Woke up in the Kitchen of a Buddhist Monastery
I awoke hearing laughter and whispering in an unknown language. First I thought they were part of my dream – only some minutes later, when I opened my eyes and stuck my head out of my sleeping bag and saw, around me, a bunch of middle-aged women washing dishes, cooking and laughing at me, I realized they were certainly not. One of them, with a happy-looking face, pointed at the height of the sun as she spoke to me, then burst into hearty laughter, followed by the others and, eventually, me. For only then did I realize that my big bamboo bed was actually part of the of the monastery’s open-air kitchen, and during the day they put the utensils on it.
What on earth had happened?
This story starts yesterday afternoon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It had been another 38-degree day, and although it was getting late I decided to walk out of the city and hitch-hike North. Perhaps I was a bit late, as it got dark before my heavy backpack and I even exited this huge city. By the time I arrived in the suburbs it was already 9pm, and road traffic was minimal.
“Got to find a place to sleep”, I thought. As I walked through the busy streets, crowded with food stalls and funny local music, I saw a big building with the appearance of some public facility. I walked inside and found that it was, in fact, a university. I sat down on a comfortable chair in the main hall and started to charge my cell phone, and only after ten minutes did a young man come up to me.
“Excuse me sir, what are you doing here?” he asked, putting on a polite smile.
“I just want to charge my cell phone, if that is okay with you,” I responded.
We started talking. He was from a Muslim minority group far from Phnom Penh, and he complained of prejudices against his people in this, a Buddhist country.
“You know sir, actually we are good people,” he said. “We have our own sense of honour and honesty.”
“I completely believe you,” I assured him. “As for myself, I have plenty of Muslim friends, and I got much more help while hitch-hiking in Muslim countries than in Christian Europe.” I thought I would get a chance to put my sleeping bag there and call it a night.
“I am very sorry, sir,” he said. “I can’t help you with that. I am the caretaker of this hall and I have to lock it in half an hour. Nobody is allowed to spend the night here, otherwise they fire me. I am very sorry I can’t help you.”
I told him I understood his situation, and when my phone was properly charged I headed back into the dark.
The streets were narrower, the lights dim, the air heavy. Eventually I reached a part of the suburb where I saw no lights and no people. You might ask if I were afraid of a band of robbers or hooligans jumping out at me suddenly. But this was not my first day, nor year, on the road – my biggest concern was dogs. I came across a closed school with a low enclosure. I jumped into the yard, and there saw some benches I could sleep on. I was just about to smile at my fortune when a bunch of dogs, of various colours and sizes, stormed out of nowhere and barked at me, as fiercely as if they barked at the devil himself. I retreated quietly, but they started to surround me, baring their shiny teeth – teeth fit for a toothpaste commercial.
I jumped back over the wall and tried to reach the benches, this time as stealthily as possible. But if the dogs had sharp teeth, they had sharper ears. When I failed for the third time, I gave up and started running on the street as fast as I could, leaving the fierce teeth and barking far behind. By now it was already 11 pm. I had no idea where I was going, but somehow I got into a small village. In a narrow alley, flanked by tropical plants and wooden sheds, I saw a yard in which stood an unmistakably Buddhist temple. There was a big female pig roaming around and mumbling, joined by some roosters and yet another fierce-looking dog!
“Anybody?” I called out.
A little monk around 6 years old, innocent looking with large, curious eyes, came out from the temple. He did not understand my English and simply stared at me as I spoke. Then he ran behind the temple excitedly, and a minute later an old monk in grey clothes came out. His face looked dry and serious, and though he, too, did not speak a word of English he led me to the back of the temple (after scolding the fierce-looking dog). There was a big bamboo bed there, and from the gestures he made I understood that he did not mind me using it. I was saved.
I laid out my sleeping bag. It must have been 4am when tiredness finally overcame me, and I slept undisturbed but for the intolerable heat, the old monk’s incessant snoring, the bugs of several varieties (including an impressive amount of mosquitoes), the nonstop rambling of roosters and, of course, the occasional barking dog.
The next morning I washed my face and packed up my backpack. Inside the temple I met some local students who were also lodging in the monastery. One of them spoke some English, and through him I was able to express my gratefulness to the old monk who had hosted me. I stayed to have breakfast with the students before I went back on the road. It was quiet in the temple. The wood fire was burning in the hearth and the smoke found its way into my nostrils, the divine smell of a peaceful and simple morning.
Words and images by Xiao Wei
Breakfast in the temple