The first monk’s tale (Wat Preah Yu Vong)

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 3.48.13 PMWat Preah Yu Vong is one of my favourite monasteries in Phnom Penh, not least because it’s utterly atypical. The main gate is on Norodom Boulevard south of Independence Monument. The gate is never closed, and indeed can’t be closed, because only the decorated arch remains. It gives on to what looks like, and is, a network of narrow residential alleys. I’m told the alleys are unsafe, the haunt of drug addicts and petty criminals, but it looks peaceful enough at mid-morning, a time when evil-doers are still in bed.

Once upon a time Wat Preah Yu Vong was just like any other monastery, neither particularly famous nor particularly obscure, housing the normal number of monks in the normal complement of buildings. Everyone, monks and nuns and temple boys and cats, lived happily together until fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The Khmer Rouge were the enemies of religion, and the monks of Wat Preah Yu Vong, like all others, were disrobed and sent to labour camps, where no doubt most of them died.

Phnom Penh fell again, this time to the Vietnamese and renegade ex-Khmer Rouge, on 7 January 1979, a date that continues to be celebrated as Victory Day. Traumatised Cambodians began making their way back to the city, searching for lost families and lost homes or simply for food. The first to arrive squatted in whatever houses they could find; if the true owners returned later they could either fight for their rights or just move on. Mostly they moved on. People began living in parks, along the river, and wherever else they could find a place and build a home from sheets of tin and plastic. One of these was places was the abandoned Wat Preah Yu Vong.

A former nun named Koma Pich made her home in the preah vihear. Koma Pich was the chul rup (human vehicle) for a boramey spirit, or in other words, a shaman. She installed her gods (meaning their statues) in the preah vihear and offered help and advice to anyone in need, which in those days was practically everyone. Her performance as a shaman was electrifying, and so great was the respect in which she was held, and so entrenched her position, that when monks returned to the wat they were unable to expel her. The vihear was simply divided in half, the monks on one side and Koma Pich on the other.

At first the government placed severe restrictions on the monks, not even allowing them to leave the monastery for the daily alms round, but time and the political tide were on their side. By the late 1980s religion was being viewed with official favour again, and the head monk asked the authorities to give back the temple. The authorities agreed, and Koma Pich packed her gods and vanished from history.

With the vihear back in their hands the monks installed new Buddha images (the originals had disappeared, nobody knew when or where) and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls so that it became a proper temple again. But the grounds remained overrun with squatters. They’d subdivided the monastic buildings and built them into their houses, turned the paths into alleys, planted gardens and set up teashops, and generally transformed Preah Yu Vong into an urban village. Even the chedey, the shrines for the ashes of the dead, had disappeared inside people’s living rooms, ghosts or no ghosts. The monks tried to buy up the houses, but the price of real estate had started to rocket, the monks were poor, and nobody wanted to sell.

And that’s where things remain today, a single ornate roof sheltering a handful of monks floating over a sea of quite solid little houses.

Wat Preah Yu Vong now has just nine monks, a very small number for a monastery in Phnom Penh, and its history was told to me by one of them, Thach Panith. As his mixed Vietnamese-Khmer name indicates, he’s Kampuchea Krom, meaning an ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam, although his parents settled in Cambodia long ago. They placed him in a village monastery as a temple boy when he was very young because they couldn’t afford to feed and educate him, and he liked the monastic life and became a novice at the age of 15. Eventually he became a full monk, graduated from Buddhist high school, and moved to the capital and Wat Preah Yu Vong. He’s now studying archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He enjoys the subject and wants to study more and use his knowledge to benefit society.

When he gets sick he prays to Preah Put (the Buddha) and to his dead parents. Belief in spirits and the ancestors, he says, predates Buddhism, and the people can’t forget them. For this reason he doesn’t criticise people who follow different religions or who believe in spirits, and he can’t say these people are bad or wrong, because he’s met people who say they’ve seen the mrieng kongveal and the chumneang pteah, although he never has himself, and he thinks they spoke the truth for them. He enjoys the life of a monk, the prayer and study and meditation, and has no thought of leaving the monkhood.

Pralung Pheakdey (“Spirit of Honesty”) is different. He’s 23, and he’s been a monk for six years. An orphan of sorts, he was brought up by his grandmother in a village in Kandal province and entered the monkhood because he wanted to earn merit for his lost mother, and also because a kru told him that his mother would come back if he became a monk.

