It was after midnight, and the dirt path winding through the Cordomom Mountains was covered in fog, barely visible by the light of a waning moon. The path, which I had been following for more than eight hours, was heavily rutted and continuously snagged the toes of my boots as I dragged them along with exhausted legs. The night air, unusually cool for Cambodia, chilled my sweat and created a slimy clamminess that coated my neck and lower back. I wanted to do anything other than keep walking, but a stubborn pride – a trait fostered by my experiences as a tree planter in northern Canada – prevented me from accepting the numerous motorcycle rides I had been offered. The other foreign journalists were not so so pig-headed, and it had been over an hour since the last of them had driven past, looking relieved to be off their feet at last.
In desperation to reach Pra Lay, a small village in the Areng Valley, I was walking much too fast and had left most of the others behind – save one young Buddhist monk named Prim Houn. I could sense the same obstinate determination in him that I felt in myself, and so we walked together in silent solidarity. Every 15 minutes or so, he would comment “very far,” and I would either nod or grunt my agreement. For nearly two hours that was the extent of our conversation until Houn suddenly stopped in the middle of the path and reached into the pockets hidden deep within his saffron robes.
I expected him to produce a bottle of water, or maybe a pack of cigarettes (even monks have vices), but instead he brought out a white Samsung Galaxy tablet computer. Seeing a monk with a cell phone is nothing new, as anyone who has spent time in Southeast Asia can attest, but in the middle of the night, in a remote valley that most people have never heard of, it seemed very strange indeed. I knew we hadn’t been within range of a cell tower since before the sun had set – nearly six hours previously – and so I couldn’t imagine what he was planning to do with the device. After tapping at the screen for a few seconds, he extended his hands towards me, offering the tablet. A note-taking application was open, and he had typed a single word: Facebook?
This interaction started a thought that would linger well after I left the Areng Valley. What is it like to be a monk in the 21st Century? What is their relationship to technology? What do they actually do?
In my mind, monks had always seemed like objects of exotic otherness rather than real people. Seeing them in the streets of Yangon or Bangkok they represented a National Geographic version of Asia, and I felt like they belonged more on postcards than on the back of a motorcycle. Any photos I had taken of usually featured them silhouetted against a glowing sunset, or walking stoically through the gates of a pagoda, orange umbrellas over their shoulders. My interpersonal exposure was so limited that I had never thought of them doing anything other than collecting alms or reciting the dharma.
After meeting Prim Houn and his fellow monks, the questions I had were not about their quest for enlightenment or the humble value of an ascetic life. I didn’t particularly want to know how I could implement Buddhist philosophies into my own western lifestyle, but instead I was curious about the mundane – what were their favourite movies? Did they have a twitter account? If so, why? How did they get money to buy a cutting edge touchscreen tablet?
Since getting back from the protest in the Areng Valley, I’ve followed up on these questions. In fact I’ve spent almost every afternoon since in a pagoda, querying them on topics as far ranging as Duck Dynasty, the NFL, and sex. Over the coming weeks and months I plan on spending most of my free time trying to discover the real nature of a monk’s life in modern society, and I think the answers will be as interesting to you as they are to me.
Want to know something about the real life of a Buddhist monk? Chances are that the things you would like to know would also be of interest to me, so comment below, join me on social media, or email me directly with your questions and I’ll put them to my new friends.