Monks in Cambodia

15th January 2016

It’s been pointed out to me that I keep talking to Julie about monks in Cambodia. Julie has even started calling me a monk-bore. The cheek of it.

Apparently I keep banging on about them. I’ll point out Cambodian monks everywhere we go. Then before I know it I’m reaching for the camera to try and grab a quick photo.

monks in cambodia

Quickly taken

She’s probably right to be fair. About the “bore” bit I mean. I have been “getting into monks”, so to speak.

The thing is, once travelling, you get this overriding feeling that we must take loads of photos. Of everything and everywhere. And share-the-shit out of them across social media.


So, as we get further into our backpacker honeymoon, we are taking literally thousands of photos every week. On three different cameras. And our iPhones. On our Go Pro, from every angle.

By the end of our trip I reckon we will have close to 100,000 photos. I bet you can’t wait to be invited round to ours so we can show them all to you.

I’m starting to covet certain types of photos.

The ultimate traveller photo. These fall into the usual categories: beaches, temples, misspelled English sign, eating weird food etc.

You know the score.

And this is the reason I keep banging on about monks. They tick a lot of boxes when it comes to travelling photos.

Shaved heads. Tick.

Orange robes. Tick.

Matching umbrellas. Tick.

monks in cambodia

A novice and a monkey

These guys are bringing a lot to any photo. So when I see one, I get excited.

Sam: “Julie….. Julie….. Julie….. Julie. Look there’s a monk.”

Julie looks up.

Julie: “Yeah, I see him Sam”

Sam: “Quick get the camera! Quick, before we miss him! Quick!”

Some camera faffing goes on.

Sam: “Bollocks, I missed him.”

monks in cambodia

Sneaky shot

The thing is getting the type of monk photo I’m after isn’t as easy as you might think. You’ve got to be alert at all times, ready to pounce at any given moment. It takes work. It takes commitment, You’ve got to have, er, well, faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve managed to get a few crackers so far. I nailed the classic ‘Monk in Contemplation’. I’ve got ‘Monks crossing the road with umbrellas’ and even ‘Novice with a Monkey’. But I’ve felt there’s something missing. As If I know there’s better out there?

If I could find a monk doing something weird, something naughty I reckon that would guarantee me at least another 10 Instagram followers. No problem.

Counting Monks

Anyway, since we’ve been in South East Asia we have seen a lot of monks. Far more than I’ve captured on film. Usually they’ll be in groups of two or three.

We have definitely seen more in Cambodia than anywhere else. They seem to be everywhere. Which isn’t hugely surprising as it’s a Buddhist country, but still there have been way been more than I expected.

With so many sightings I’ve been thinking about just how many Cambodian monks are there?

So I decided to look into it and find out what the Cambodian Monk Ratio is (MR). This isn’t actually a real thing. I’ve made this stat up to reflect the number of monks relative to the population of the country.

This shit just got real.

Unfortunately it seems official numbers are hard to come by but this article suggests there were 60,000 monks in Cambodia in 2006. I know, it’s not the most robust approach to research but we are on our honeymoon and believe it or not we do have better things to do. 

The population of Cambodia is 15.4m (World Bank- better source). So with 60,000 active monks in the country  that is 1 monk for every 242 people. Or an MR ( Monk Ratio) of 1:242. Get that in your knowledge bank. No need to thank me yet.

Right, let’s compare that to another Buddhist country we visited, Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka has a population of 20.8m (World Bank – solid) but they only have 15,000 monks. That’s only 1 monk for every 1,389 people, and MR of 1:1,389

So a Sri Lankan monk has to deal with 5.7x more people than a Cambodian monk. Or put it another way, there are bloody loads of Cambodian monks. So why is this? Are they just better Buddhists?

monks crossing the road in Phnom Penh

I love a Monk photo.

Probably not better Buddhists (who am I to judge?) but it is true that Buddhism is extremely popular here. An incredible 95% of the Cambodian population are practising Buddhists.

Monks are in high demand and helps explain their number.

Another factor is that Cambodia is a very poor country. It’s welfare state is almost non-existent and its education way behind that of its Asian neighbours. People are poor and you will often see young kids working rather than going to school. Choosing the life of a monk brings with it access to safe accommodation, food and education. Clearly this is a very attractive proposition for many families across Cambodia.

Which goes a long way to explaining why we’ve seen so many child-monks or Novices as they are known.

monks in cambodia

Novice monks

Monk Spotting

The most common time to see them is in the mornings. This is often the time when they head out on their rounds of ‘collecting alms’. Alms or alms-giving is the respect given by a normal practising Buddhist to a monk. This ceremony is carried out every morning, in streets, houses and shops right the way across Cambodia. During these sessions, you often see people giving the monks offerings, usually in the form of money.

monks in cambodia

Gossiping monks

Julie first saw this when she was in a travel agent buying a bus ticket.

Two monks walked in (this isn’t the beginning of a joke) and as soon as the cashier saw them she stopped what she was doing with Julie. She approached the monk and began praying with them. Next she handed them some money and off they went. Now to us, the whole thing looked a bit weird. Without knowing what was going on, it just looked like two monks came around collecting money.

More Mafia than Karma.

I’m not religious but I can understand the desire to make a spiritual offering. It’s commonplace in most religions. For us it was just unusual to see this type of thing going on in people’s homes and workplaces. And of course the collecting of money which, from my admittedly naive understanding of Buddhism I thought to be prohibited under the Vinaya (their code of conduct).

monks in cambodia

Monk in contemplation

But this isn’t the whole picture. One of the things we didn’t know was what the money is used for, and how monks, their pagodas and their Wats (where they live) are paid for. So I had a look on Google and it seems difficult to answer this question. I can look a bit deeper I know, but again we’re on honeymoon right? What we have noticed though is increasingly in Cambodia, monks are being tarnished by scandal which is not helped by the many foreign  and even fake monks that directly engage tourists asking for donations.

The fact is we’ve experienced this ourselves and to be honest, it gave us the right arse. Two monks interrupted our lunch and asked us, quite aggressively, for a donation. We told them where to go.

The real deal?

So it seems that there is more to the monks than meets the eye. Are they even monks for one thing?

The photos I’ve got might not actually be real, just some fellas in an orange sheet.

Even so, it has given me plenty to bore Julie with over the last few weeks, and write this post. So real or not, I’ll still be reaching for my camera like a proper traveller.



  1. Comment by Ol

    Ol Reply 15th January 2016 at 10:17 am

    100,000 shots. Where are you even storing all that!?

    Have you worked out the MR of all the shots you’ve taken?

    • Comment by Sam

      Sam Reply 17th January 2016 at 1:20 am

      Ha! I know its a lot right? I’ve got a serious back-up system going on which includes primary SD cards, secondary storage on my personal hard drive and cloud storage on Google Photo (I’ve had to upgrade my storage). The trouble with getting things onto the cloud is the quality of the broadband connections we find.

      MR for the photos is a great shout, I’ll get on that when I get back. ;o)

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