His mother disappeared when he was eight years old. He can’t remember her, but people in the village have told him she might have gone to Thailand to look for work. He can’t remember her face. His father divorced his mother about the time he was born. He knows his father but has never spoken to him and doesn’t want to. His father, he says, was irresponsible, gave him life and then abandoned him. He’s not certain if will be a monk forever, because he doesn’t like public speaking, and monks have to do a lot of public speaking, such as giving sermons.

One final point about the urban village of Wat Preah Yu Vong: it’s northern edge runs along street 308, which is rapidly becoming hipster central for a certain segment of the expat community. One of the best pizza places in town is there, and an entire alley off 308 and within the Preah Yu Vong village is now lined with extremely stylish bars. Real estate values here really should rocket, but they can’t because nobody has valid land titles – they’re all squatters.


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, out in August at a bookshop near you, provided you live in Cambodia. If you can’t wait to hear more about monks, you can sneak a preview look at the Second Monk’s Tale and the Third Monk’s Tale.


Buddha meets God

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Buddha worshiped by the gods

The 31 worlds are stacked like plates in a cupboard. The world we know is fifth from the bottom, the four below are the hell-worlds, and the 26 above are the heavens.

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The Buddhist cosmos: our world is the one where the two cones meet, heavens above, hells below. From Huntington archives.

There is, of course, no God in this cosmos, because it has no beginning and no end, and is not even real, being the product of mind and misapprehension. There are however, gods in the heavens, and one of them is surprisingly like the Christian (Jewish, Muslim) God (Yahweh, Allah). His name is Baka Brahma, (any resemblance to the name of the current President of the US is purely coincidental, I swear), and you can learn about him in the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta, one of the holy texts of Buddhism (look for a copy in your nearest monastery library).

This divine being – his name means “Crane Brahma”, and I have no idea why – is an object lesson in the sad effects of pride. He began as a human, a hermit named Kesava, and through his many good deeds was reborn as a deva (a higher god) in one of the highest heavens. Now the hubris kicks in: his confidence in his goodness led to pride, and thanks to his pride he began to sink downwards through the heavens, from one reincarnation to the next (because reincarnation applies to gods as much as to humans), until he arrived in the middle heavens where he was no more than a common or garden brahma (intermediate-level god).

Buddha+and+Baka+BrahmaBuddha reveals Baka’s previous lives, which he had forgotten – here Baka, as the hermit Kesava, saves some people from an an angry naga. In this life the Buddha had been Kessava’s student. From Amida-ji Retreat Temple Romania (there’s a Buddhist retreat in Romania?)

Gods, as you know, live very long lives, and the Crane God had lived so long that he now forgot that he had ever had any previous lives. He was, in fact, convinced that he was immortal, and had existed from the beginning of the universe. In fact he became convinced that he was the only god (God, Yahweh, Allah) and that he had created the Universe. It’s the sort of mistake any divinity in his position might make.

defeat4The Buddha, who knew better, went to visit this lonely god in his heaven in order to remove his illusions (“I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and it’s me…”) The god, who wasn’t a bad sort at heart, welcomed the Buddha and couldn’t help bragging about himself (“I am the One God, etc etc”).  The Buddha informed him that his heaven was only one of many, and he himself  one of many brahma-gods.

Baka couldn’t believe this, and challenged the Buddha to a vanishing contest – each would disappear from the sight of the other, and sure enough, Baka was unable to escape from the sight of the Buddha, while the Buddha easily escaped from Baka. (It’s a little difficult to explain why the Enlightened One and the god chose this peculiar form of contest, but it has to do with the doctrine of Dependent Origination, which means that the apparent reality of the world originates from our ignorance of its non-reality – or at least I think that’s what it means. Baka is ignorant of his limitations, the Buddha has complete knowledge, so the Buddha has access to worlds where Baka does not exist, while Baka is confined to the one world that he thinks he created and rules).

History Of Buddhism

History Of Buddhism

The Buddha disappears from the sight of  Baka Brahma – from Daily

This is about as close as Buddhism comes to critiquing the Western concept of a single omnipotent creator-god. That concept is based on a complex of what are ultimately metaphysical positions – the apparent world (world of the senses) is real, and the senses therefore reliable (basic to Western scientific thought); time moves in a line, from past to future (Buddhist and Hindu time moves in cycles, forever returning to the starting point); the world, therefore, has a beginning and that beginning has a cause which exists outside it, which is God. I can’t see many points where Buddhism and Christianity could agree on fundamentals.

