To see monks in their saffron robes in the street is common in Laos and Cambodia. We saw them occasionally in Vietnam and not at all in China. At the beginning of the trip Kasenya would startle and gasp at the sight of the orange robes, but by the end of the trip she didn’t even flinch.
Before traveling to SE Asia, everything that I knew about Buddhism had come from the writings of iconic Buddhists like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. This is like learning about Catholicism by reading papal decrees or from scholars. It doesn’t describe the every day lives of Buddhists.
It was extremely interesting and educational for us to spend time teaching at a Buddhist monastery in Cambodia. We shattered some of our own stereotypes of Buddhist monks while we were there. It is very common, almost required, for young Buddhist men to spend some time in a monastery which one assumes they pursue for spiritual reasons. After seeing some of the novices out behind the monastery having a cigarette, calling to us from the upper balcony of their residence or lathering their young bodies shamelessly in the outdoor bathing area, we quickly realized that some of these naughty young men were sent there by their mothers.
In fact, some guidebooks warn western women about being lured to isolated areas of the monasteries. There have been reported cases of monks attempting to sexually assault western women. All monks are prohibited from touching a woman. If a monk attempts to touch a woman, you should be wary of them.
As a woman, I had to be mindful of my inclination to shake hands or hug the monks that we got to know. Although they were surprised by it, the nuns at the Orphanage in Vietnam were open to my hugs.
There are also scams that are perpetrated by men dressing as monks. Traditionally monks have fed themselves by collecting alms in the early morning. They still go around to businesses or homes to collect rice or money. People give alms to monks because the monks are deemed to be more virtuous therefore giving alms is believed to bring good karma. At one hotel in Cambodia we could see this ritual being carried out every morning. But sometimes the monks are impostors. You can only be certain that they are genuine, if you know them personally.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia we encountered monks who were trying to sell good luck tokens in the tourist area of town. We asked about this and found out that these are definitely impostors as real monks don’t try to sell you things. This creates an unfortunate mistrust by foreigners since real monks and nuns are becoming catalysts of change and strong proponents of education within their own societies.
We were very fortunate to have met several Buddhist monks and nuns in our travels. We had a special opportunity to talk to Somnieng, the monk who heads the Life and Hope Association; the organization where we taught English in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was particularly memorable because in occurred in the back of a pick up truck driving down dusty Cambodian back roads while going to visit an orphanage and a school. (Somnieng was careful not to touch or let his clothing touch Kasenya and I). Somnieng’s efforts and the work of other monks to educate and benefit the people of Cambodia is truly inspirational.
Bissky Dziadyk Family
Travelling the world as a family since 2008.
In September 2008 our family embarked on a four month journey through South East Asia. Traveling with a child who uses a wheelchair presented its challenges, but following the Mekong River through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with a wheelchair was truly an adventure.
When we move beyond our fears and embrace our dreams, the Universe has an odd way of not only supporting us but giving us more opportunities than we ever imagined. Embarking on a journey with an open heart we can not help but be changed forever by the experience. Indeed it would be a waste to return untouched in the spiritual realm.
September: China (Beijing, Xi’an,Kunming, Yuanyang)
October: Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay) and
Laos (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane)
November: Southern Vietnam (Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta)
December: Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville).