First Steps in Siem Reap: Surrounded by Monks

Surrounded by Cambodian Buddhist monks

I have seen many monks in my life so seeing one or two on the street is not a surprise. However, seeing 10 different monks a day every day and interacting with them is something completely new to me.

Two monks strolling down the streets.

You can see them walk to the temples, do some shopping on local markets, read books in the park or pray in the temple.

Buddha statues, more than 100 in this particular Temple.

Each statue has a different shape, color and size.

This is how the Temple looks outside.

Looking at this photo, I would never guess it is a monastery. Would you?

It is nice to get a lesson of Buddhist history and be in monks’ world which is completely different from ours. I learnt a lot about monks’ lives this week when I visited one temple and one pagoda and spoke to some of them. Even went to their house to see how they live.

Me listening to Buddhist stories.

Monks live their lives easily and peacefully. They do not worry about anything. They often ask us “Why do you people worry so much? And say “No worry, no problem. You worry too much”. Yes, monks’ lives are different from ours. They don’t have to work. They do some voluntary job when they want to or go to temples and pray but this is not a 9-5 job as we do on a regular basis.

Moreover, they get free gifts of money and food from locals which is more than enough for them and locals often pay a lot for prayers. The education is free or cheaper for them and they have a lot of free time to rest.

One of the monks preparing the temple for pray time

However, once the monk leave the temple for good and decides not to be a monk any more, it is extremely difficult for him to get a normal job. They are mostly considered as knowledgeable people who are useless in most of manual jobs offered in Cambodia.

One of the monks explaining to me the meaning of Buddhist statues.

What surprised me the most is the list of prohibitions in the monasteries. Monks are not allowed to touch a girl so I couldn’t shake hands with them when introducing myself. They can’t exercise, stay in one room with a girl alone, cook at night (they can eat breakfast and lunch only- two meals a day in total) or drink alcohol. Of course, these are only some of them I could remember from my first visit in the temple. I bet there are more of them I couldn’t even think of.

Smiley monk.

Despite all of these restrictions, monks stay always positive. They are humble, kind, friendly and down-to-earth. They always treat you like a friend, will help you with everything and never ask for anything back. What is more, they are selfless, extremely focused when praying and stay calm all the time.

When I look at them during their pray time, I can see innocence and total dedication to Buddha. When they speak to you, it’s like a conversation with your best mate- they make you laugh, tell you funny stories and you both make fun of each other. It’s so cool!

I wish I could live according to one of their rules “Be humble, don’t worry and sleep peacefully”.



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Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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16 thoughts on “First Steps in Siem Reap: Surrounded by Monks”

  1. Christine | Grrrl Traveler

    Firstly– wicked picture at the top. Love it! Great experience too!

    I wonder what the differences are between sects of Buddhism in Southeast Asia/Asia and how or IF the rules vary greatly. There’s more Tibetan, Theravada (?), Mahayana,etc.., I don’t know what’s the dominant sect in Cambodia or Laos,.. I’ve met different sects of monks in my travels and each has broken some kind of rule and often, quite openly.

    But Buddhism is vast territory. It’s made me wonder if it’s all just rule-breaking or if there are libertarian and conservative sects.

    A post I wrote in tandem with my last one, was about my experience in Thailand, where all the NO-NOs you just listed, were crossed (totally harmless though) – I was even offered a cigarette (LOL). In India, one even asked for my phone number & continued calling me as if we were dating!

    Please ask your monk friend if there’s great differences in their rules or if they’re just being boys. =-)

    Although next to Catholicism, I suppose I have my answer.

  2. Hey Christine,

    Thanks for the comment on the photo. That’s my favourite one.

    Well, in terms of different approach to rule-breaking they are indeed more relaxed bunch of monks here in Cambodia. They even freely admit it saying that Tibetan Buddhism is way higher in hierarchy and commitment. Nevertheless, from what I’ve seen Cambodian monks can be (not all of course) boyish. Quite often the choice to become monks is influenced by their desire not to work and save money. As an example, one that I know hides away his laptop and other electronics when inviting tourists to his place. He says that when he doesn’t they don’t pay him. Each time he talks widely about his aspirations to graduate from university and his need of sponsors. Once he even laughed (and was quite annoyed) when someone sent him “only” $15 a month.

    Still, not everyone’s the same. Some of them really commit themselves to the monastery and Buddhism. They can be our role models.

    1. Christine | Grrrl Traveler

      Gasp! Wow, I can see how that’s very disillusioning to experience and yet, he was at least honest with you! I’m kinda shocked, frankly. In India, you kinda have to watch yourself with scam holy men, but I guess in Cambodia too. =(

      The Thai monk that brought me to his place and broke rules, I actually offered money to at the end & he didn’t want to take it. Instead, he put the money into the temple roof and then gave me a blessed amulet that was sold at the temple store. I felt a little bad for offering. I think he just wanted me to send him mail instead.

      1. That was nice of him. I met one monk who started to laugh ironically when he saw $15 being donated to his account by a Canadian couple who paid his monthly university fee. He expected to get at least $100 and he was complaining a lot that foreigners are mean. As I said before, everyone’s different and not all monks are the same, however I witnessed some alarming behaviour of some Buddhist monks in Siem Reap which influenced the way I look at them right now.

  3. Lovely pictures and interesting post, monks are usually seen in temples and monasteries, but very few think of asking them what their life is like.

    1. Yes, that’s true. Most of monks are very shy when it comes to interacting with ex-pats or foreign visitors so I’m glad to become one of their friends so they can teach me a lot and tell me lots of interesting Buddhist stories.

  4. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella

    It’s quite an amazing experience meeting monks and hearing about the way that they live. We met one in Vietnam and he was lovely and he strolled off with his yellow iPod and music playing in his ears-yellow to match his robes! :)

  5. Hi Agness, what a wonderful and inspiring post. Your interaction with the monks seems to be a beautiful experience and something would love to experience for ourselves when we get to Cambodia. Which temple did you go to?

    1. Hi Marisol. Thanks a lot for kind words. I have seen all temples in Siem Reap so far including of course the Angkor Wat. Let me know guys you are planning to visit Cambodia. I can recommend you some good places to visit.

  6. This is very interesting! I haven’t seen much of Asia, but I plan to in the near future… My dad has a very good childhood friend who became a monk, so I have been exposed to their way of life from a very young age. I also wish I could take on this no worrying kind of attitude… I am a huge worrier!.. definitely to a fault.

    1. Thanks. Interacting with monks makes me more relaxed and chilled. I stopped worrying that much. You should try it too. Highly recommended ;).

  7. Good day Agnes,

    Where is this temple? I would love to be able to somehow interact with them too.

    Thank you

  8. Hi Agness!
    Thank you for your story and pictures!
    I wonder if you have any idea of possibilities to go to some monastery and live there for several months/ years? Is there still such places and if so – which Buddhist monasteries you think are more genuine?
    Thank you dear! :)

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