The second monk’s tale

(Extract from Spirit Worlds, my forthcoming investigation of Cambodian religion and belief, due out in October. This section describes the daily life of a monk).


Sothear is 27 and a native of Prey Veng province. He entered the Sangha when he was 14 because his family were very poor and could not afford an education for him. After graduating from Grade 12 (final High School) he moved to Phnom Penh and now lives at Wat Tuol Tom Poung near the Russian Market. This is how he spends his day:

The day begins at four in the morning when the drum wakes everyone for morning prayers. After that he studies or prepares for the day, and at around six he has a breakfast of rice-soup, eggs, and dried fish prepared by a daun chi. He takes this alone or with the monks who share his living quarters.

[NOTE: daun chi, or yeay chi, are the elderly ladies who live in monasteries – they wear black trousers and white shirts, shave their heads, and are not, despite common belief among Westerners, nuns.]

0fcbf8aa0a86b6054471fac96f34d7e6At around eight he goes out on his alms round. He visits shops and houses around Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), collecting donations – these are usually instant noodles, cooked rice, and cash, and he has no control over what is offered.

He gets back to the monastery by around 10 or 10.30 because he has to eat by noon. When he first became a monk he found this the most difficult part of the life (“often I starved, and I ate a lot of sweets and drank coffee and soft drink to stop the hunger”), but eventually he grew accustomed to it. He prepares his own lunch, usually rice, noodles, vegetables and fruit, and perhaps some chicken or beef or pork purchased for him by the temple boys, using whatever was donated that morning, although the monks in the dormitory share what they’ve gathered.

Cleaning is usually done by a daun chi, but if no daun chi is available he does this himself after his lunch. He takes a nap, then does some reading to prepare for his classes at Build Bright University, where he’s studying IT, because his ambition is to work as a database administrator for an NGO or private company. Most of the cash he collects goes towards his university fees and travel to and from classes, although some is given to the temple boys to buy chicken or fish and essentials such as salt and cooking oil.

monkPhoto by John Einar Sandvand

It was difficult to find a monastery when he first came to live in the city, because so many monks from the provinces want to come to Phnom Penh to study. The country monasteries have few monks, but the city monasteries are crowded. Wat Toul Tom Poung has three hundred monks, and the biggest, like Wat Ounalaom, Wat Mahamontrei, and Wat Botum, have a thousand or more. Nevertheless he considers himself lucky, because he doesn’t have to pay for his electricity and water and food as monks in some other monasteries in the city do.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 8.41.12 PMAnd gladly would he learn, and gladly teach…

“Buddhist monk Han Kimsoy teaches students–mostly orphans and other vulnerable children, many of them infected or affected by HIV and AIDS–in a school in the Beungkak neighborhood of Phnom Penh which is run by the Salvation Centre Cambodia, an organization that works with Buddhist monks and other activists to do education and advocacy and care for people infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.”

Photo by Paul Jeffrey, and please visit the website.

Sothear learned Pali and the usual chants in his village monastery in Prey Veng. This knowledge is essential, because he gathers with the other monks in the preah vihear on the holy days each month and on major festivals to recite chants. He also understands meditation, but only practices it on holy days.

monk8Photo by John Einar Sandvand

Ch’long tonle: crossing the river

2d1f57408c49031607965b78db9fa39244f06b62From the website of an organisation called, through which you can give “medical supplies and other equipment that enable safe childbirth for a woman from the poor areas of Cambodia.”

In Khmer giving birth is called ch’long tonle, meaning “crossing the river” (it’s the mother who makes the crossing). Mitty Steele has an excellent article on her Banyan Blog, and with her permission I’m reproducing it here.

One of the most dangerous moments in a woman’s life is giving birth, especially when access to quality medical care is not easily available.  In Khmer, the term to give birth is called “ch’long tonle” which means to “cross the river”. The elders use this phrase to describe the dangerous journey of crossing the river, which was oftentimes difficult and dangerous. Some would make it, others would drown. The phrase is appropriate in describing the perilous and uncertain journey of childbirth.
According to UNICEF, Cambodia’s maternal mortality rate is 170 per 100,000 live births (2013). While the rate has improved significantly since 1990 (1,200 per 100,000), it is still one of the highest in the world. The biggest challenge is access to quality medical care and adequately trained medical staff prepared to handle the variety of emergency situations that often complicate delivery.  In remote rural areas it’s even more difficult as the lack of medical training and equipment lead to heavy reliance on the community midwife and traditional practices. Although there are provincial hospitals (and referral hospitals) in rural areas, many births are still conducted at home due to the lack of access, high cost or traditional beliefs. As a result, the midwife plays a vital role in helping the expectant mother along the dangerous journey. The Cambodian Council of Midwives (CCM) are trained and certified by the Ministry of Health. The CCM and NGOs have helped to train midwives across the country, which has helped to lower the maternal mortality rate. However, there are still many communities where access is still difficult and thus traditional care and beliefs are more prevalent.

