The Future of Resilience

For Phnom Penh’s College Students, Dorm Life Often Means Rooming With Monks

An informal system of student housing in the city’s monasteries helps its universities function.

Sokha Soun was able to complete his university education thanks to the monastery housing system. Photo credit: Daniel Otis

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Behind Wat Botum’s high walls, towering fruit trees shade students and monks as they chat on park benches, gather around smart phones, and play sports like badminton and saiee – Cambodia’s answer to hacky sack. One can hear birds singing and novice monks practicing their Pali sutras. Drying saffron robes flutter from windows and terraces. The chaotic traffic outside the monastery is only a whisper.

Established in the 15th century, Wat Botum is one Phnom Penh’s oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries. Its sprawling grounds host an eclectic mix of architecture: high-roofed temples, brightly-painted pavilions, gilded stupas, sanctuaries filled with cement and stone statuary, bare meditation halls, pastel colonial era houses, bustling classrooms and simple brick dormitories. Located in the heart of the city, the monastery is also the country’s most populous: about 450 monks and 1,000 young laymen call the place home.

When I first met Sokha Soun two years ago, the 23-year-old was living at Wat Botum while wrapping up his university studies.

“I come from a small village in Takeo province,” Sokha tells me. “When I decided to go to university, I came to Wat Botum and asked if I could stay. I told the monks that I didn’t have enough money to rent a flat, and a friend who already lived here told them that I was a good guy. The monks said okay. They are really giving good opportunities to students from remote areas like me.”

If one wants a decent education in Cambodia, they must study in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital and only true city. Tuition in Phnom Penh’s public and private universities ranges from about $300 to $600 a year for a four-year bachelor’s program. If one also needs a place to stay, a tired room on the city’s outskirts would cost an additional $50 a month. Eighty percent of Cambodians live in the countryside (Cambodia has one of the highest rural-to-urban population ratios in the world), and with a meager GDP per capita of $946, university educations would be completely out of reach for Cambodia’s rural majority – that is, if Buddhist monasteries weren’t lending a helping hand.

If they can demonstrate financial need (and if someone vouches for their good moral character), young men from the countryside are given places to stay in Phnom Penh’s monasteries while they pursue higher education in the city. There are no applications to fill out – like Sokha, one only needs to speak to a head monk to get permission to move in. According to the Cambodia Daily, Phnom Penh’s monasteries currently house about 4,000 students. Strict monastic rules, however, mean that women are completely excluded.

Without the housing provided by the city’s monks, higher education would be out of reach for many residents. Photo credit: EyeofJ

In exchange for a roof over their heads, students pay for their own electricity and water (about $4 per month per person) and are occasionally asked to run errands or do chores for the monks, such as giving one of them a lift on a motorbike or picking up stationary or snacks from the market. Sokha tells me that he would also sometimes volunteer to follow the monks as they went begging from door to door in the early hours of the morning in order to carry the things people donated. At Wat Botum, the students are not required to undergo any religious training.

“It’s a nice place to live, and it’s much safer than any rental apartment,” Sokha says. “No one steals from each other here and I have a lot of friends. The location is great too – we’re in the center of the city. The only problem is that the gates close at ten o’clock, though it’s not that hard to climb the fence if you’re late!”

Sokha shows me around the dormitories. The rooms vary in size, housing anywhere from four to twenty people. The students, who are mostly in their twenties, live amongst monks their age. Many of these monks are university students as well. As they look for jobs, recent graduates are also allowed to stay.

A mix of monastic robes and flashy clothes hang about the rooms. Rattan shelves are stuffed with papers and towers of books rise precariously from the floors. All of the rooms are crowded. Sokha tells me that when he first came to Wat Botum, a lack of space meant he had to spend several months sleeping on a terrace. Touring Wat Botum’s Spartan dormitories, one appreciates how much these young men want to make a go of it in the big city.

Cambodian monasteries have a long tradition of housing students. Even Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former communist guerilla and one of the world’s longest serving leaders, had humble beginnings as a Phnom Penh pagoda boy. Nostalgic, perhaps, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will often pay pagoda boys to attend political rallies. In the past, the ruling party also used these students to violently quash opposition demonstrations and report on activist monks. While all of this has been done under the auspices of the CPP-controlled (and awkwardly named) Pagoda Children’s Intelligentsia and Student Association, the group is much less active now than it used to be. The students I spoke to at Wat Botum, moreover, mostly expressed support for the country’s increasingly relevant opposition.

“Since the time of the Buddha, laymen have been allowed to stay in monasteries,” Buddhist monk Un Sam Oeun tells me at Wat Botum. “Living with the monks is good for the students, and if they choose to study meditation while they are here, they can learn to control their minds.”

When it comes to higher education, Cambodia still has a long way to go. According to the World Bank, the country has one of the lowest tertiary school enrollment rates in Asia – about 14 percent, with men making up about 62 percent of this number. Cambodia’s wealthy elite still send their children overseas to be educated, but as the country’s middle class grows, Phnom Penh’s universities are expanding to meet the demands of the country’s young majority. These forward-thinking young men and women are the first generation of Cambodians in decades that have lived without experiencing war, and those who pursue higher education will be tasked with building the Phnom Penh of tomorrow.

As for Sokha, his Bachelor of Arts in English translation landed him a government office job – something that would have been unthinkable four years ago. He now lives outside of the monastery. Sokha hopes to work at an NGO in the future.

“When I first moved to Phnom Penh, I was making $60 a month working 12 hour shifts, six days a week as a security guard,” Sokha says. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford going to university without the monastery, and if I didn’t go to university, I’d still be working a job like that. Paying tuition alone is hard enough for families like mine – and most poor families have many children to take care of. If it wasn’t for monasteries like Wat Botum, only the rich Cambodians would be able to get an education.”

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Tags: resilient citiespovertypublic schoolsinformal economyanchor institutionscambodiaphnom penh

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