The people over at Lonely Planet are a little obsessed with Buddhist monks. Just have a gander at the cover photos they've chosen for their guides to Thailand, Bangkok, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Malaysia and Vietnam get off the hook because they aren't Buddhist countries. They tried to restrain themselves with Laos, but couldn't quite do it. There's a monk prominently displayed on the back.
And really, who can blame them? Monks are marvelously photogenic in their wonderful saffron-colored robes, often shielding their shaven heads from the sun with a bright yellow parasol. One of the things I most adore about Southeast Asia is seeing monks everywhere, particularly in unexpected places.
In many places, young men often become monks for just a short period of time, to give themselves a sort of "moral grounding" in preparation for adulthood. This can sometime be at the insistence of their parents, and might be something they take to with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. Monks, for instance, are not supposed to "take anything not freely given" (meaning, in the strictest sense, no buying anything either)... but if you go over to Bangkok's Panthip plaza (the world's greatest collection of computer and electronics stores), you'll often spy them buying iPods and laptops.
Until we got to Kratie, we had little interaction with monks outside of making way for them on sidewalks (they're not permitted to touch women, so as a courtesy Jessica would always give them a wide berth). But that was about to change. And it was all because of our new friend (introduced in Jessica's last post about Cambodia), Sam Nang.
Sam was born in a small village many miles from Kratie, on the other side of the Mekong River. His precocious intellect earned him a government scholarship to the English school in Kratie (the very school that Jessica and I soon found ourselves teaching in). It was a wonderful opportunity for Sam, but the problem was that it was so far away. His family, poor even by Cambodian standards, did not in any way have the means to pay for accomodations in town for him, and it was too far for him to travel each day on his bicycle.
And so they turned to the monks.
Sam went to stay at a nearby pagoda, living and working with the monks there. He was apprenticed to one monk in particular, and each morning when the monk returned from collecting alms (generally rice and bread), he would take care to leave some of it on his plate for Sam to eat when he was done. In this way, Sam was able to live close enough to town to attend his classes. And as little as he was able to get in the way of food, it was probably still more than he'd have gotten at home.
The evening that we first taught at his school, Sam asked if we wanted to go with him the following day to visit his pagoda. He was especially excited for us to meet "The Monk", whom we could already tell he regarded with something approaching awe. Needless to say, we were not about to turn him down.
The next day, we met up with him at 11am, in the same spot alongside the Mekong where he'd first pulled up to us on his bike. Before walking out to see his pagoda, though, we convinced him to come have lunch with us, our treat.
After lunch, the three of us walked the mile or two out to Sam's pagoda. It took about a half an hour, and we spent the entire time talking. He showed us the school that features him on their soccer team even though he's not a student there (he's a gifted soccer player), he asked us questions about English that made us realize how little we knew about our own language, and he told us about himself and his life at the pagoda. And then suddenly, we were there.
It was a large complex composed of a number of buildings. A small, dilapidated temple was obscured by a large, new one, still under construction and covered in scaffolding. We were led past these, and past a school filled with small children who started calling to us as we went by, and over to a small building with a sort of second-story balcony looking out over everything. Here we at last met The Monk.
Like everyone in Cambodia, he was a small man, and like so many monks he had an incredibly gentle face. (That's him, by the way, at the top of this post.) His English was very good, even better than Sam's, and he greeted us warmly and asked if he could show us the new temple they were building.
As we walked over, we began to acquire quite the entourage. A dozen or more of the children from the school started following us, giggling and racing about as The Monk explained to us that a group of Cambodians who had emigrated to the United States had sent back money, with the request that it be used to give the pagoda a new temple.
Inside, the temple was beautifully and elaborately decorated with murals depicting seminal events in the life of the Buddha, and The Monk asked if we wanted to have him explain any of the murals. As he led me around telling me the stories that went with each marvelous painting, Jessica began entertaining the children by taking their photos and then showing them the pictures.
As well as that went over with them, it was nothing compared to their reaction to when she next shot a quick video of them and let them watch it. They immediately wanted her to do it again, and began capering about and gesticulating wildly so they could see what they'd look like on video.
We next visited the section of the pagoda where the nuns lived. Several of them came out in their traditional white robes to talk to us (The Monk served as our translator). They were adorable women, all of them in their 60s or 70s, and all of them especially concerned that Jessica take care in the brutal midday sun. Because of her coloring, a suntan on Jessica often looks a little like a sunburn, and the nuns were all very worried about her. One of them playfully smacked her on the butt as they left to attend to their prayers.
We spent the better part of the day out at the pagoda, talking and laughing with all the monks. They were very excited to learn from us about life in the US, and just as eager to tell us about life in Cambodia. One of them, an adorably shy monk (he's on the left in this photo) who was constantly apologizing for his "bad English" (which was actually quite good), asked us if we wanted to come see his village. We would of course have loved to, but had already promised the teachers at Sam's school that we'd come back and teach for a second night. Similarly, it was with heavy hearts that we had to turn down The Monk when he asked if we could come to the school where he learned his English and help out there. In that case, though, we promised to return the very next night to do just that.
Eventually, our classes were almost upon us, and we had to say goodbye to all of our new friends. We would see them all the next day, of course, and get to know them even better. That, though, wouldn't happen until after yet another adventure... the most remarkable experience the two of us have had in all of our travels.
But that, of course, is another story. :)
All of this happened about three weeks ago. Just a few days ago, though, a new chapter of this story unfolded.
On this trip we've met thousands and thousands of people, and made dozens of new friends. Of all of those people, though, I think I can confidently say that The Monk is one of the very last we'd ever have expected to receive an email from.
It looks as if someone (a Canadian, judging from the domain) at some point set him up with an email account, and it's clearly a medium he's not especially comfortable with yet. The message he sent us, though, is one of the most touching we've ever received.
Dear Brother Timothy and Sister Jessica, it began, and went on to say how much he missed us. He was recently visiting a famous temple in the Kratie area, one he'd never been to before, and found himself thinking about us, about how much we would have enjoyed it. He relayed greetings from "Mr. Lucky" (Sam Nang) and all of our friends at the pagoda and the school, and said that he hoped we were still enjoying our trip.
When we'd eventually said our sad goodbyes to Sam and to all the monks, we were certain we'd never again have the chance to communicate with them. There really are no words to express our joy at receiving that email.
None at all.
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