A series of serendipitous events led to us being invited to teach English to the little monks who reside in a monastery near a fishing village in Kep. We met Yary by chance in Phnom Penh and expressed a desire to volunteer teach since we have years of experience in that exact area. She not only listened and then discovered a “pagoda” in desperate need of her financial support but also remembered. It was immediately before Pchum Ben and we were promptly invited to the pagoda to meet the monks the following day. We agreed immediately without even being sure where the “pagoda” was, how many monks were involved or how old they were.
I admit to being both surprised and shocked the first time we went there. The term pagoda for me summons up towers of religious significance such as I have seen in Thailand, China and Japan. However we arrived at what could best be described as a collection of ramshackle huts and a large open area with tiled floor and a galvanized iron roof. The stickler in me refuses to refer to this as a pagoda unless giving directions to a local. It is in fact a monastery however. There is a collection of young monks, who seem to range from about 10 to 17 years old and they all live on site.
On the first occasion we saw it, Pchum Ben festivities were in progress. There were buntings flying, flowers and food in abundance and all the available floor space was occupied by local Khmer families devotedly listening to the chanting, prayers and oration of the head monk, whom I believe is called an abbot. I was embarrassed that at some point proceedings stopped so that we could be introduced to the abbot, who quickly announced to the crowd that we would teach English. Yary acted as translator and we soon realised that we had no common language with any of the monks or the abbot. As soon as the official ceremony was over the food and beverages supplied by the devoted followers were served to the monks and an incredible feast was set out before them as they sat on a raised dais. Devotees were also served and we politely declined and contemplated the enormity of what we had already agreed to do.
The space itself was alarmingly unlike any temple or monastery I had ever seen. Whilst there were statues of Buddha on the entrance path and at an altar there was no temple at all. Litter was scattered all over the premises and the gathering was creating more at an alarming rate. An atmosphere of disorder pervaded the place and we quickly began to assess how to go about the task we had already agreed to. We set a start date for a month later in order to accumulate resources and prepare.
Our second visit to the monastery was via bike along the foreshore past the mangroves. We went simply to reassure ourselves that we could indeed relocate this place and that it was possible to commute there by bicycle. On arrival we were once again surprised to discover Yary there and this time drilling for water. The pressing problem being that there is no available water supply. This problem continues to this day. After three attempts to find a water supply and establish a well at different locations on the property, the task was abandoned. Instead Yary agreed to sponsor the construction of small bungalows for the monks to sleep in. She has also supplied food and milk and made other improvements to the premises but the water issue persists. A new ablutions block has been erected and more statues have been installed in the months that have elapsed but our concern has increasingly been for the health and welfare of the little monks.
With posters, flash cards, manipulatives and other resources sourced in Phnom Penh we began the daunting task of trying to teach English. We quickly discovered that they were keen and in desperate need of both guidance and supervision. Their enthusiasm fluctuates and their concentration wavers but there is nothing new there when it comes to teaching young children. Games and hands on activities usually inspire and engage them.
Although it is not ideal for us, we conduct classes in the afternoon as the mornings are occupied with religious commitments. At that time of day they are not allowed to eat and are often sleepy and distracted. We soon developed a routine, which has enabled them to learn to recite the alphabet, count and name simple objects and colours. They can recognise, write or copy letters and we are just beginning the process of teaching phonetics, which will hopefully enable them to learn to read, very reasonable progress in my opinion, for a mere three hours of instruction a week, over a four month period. Each lesson ends with about 30 minues of playtime, for which we supply puzzles, jump ropes, yoyos and balls. They are after all young boys, who need to play and exercise and they have nothing.
We have had a couple of friends visit us in Kep and they have requested to come with us to teach the monks. On both occasions we were quick to point out that it is not a zoo and they are not exhibits. Anyone who comes must pitch in and sit with them, encourage them and teach and guide them, bringing a small gift of milk or something would also be beneficial. All of those who have joined us felt compelled to offer something towards to continuation of this simple project.
It has not been without its frustrations. Of the original twelve monks with whom we started only six remain. The others are now at different monasteries or somewhere else. We cannot ascertain exactly when only the little monks can communicate with us and conversation is limited at best. The older monks, who are in their twenties and who attended at first no longer wish to or perhaps only did at first to observe us and contain the boys. Nonetheless lessons continue and the little ones remain committed to learning albeit with the usual distraction and inattention of young boys.
Some two months after we began our English classes a Khmer teacher was engaged and he too now teaches both monks and village children in the late afternoons. We have resisted including all but two very persistent village boys in our classes mostly because we already have a wide range of ages and abilities among the monks, but also due to the fact that they arrived after we had already begun and would have been too far behind to catch up. We are also unsure of the correct protocol to include girls with the monks and thought it best to avoid possible conflicts. They mostly attend village schools and therefore do have at least some access to education unlike the monks.
We are now contemplating starting a village girls’ class if another teaching space can be negotiated. As it is we teach under the roofed area and it is open on two sides and far from waterproof. With basics like an easel and homemade blackboard we get by and the boys certainly engage.
From the onset we noticed how grubby they were and that they often have scrapes, sores, scratches and skin issues. Maybe they are water related. How can they keep clean with little or no water on most days and very little guidance and supervision beyond their religious education? We are currently trying to remedy this situation and hope it will improve. Today’s visit to the local hospital for a checkup and hopefully a diagnosis may supply some answers.
With vows that prevent them from eating after midday it seems that they are almost always hungry. We occasionally see them in the downtown area of Kep on their alms walk in the mornings and like most locals cannot resist their adorable faces. I’m pretty sure we are the only ones who offer croissants and other delicacies from the French bakery but both food and money is regularly given.
Although we took this on as a volunteer teaching situation, it has quickly become a lot more. We feel the need to supply basic hygiene products and guidance as well as being adults whom the boys can trust and relate to. Just two days ago when we went to repair the blackboard after a month long break from teaching over Khmer New Year, we were greeted so warmly and surrounded by little monks trying their best to show they remember. Pointing at colours and naming them, reciting the alphabet and repeatedly saying “24.” That is the date that classes will recommence. This confirms for me that they really want to learn. We have asked ourselves “Do they even want to learn English?” several times after leaving the monastery. Now I am convinced they do!
Yesterday Yary’s son Gerald talked to us about a project to build an actual temple on the site via fundraising and donations. The future really is looking brighter for these little monks.