penh during Chinese New Year and there were offerings like this all over the town. This represented another very visible contrast between the haves and the poverty stricken starving beggars literally just a few feet away:
Housing for Buddhist monks nearby the pagoda where I had my conversations:
Inside a monk’s house; the monk in the middle was the shy one about his English knowledge:
Stairs on the grounds of a pagoda leading up to monk’s rooms; the metal door was not higher than 5 feet and had a funny warning sign on it: MIND YOUR HEAD!
Just like in Vietnam, someone always drying something somewhere in Cambodia too; the photo is simply a slice of pagoda life:
I started with a candid shot of this monk writing but he quickly noticed me. He was doing his English homework, I corrected one mistake in it, we exchanged a few words and that was it:
A 100 year old pagoda, the one where I spent two afternoons photographing:
Shot with a telephoto lens to remain anonymous for a few seconds (blending in is not an option anywhere); a monk studying and a boy daydreaming:
About four feet tall statues on the grounds of the pagoda:
Nice colors of windows walls and doors; I was busy snapping away on the streets nearby my great pagoda find:
Modest housings of Buddhist monks:
This monk was the “exception” requesting to have his photo taken: he is sitting on the stairs of another form of monk housing – a house on stilts:
Even if there is trash on the streets nearby the pagoda it is swept into piles; this building used to be a school but not anymore:
I found these two monks in exactly this position; not only that they were willing to be photographed but the scene had many good elements.
The color of the house against their clothes, the sandals laying around, what they were sitting on and not the least the contrast of old and new in the form of the Coke can:
During another visit to another pagoda this man started a conversation with me with good English skills. This photo was taken in his room after a couple of hours of talking.
The last conversation topic was the unavoidable subject of recent genocide in Cambodia. First hand stories about war, killings, starvation, poverty; not easy subjects to listen to while looking someone in the eyes: