March of the Monks

In recent decades, Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have been largely absent from the political sphere. Their role had been mostly relegated to that of simple preachers who were most commonly seen collecting alms or studying in their pagodas.

But now, harnessing the power of social media, groups of monks are starting to rise up against what monk But Buntenh describes as “the huge social injustices that the government is [inflicting] on Cambodian people.” In Cambodia, monks have a powerful influence on the country’s predominantly Buddhist population. In contrast to their previous passivity, young progressive monks are now be seen at major political rallies – usually in opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Many monks are also strongly expressing their views with regards to environmental protection, and the regime’s indifference to the nation’s natural preservation.

Cambodia is essentially a country for sale, and foreign development corporations are taking advantage of the opportunity. Large areas of farmland are being converted into rubber and sugar plantations, and the Mekong River is being harnessed for electricity as far north as Laos and China.

This story follows a group of over 40 monks as they march 25km towards the remote village of Pra Lay to voice their anger over environmental destruction in their country.

The march is not an easy one. Starting hours behind schedule due to a mechanical problem with their chartered bus, the monks do not start walking until nearly 5p.m. When darkness falls a few hours later, the monks have not even reached the halfway point. But despite wearing only rubber or leather sandals, and the fact that they have not eaten since noon, the monks all manage to reach Pra Lay. While the fastest walkers arrive at around 1:30 am, some of the elderly monks are stranded in the jungle until past 4am.

Despite their late arrival, the monks rise with the sun and carry on with their protest for most of the following day before starting the long walk back out of the valley.

Politically active monks are an emerging trend in Cambodia, and this story will not be the last to feature them.

Monks begin their march towards Pra Lay, hours behind schedule.

Monks begin their march towards Pra Lay, hours behind schedule.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked only 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked only 8 of the 25 km necessary.

Monks pause to rest around the halfway point of their 25 km jungle march. Hours behind schedule, most of the walking is done at night.

Monks pause to rest around the halfway point of their 25 km jungle march. Hours behind schedule, most of the walking is done at night.

Monks examine their sandals for damage at around midnight.

Monks examine their sandals for damage at around midnight.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

The monks gather for breakfast in the Pra Lay pagoda.

The monks gather for breakfast in the Pra Lay pagoda.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

A section of the orange cloth the monks will use to bless trees in an attempt to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Arang Valley.

A section of the orange cloth the monks will use to bless trees in an attempt to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Arang Valley.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks bless a tree in the Arang Valley.

Monks bless a tree in the Arang Valley.

A monk rests after the blessing ceremonies are finished.

A monk rests after the blessing ceremonies are finished.

Exhausted from the previous night's march, the monks make their way to the Areng River to swim and relax.

Exhausted from the previous night’s march, the monks make their way to the Areng River to swim and relax.

The monks spend several hours at the Areng River, near the place where China Guodian's propsed hydroelectric damn will be built.

The monks spend several hours at the Areng River, near the place where China Guodian’s propsed hydroelectric damn will be built.

With the protest completed, the monks must re-walk the 25km path out of the Valley before returning to Phnom Penh.

With the protest completed, the monks must re-walk the 25km path out of the Valley before returning to Phnom Penh.