Samsara: the widow’s tale

DSCF2175Plong Chanthou is 79 years old and a widow. She was born in Battambang province and moved to Phnom Penh when she married. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated her family to Battambang, but to a different district from the one she was originally from. During this time she lost all her four children, three girls and a boy, plus her beloved husband, who had been a civil servant for the Lon Nol government. First he was forced to work, then he was killed.

Immediately following liberation in 1979 she ran into the forest and ate wild fruits and roots to survive. After three weeks she made her way back to her village, but found that her parents’ home had been appropriated by soldiers. So she walked all the way to Phnom Penh to look for the house she had owned with her husband, but that house was also now occupied by others.

She ended up living with relatives, but they treated her badly. She was suffering deep depression after the Pol Pot years and her losses and had no wish to find a job, so she helped in the house like a servant in exchange for meals. It was a bitter time. Eventually she went to live at Wat Champa monastery in Ken Svay district in Kandal and later at Dombok Kpuos, before finally settling at Wat Sampov Meas in 1993.

Wat Sampov Meas in Phnom Penh is now her home. She gets up at 4 a.m. to clean, sweep and cook breakfast for herself and the monks, then she prays and serves the monks breakfast, after which she washes the dishes. Breakfast is no sooner out of the way than she prepares, cooks and serves lunch and washes dishes again, and prays once more in the evening. She follows the Eight Precepts and never eats dinner.

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Funeral stupas at Wat Sampov Meas – they hold the ashes of important monks and laypersons. Copyright Amy Chang, Flickr.

She has her own room in the monastery, away from the monks, where she cooks her own food and boils her own water. She never eats her meals in the monastery as she believes that being able to live there is more than enough. She lives on donations and gifts. Her younger brother sometimes gives her money, and some of her old friends and classmates also help regularly.

She worries about old age. “When I get really sick and unable to help the monks, I will ask my niece in Battambang if I can live with her and ask her to look after me. I know that she is kind and will take care of me before my departure (death). I never want to bother the monks or anybody at the temple.” She believes that due to her good deeds her niece will arrange a good funeral for her when she dies.


18th century Cambodian Buddha image, found at Antique

Since 1979 she has had no other passion besides learning about Buddhism and doing good things to gather merit. “This life has been most unfortunate and lonely and miserable for me. My good deeds in this life should help me to avoid that fate in the next. People tell me I should file a complaint with the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal to seek justice for losing my family, but what use is revenge? I tell them I would only do this if it could bring my children and husband back to be life again.”


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

The first nun’s tale

yd3c1439A nun (daun chi) presents food to a monk. Photo by Nick Shippen, travel writer and photographer – part of a photo-essay on nuns and their relationship to the monkhood in the context of Angkor and the tourist industry.


Women who wish to follow the Way face a major obstacle: there are no nuns in Theravada Buddhism. I’ve called them nuns for convenience, but ordination in Theravada has to be part of chain stretching back to Buddha, and the chain for nuns died out long ago. Women may, however, become helpers to the monks and follow the eight precepts rather than the ten. These women are called yeay chi or daun chi – yeay and daun are both terms of respect for an older woman, with daun chi being more formal.

_DSF1987Chan Sopheap started living in Wat Phnom Orderk (“Turtle Mountain Monastery”) in Battambang province when she was not yet twenty years old. This was in the time of Lon Nol, who overthrew king Sihanouk in 1970. Not many years later the Khmer Rouge took control and sent her to a labour camp. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out she returned to the monastery in Battambang and lived there until she met the man who was to become her husband, a former monk who had been forced out of the Sangha by Lon Nol. (Lon Nol, concerned that too many potential soldiers were escaping conscription by putting on the robe, had decreed that no one under fifty could be a monk).

For the next twenty-five years Sopheap lived with her husband and children in Battambang and later in Siem Reap. About 2006 or 2007 she became very ill, and her husband agreed that she should return to Wat Phnom Orderk, where their second son was a monk. “By serving the monks as a daun chi I would build up kamma to overcome my illness.”

So she went back to Turtle Mountain, serving the monks and studying the Way, until her daughter asked if she would come with her to Phnom Penh where she wanted to do a ten-month course at the National Institute of Education. Naturally she agreed, as she could not send the girl to the city alone. She originally intended to take a room for the ten months, but rents in the capital proved too expensive and so, with the help of the abbot of Turtle Mountain, she obtained permission from the abbot of Wat Lanka to stay in this, one of the most prestigious monasteries in the capital.

I asked Sophea about the spirits, as I was curious to know what an intelligent and learned woman would have to say about the spirit world.

“Boramey and neak ta are not part of Buddhism (preah put sassana). These things don’t exist. Spirits come from Brahmanism (prumman sassana), which is all about the unseen. Brahmanism is about magic. I know of some people who came and asked a monk to sprinkle their new motorbike with holy water for good luck. That same day they were killed in an accident on the way home. Who can believe this? No pure monk will do this thing with magic water. Buddhism is about good and bad deeds. Your lot in this life reflects your deeds in your previous life. Everything that happens to you is due to the karma that you’ve built up in your previous life and this one.”

Sophea will return to Battambang when her daughter’s course is finished. The daughter will probably stay on in Phnom Penh as a teacher, and after a few years will apply for a scholarship to study for a Masters degree in English in Australia.


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, an investigation of religion and belief in modern Cambodia – due out in October.

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