03 April 2013

Wat Polangka


Meet Seth, the lovely young monk who approached me today while I was exploring the grounds of his monastery. I am going to do a series of blogs on the wats around Siem Reap, so I was very lucky that Seth approached and started talking to me.

Monks are usually very reserved and there are all sorts of rules of etiquette surrounding encounters with them. These include not speaking to them first, not approaching them, not touching them – to the extent where, if you need to hand something to a monk, you should place the object on a surface near them (a table, bench, chair, etc.) for them to pick up rather than hand it to them directly. This prevents an accidental touch of the hands.

Seth may have been less restrained than most monks as he has only been a monk for a year, though he has lived at the monastery for a very long time; he didn’t know what age he had been when he arrived but indicated the height of a small child.

He has a family – in fact, a large one, of mother and father, two sisters and six brothers – but they live in the countryside about 50kms from Siem Reap. He didn’t elaborate on why they had placed him in the monastery – it may have been that they couldn’t afford to keep him, or it may have been to educate him, as monks usually receive a better standard of education and many, especially the younger ones, learn English, or Seth’s family may have been following the local tradition of sending at least one son to the monastery.


My first impression of Wat Polangka was how unkempt and uncared for it appeared. Weeds grew around the edges of the main pagoda platform, the building’s paint and plaster were chipped and peeling, and large areas of black mould stained the underside of the roof overhang. From Seth I learnt that the pagoda had been built in the 1940s, though it had been renovated since then. It was obviously in need of another renovation but I presume that would be dependent on the generosity of benefactors as monasteries usually have no fixed sources of income.

The meeting hall / dining hall is much newer than the pagoda, having been built in the 1970s, and had recently been reroofed. The climate here is harsh on buildings so frequent maintenance is necessary. The hall consists of one large open space, with a ceiling supported by two rows of columns, and both the ceiling and walls are covered with brightly painted scenes from Buddha’s life. One wall also has charts with the names and photos of former monks. There are currently 37 monks living at Wat Polangka but the monastery is home to about 100 people in total – the others are nuns and an assemblage of lay people. This is quite normal for Cambodia. If local people have nowhere to live and are prepared to do some work around the monastery, they are permitted to live there, subject to available space, of course.

At one end of the meeting hall, there is a shrine, with a large Buddha statue and, nearby, a monk was giving a blessing to a young couple. On the other side of the hall, lunch was being set out on low tables. It was then about 10.30 and lunch would be at 11am. It was prepared by the nuns – mostly old widows, who come to live at the monastery when their husbands die. As Seth and I talked, monks were returning from their morning walk around the houses and businesses that surround the wat with the alms and food that had been donated. They passed the food dishes over to the nuns, presumably to augment whatever else had been prepared for lunch.

Outside again, Seth showed me the cremation area, explaining where the body is placed and where the fire is lit, though recent ashes made that fairly obvious! Nearby is a small three-sided building where the body is placed prior to cremation while the monks perform the necessary rituals. I thought the body would lay there for three days (the usual time for Cambodian funeral rituals – more on that in a future blog) but Seth said the bereaved families sometimes keep the body at home for one or two days before moving it to the wat for the final rituals. We also wandered through the burial area, with its magnificent and rather ornate stupas, painted in shades of gold, green and red.


Seth and I talked for a time in the very welcome shade of a huge tree that was fenced off and had a ring of seated Buddha statues around its circumference. It is a banyon tree and so is sacred to Buddha. Next, Seth showed me the small wooden hut he calls home. He even invited me inside but I felt that would have been an intrusion. It has only one room, though there is a tiny porch at the front where he has a small desk and chair for his studies. I took some photos of him in front of his house and have since emailed them to him. He wants us to be friends and invited me to visit (and perhaps help at) the Cambodian Buddhism Association for Vulnerable Children, where he works as a teacher. Their school is only open during the week, so volunteering there will not be possible for me, but he tells me they are doing good work there, teaching the local children.

Seth is a very personable young man. I really enjoyed the time I spent talking to him and am very grateful for his willingness to tell me about himself, his life and his home.