Phou Soun, Buddhist Monk at Angkor Wat Monastery, Cambodia. 20 years old.

Phou and best friend on the North steps of Angkor Wat

On our last day at the ancient ruins of Angkor and our last night in Cambodia, we were walking around the periphery of Angkor Wat enjoying one last sunset. As the sun crept down the lichen-covered laterite, a voice from above called down to us. It was Phou, a young Buddhist monk in training. He was sitting at the top of a tall staircase with a friend, both in their bright orange robes forming a colorful contrast against the grey ruined walls. He motioned us up the stairs to join him and we happily obliged, making the precipitous accent to the top. Phou wanted to practice his English (and make a little money, we later learned) and we wanted an interview, especially since it was our last night in Cambodia. Our dialogue went something like this.

Nigel: When did you become a monk?

Phou: When I was seventeen, three years ago. I live next to Angkor Wat at the Angkor Wat Pagoda. In five years I will leave the pagoda and go to find a job to make some money. I want to become a moto driver but I have no money to buy a moto (note: he wants to be a motorcycle taxi driver that shows tourists around the park on a 100cc motorbike for around $5 US per day). When I want to buy a moto, I will go to my home to sell pigs and cows and cabbages. My home grows cabbages. I'll go back and sell them with my family. When I leave the monastery, I will not have clothes. I can not afford a blouse or trousers.

Julie: This morning just before 5 am, we heard the monks chanting at Angkor Wat before sunrise. Was that you?

Phou: Yes, we wake up at 4 am and pray Buddha until 5 am. Then since nine months, I study English for two hours. It's 50,000 riel ($13 US) each month to take English classes. I have to return home to make the money every month. My teacher is not a monk, just an English teacher. He is very old. 33.

Julie: That's not very old. We're 27.

Phou: Oh! That's very young. Very young.

Julie: What do you eat each day?

Phou: After I pray Buddha, I eat rice with fish. At 11:00 am, I eat rice with soup. Then I don't eat again until the next day. It's very hard. I'm hungry every day.

Julie: Tell me about your family.

Phou: I have two sisters and one brother. My brother is a monk. My family is from very far away. From Siem Reap.

Julie: Do you ever go on the Internet?

Phou: I have never been on the Internet. It's too expensive. We don't have computers at the monastery. Cambodia is very expensive for the internet (note: he's right. Cambodia has the most expensive and slowest connections we have experienced yet, ranging from $1.25 to $5 per hour and never surpassing 28k).

Nigel: Will you get married later, when you leave the monastery?

Phou: Oh no. Well, maybe when I'm old. Maybe 50.

Nigel: What do you think of Angkor Wat?

Phou: Angkor Wat is very special for foreigners and for me. Many people come here from all over the world. What time do you go see sunset? I can't see the sunset because my eyes are very dark. They hurt. I'm going now.

Nigel: OK. Thanks for talking to us, it was nice to meet you.

Phou: I'm sorry, can you support me? I can not manage to study.

Julie: Do you mean give you money?

At this point, Phou nodded silently and we helped him with a little money.


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