Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Little Monks Project


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. 







Saturday, March 31, 2018

oNe PhOtO a mArCh 2018


THE PROMPTS FOR THE MONTH


THURSDAY 1st TWO: little monks cooperatively trying to complete a Khmer alphabet puzzle after today’s English class



FRIDAY 2nd COFFEE: About once a month we have a shopping day in Kampot. The main reason is to stock up on coffee but there are always plenty of other treats to be had. Today was already set for that exact purpose so I present Rumble Fish Coffee- blended and roasted locally from regionally selected beans. It’s worth the bus run every time


SATURDAY 3rd FOOD: After our big day out in Kampot, where the best regional market is located yesterday, today has been mostly about cooking up the treats we brought home. We both love to cook so we were doing turn about in our tiny kitchen. Tonight’s fusion dinner is savoury muffins, green mango salad, Beijing salad and lotus root salad. Since we didn’t invite the whole neighbourhood in for dinner, there will be a few more meals containing those salads too


SUNDAY 4th SHADOW: The blinds we bought cast interesting shadows on the smooth tiled surface of the floor in the bedroom, but also let in much more light than we anticipated. I spent this afternoon hand stitching thick cloth to back the very one which cast this shadow too early this morning


MONDAY 5th LOUD: This is a female Asian Koel and we are woken up by its loud cries every morning. The male and female have distinctly different calls and they are very talkative. We hear them all day everyday but at twilight when this was taken they are most vociferous and loudest


TUESDAY 6th SILENT: Living in a place that perfectly fits Rudyard Kipling’s quote “with Asian indifference to mere noise”, we are thankful for the silent sanctuary of the magnificent garden which surrounds the pool where we swim three times a week. Snapped this quiet corner after a refreshing dip late this afternoon


WEDNESDAY 7th BEGINS WITH B:  Buddha. Images and statues of Buddha abound in Kep, but I love this one at the entrance to Veranda Resort on the periphery of Kep National Park


THURSDAY 8th DIFFERENT: After 38 years as a teacher, the thing I am most sure of is, the reality is every child is different and the only thing you really hope is that you make a difference. Each photo was taken by me at the time I was teaching those children and they are but a small snapshot of the many individuals who clearly stand out in my mind


FRIDAY 9th PEEP: An archive shot of the moon peeping through the palms and trees in our front yard a few days after the super blood blue moon. I so loved the quality of silhouette in this I had to use it for today’s prompt


SATURDAY 10th SAVOURY: My signature dish Beijing Salad, which I am now able to get all the ingredients for locally, so it makes regular appearances on our menu. It is an original adaptation of my own based on a street food we often ate in Beijing in the 1990s- hence the name


Above is the cooked and cooled portion, which is prepared separately and then the raw and blanched veggies are added in to create an “eat a rainbow” delicacy


SUNDAY 11th ICONIC: Cambodia just has to be Angkor Wat. An archive shot from our last visit there


MONDAY 12th PASTEL: skies at twilight over Kep Bay


TUESDAY 13th HA!: Considering coffee is just about the only thing I am truly addicted to, this sign in our fave coffee shop in Kampot struck a chord


WEDNESDAY 14th CLOUDS: The morning clouds over the beach after a very hazy start to the day in Kep


THURSDAY 15th BLUE & WHITE: A small selection of the Japanese blue and white crockery we have purchased from the recycle shop in Kampot over the last few months. In my opinion no one does blue and white better than the Japanese when it comes to crockery, around which a whole movement is based and the yukata on which it is standing has been in my possession since leaving Japan more than 15 years ago


FRIDAY 16th MONEY: Here in Cambodia two currencies are used. Both American Dollars and Cambodian Riel are available in ATMs and most transactions require both. No coins are used and the riel are always the small change with 4000 to the dollar. Certainly improves your mental arithmetic and the locals are whizzes at the calculations. My tired old non- math brain needs to calculate transaction before approaching the counter




SATURDAY 17th GREEN: Today we left the green palms and beach scene of Kep behind. We are headed for the mountains in Mondulkiri but not before a bit of rest and respite in the capital