For most cultures, there are traditional beliefs when a woman is pregnant. In Cambodian culture in particular, special care must be taken to prevent emotional or physical distress to the mother. For example, Khmers traditionally believe that pregnant women should not attend any funerals, visit the home of someone who has recently passed away, or visit someone who had difficulty in childbirth. The belief is to prevent her from emotional distress, as well as prevent bad spirits around her. Many traditional beliefs during pregnancy also concern the size of the baby. For example, pregnant woman should not eat spicy foods, take baths at night or take naps during the day. They believe doing these things would increase the size of the baby making for a difficult delivery.

When it comes to the actual delivery I asked my mother about some traditional beliefs and practices. Since most of her children were born in modern hospitals in Phnom Penh, she told me what she remembered seeing as a child growing up in rural Cambodia in the mid 1940s and 50s. Back then, when a woman is ready to give birth, the men gather and set out thorns (bon’la sa’et) around the outside of the house to ward off any bad spirits and animals who might smell the blood from the mother and new child. Sometimes they would give the woman something special to drink, a type of tea to induce labor (phka raing phnom). When a woman is ready to give birth scissors were were placed under the pillow so that spirits don’t harm the infant or woman. Then the woman begins the difficult process of ch’long tonle. 

When a woman crosses the river safely, certain traditional procedures are carried out. For example, the placenta was usually buried in the yard around the house. Then there is the common practice called ‘cha’a plung’, which is essentially “roasting’. After the baby is delivered, the woman lies on a bed while a fire (fueled by wood or charcoal) is lit under her. The practice is believed to help heat the body so that all the blood and bodily fluids flows out of the body faster making for a quicker recovery. When my mother had me in a remote rural community during the Khmer Rouge, my father asked the commune leader if he could collect some wood and cha’a plung for my mother after the delivery. After giving birth to seven children, this was the first time she had ever been “roasted”.

Everything after delivery concerns heat. Woman are now encouraged to eat spicy foods and sometimes drink liquor. The liquor is usually served as shots and given to the women (sometimes three times a day for three days). The heat from the spicy food and liquor is once again meant to heat up the body so that the blood flows for better circulation. A hot rock wrapped in cloth was sometimes placed on a woman’s stomach after giving birth to help decrease the swelling, force the excess fluids out and help the woman’s uterus to contract. During the healing process,  traditional beliefs dictate that a woman should not go outside or be in the daylight for one month following the delivery because she is still weak and her blood is still raw.

These are all old wives tales and these traditional beliefs are practiced less frequently, particularly in urban areas where Cambodia is rapidly developing and access to modern medical care is becoming more prevalent. However, many of the rural and remote communities, where access to quality modern medical care is a challenge at best, and non existent at worse,  still rely heavily on these old traditions to help many women through the dangerous journey of ch’long tonle so that they can cross the river safely.

Tim Hallinan’s Herbie’s Game wins prize

5F7n2Sz7xKoa5u8oMd0zrAlcLxCHdlsVcOyanuTUkgRU_bJHEP-XfZ6amfS5FpZ_KvSVhkuV9azj0RFJWzdhIWvj09HqdYH66N9sYkbBlXKDJMi2Byty3sz7AL_J_EDCwO2yJI28UgMxTyu78CB14YILYUu35bZYbMp705xwk-6j3okTQO4Al_3npMl1807mFEo99k7YsDj9P1F8FMJutGGILATim Hallinan’s Herbie’s Game has won the Lefty (it’s a prize) for Best Humorous Mystery Novel 2014. This is a Big Deal. Get yours at Kindle here.

And The Hot Countries, No.7 in Tim’s Bangkok Poke Rafferty series, is due out in October – pre-order from Kindle.



If you haven’t started the Junior Bender series, the first is called Crashed and is available on special for $1.99 until the end of July (same link as above, and actually listed as $1.93 right now, though God knows why).

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 2.11.08 PMI’ve asked Tim when Poke is going to come to Cambodia, and though he says it’s not on the cards, I live in hope.