Temple boys occupy one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder, but they can rise to great heights. Hun Sen’s family were very poor, and when he was 13 he was sent to Phnom Penh to become a temple boy at Wat Neakavoan. Today, as everyone knows, he’s the Prime Minister.
Souleang Keosupha is 21 years old and in the first year of a law degree at Build Bright University. Originally from a village in Ratanakiri province, he has two brothers and a sister and is the third in his family. His father is a farmer but his mother passed away in 1997 following the delivery of his youngest sister. The baby survived, but the neighbours were convinced the mother’s death was because an arp* had eaten the afterbirth after they failed to bury it correctly.
Keosupha was 7 years old at the time and in the second grade. A monk from his village noticed Keosupha studying hard, and took pity on him because he was motherless and his family was extremely poor. Four years later the monk took Keosupha to stay with him at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, where he was registered in Grade 2 at Preah Norodom Primary School, a kilometre from the monastery.
“Unlike other kids who cried when they were away from their family, I did not indulge in self pity but determined to return home a success, with pride.
“Every morning I was woken up at 4am by the monk, who sometimes punished me or sprayed water on me if it took me too long to get up. When you are 11 years old, you know how difficult it is. Later I needed the alarm clock to wake me up, but now it’s a habit to get up early.
“As soon as I got up I started to learn Pali straight away, then my public school homework. All the temple boys were the same. After that we would sweep, clean, water the plants, boil water, cook and prepare the breakfast and serve it. We ate after the monks had eaten, then we took turns washing the dishes. Only then could we go to school.
“After school, we prepared the food that the monks got from begging, then served them lunch and finally we ate. Then we were allowed to take a nap. Sometimes we were taught English by the monks during our spare time, then we prepared our own dinner, using the leftover food from lunchtime.
“During the rainy season we all had to participate in chanting from 8.30 a.m. to 9.00 a.m. We also chanted every time before we had meals. This merit-making was expressing gratitude to the donors for what they gave us to eat.
“The monk supported me with clothes and study materials, using money that people gave him. Sometimes he asked people directly to buy me things.
“My father has remarried now and has other two children. I only visit once a year, at Khmer New Year.
“I am now doing a degree in law. I could have chosen to study technical skills but while these would be useful to me personally, by studying law I will be able to assist my community as whole, as there are innumerable disputes and conflicts in our province, and the villagers there really need my support.
“The monk isn’t able to support me financially, so I pay my own university fees with support from my parents and relatives. Plus, I supplement this with a part-time job as an assistant to a cameraman, and I’m able to earn around $50 a month.
“In the future, I want to be a civil servant in Ratanakiri Province. I want to work as a lawyer or in fields related to the law.
“I will always remember the words of the monk who, despite having so little, helped me to pursue my education up to tertiary level. I owe the monk and my family so much. I have to go back and help my village.”
*Arp: vampire that preys on pregnant women.