SUNDAY 18th BREAD: Alfresco breakfast on the balcony of our guesthouse in Phnom Penh this morning consisted of fresh bread still warm from the market and a pineapple. When you travel with a jar of Vegemite, a knife and coffee, picnic style breakfasts are the go



MONDAY 19th SEASON: Here in Cambodia it seems there are only really two seasons- hot and humid or hot and wet. At least the food is always fresh and a wide variety of fruit and vegetables are always in season. Although I know these as cold rolls they often appear as Spring Rolls on the menu here, so today’s lunch is a season




TUESDAY 20th A NOTE: We left Phnom Penh in a rather upmarket 14 seater van this morning. There were only 7 of us when we departed 20 minutes early after wrangling to get the seats we’d booked behind the driver. I noticed a note stuck to the steering wheel and I guess that’s how we managed to locate the other 5 passengers who joined us as we made our way out of the city


WEDNESDAY 21st OH NO!: another establishment that asks you to remove your shoes before entering. Don’t get me wrong having lived in Japan for many years I fully appreciate the value of being barefoot indoors. Here however so many of the places that post these signs have filthy floors and staff who are in footwear and they lead you to indoor/ outdoor spaces, which are almost never swept,  like the garden oasis mentioned. You leave struggling to put your shoes or sandals back on with dirty feet or socks and wonder what the point of asking you to remove your shoes really was. Pet peeve in foreigner cafes now successfully aired


THURSDAY 22nd LAST THING I BOUGHT: We are travelling so many tickets and meals have been bought and the last item I paid for was the tickets to a magnificent magical day at an elephant sanctuary today for my birthday. But the last actual thing I bought was this Buddha charm to replace the charm I lost over a month ago. It hangs in my ear



FRIDAY 23rd CANDY: or this case, sweets might be the better term. Ian’s Scottish mother used to always give us a tin like this when we set off on an overseas adventure and as a result whenever I see them I purchase them for our next trip. I found these in Kampot recently and resisted opening them until yesterday when we had already been travelling for almost a week. I no longer see the dual purpose of the empty tin being a portable ashtray as I once did since we long ago gave up smoking. But this is a candy/sweet that will forever remind me of dear Evelyn 




SATURDAY 24th PERSPECTIVE: A ‘peron’s eye view’ of this exotic looking bird. It was taken from the deck of our bungalow this morning when I wandered out to see who was making all that racket. I often wonder what a bird’s perspective of the world would be……..




SUNDAY 25th WHAT I DID TODAY: was travel the 196 kilometres from Sen Monorom to Kratie and then kick back and relax


MONDAY 26th I WISH: I had been able to get a better picture but in fact I am grateful to have seen these fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins with my own eyes for the second time in my life this morning. Being close enough to actually hear them breathe when they surfaced was amazing. We were in this exact same spot in 2013 and it was really gratifying to see the stretch of the Mekong where they hangout immaculately clean. The boatmen are still very respectful and in awe despite their daily sightings and even more dolphins were rocking around, splashing with their tails, rolling over and snorting as they surfaced than five years ago




TUESDAY 27th CUTE: kid on the footpath in Kratie, shouting ”hello” as happens with regularity all over Cambodia


WEDNESDAY 28th PATH: At 6:45am it’s difficult to pick a path around the central market area in Kratie with motorcycles, vendors and their wares and pedestrians all vying for the limited space.


THURSDAY 29th LEAVES: In a world so overrun with plastic, it makes my heart sing to see these local food items wrapped and displayed in leaves. It’s safe, hygienic and environmentally sound. Let’s ditch the plastic and return to former practices


FRIDAY 30th APPLE: This particular variety of apple is known as rose apple or water apple. They are currently in season and we see trees laden with them everywhere. Although I am very fussy about apples due to my father being in the packing and distribution business, I love this variety


SATURDAY 31st OH MY: after fifteen glorious day of travel the holiday is over and we head home to Kep today. As usual we have succumbed to the temptations of the capital and have had to purchase a few treats for us and more resources for our little monks. Now we have an extra piece of luggage to hold all the new items and feel like we are travelling like locals


OH MY second choice: This little coconut so wanted to grow- despite being wrapped in gold foil and no doubt being used as an altar decoration when it was tossed into the street it sprouted