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Seven days in the life of a pagoda boy

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Laim Len moved in to Wat Ounalom when he arrived in Phnom Penh from Siem Reap to study. He has lived at the wat for more than one year, while studying medical science at the University of Health and Science, where he is in the first semester of his second year. Laim Len talked to Abe Becker about his daily routine every day for one week.

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DAY ONE
I awake blearily at 5am to the sounds of the wat: the barking of dogs and the putter of motos. I look around my small room in one of the residences of Wat Ounalom and wonder what today will be like. I don’t eat breakfast because it costs too much, but I don’t feel hungry. I look across the room and see Thaich Chhorn, the monk I share my room with. It’s not a very big room, but I am very happy with it. I think back to the room I lived in, in Siem Reap – the noises of 20 people sleeping in one communal hall, no electricity and the danger of the roof collapsing. I feel better about my current accommodation.
It is time to study, so I begin to browse through my medical textbook. It’s not easy – my mind is still lost in the fog of the early morning. Soon it is 6:30 and I leave for the Phnom Penh Hotel. There is a free securities trading training course today.

I have never been to the Phnom Penh Hotel before and I am feeling very excited. When I arrive I am struck by the size of the hotel and its cleanliness and order. At the course they tell us how to get an ID card, open a bank account and when to buy and sell stocks. I talk to many people from various businesses and banks. They think it is very strange that a medical student would want to attend, but I feel it is good to learn about different things and to understand various aspects of life. At 9am we have a coffee break.

On my way back to Wat Ounalom I stop by Kandal market and I buy some fish and vegetables for lunch. After lunch I study medical science until 6pm, then go back to the market and buy fish and vegetables again: they are very inexpensive, and quick and easy to cook. I study French after dinner for one hour, English for one hour and then medical science again because I have an exam tomorrow.

The temple always closes at 10pm so I cannot go out after this. At eleven I have a bath, and then I send emails to some friends and study medical science again. I fall asleep with the lights on.

DAY TWO
I awake and the lights are still on, it is 5am so I know I have to get up. I roll out of bed and do a small amount of study, but as always it is difficult to concentrate this early in the morning. I study for an hour that seems like far longer. When I finish I take a hot, relaxing bath and scrub the dirt from my body. I ride my bike to the university. I know I have an exam at 8am so I think about that.

I begin to worry, as I was unable to attend extra classes because I could not afford them. The rich students have attended these and so have an advantage over me. I try to stay confident and positive. After the exam, I feel much less nervous. I feel I did well.

I arrive home and give some money to another pagoda boy who lives in my building and he gets some pork and beans. This makes me very happy because usually we only have fish or eggs. Sometimes the monks get given food by lay-people and after the monks have eaten we get to eat what is left. I check my email again and I see that a friend in the United States has sent me some money to fund Samrong School, a school I help facilitate in Siem Reap. It is run with help from the NGO One Degree Forward.

While I am reading I receive a call from my Japanese girlfriend Miki. I am very happy to hear from her. We chat about our lives. She will come to visit me sometime soon.

Later I feel hungry so I go to the market to buy fish heads and tamarind leaves to make soup. After eating I chat casually with the monks and with other pagoda boys. There are eight pagoda boys in my building. I return to my room and read some books I have downloaded from the internet about how to have a life plan and how to have a positive vision for my future. After two hours of reading I take a bath and then study medical science until very late.

DAY THREE
I awake at 5.30am today and read a French grammar book. I read it out loud to help my understanding. I think it is very important to read out loud so I can internalise the information and so I can become accustomed to French pronunciation. At 7am I go to the building of the NGO Khmer Youth and Social Development. I arrive and register and chat with students from other universities around Phnom Penh and we go into a small meeting room.  

We are told to practice singing the national anthem and we prepare for the arrival of the delegate. He says he is from the palace and he talks about the importance of education. He says that rich students often get bachelor degrees and it is important for poorer students to also get accredited because it is a very free market and people are looking for hard working people, not those who are rich. He says that regardless of wealth, it is very important to improve our understanding and education, and that Cambodia is a developing country and that we need to interact with other countries to help Cambodia’s development.

I ride my bike back to the temple with a friend and a monk from my building. I arrive at my building at 12pm and fry some morning glory. The food is shared between three people in my building, but we decided it was not enough so I go back to the market to buy eggs.

I study French for a while and then work on a blog about the school that I set up in Siem Reap (samrongschool.blogspot.com). I also have my own blog (lenlaim.blogspot.com). I am hungry, but I just drink water and study English until midnight when I go to bed.

DAY FOUR
I awake at 4.30am. I feel energetic so I go for a run. After an hour of running I find myself at the Riverside. I am struck by the urge to meditate, so I sit down to meditate. I concentrate on making myself at peace, relaxing and having good will to all creatures. I return to Wat Ounalom and study French. After a little over an hour of study I take a bath and clean my room and tidy up all the scattered books. I cook pork with lettuce soup for lunch.

After I have washed the lunch dishes I send an email to One Degree Forward. At the start of every month I have to buy books and supplies for Samrong School. I send them pictures showing how the students are doing and inform them of the exams and activities they are participating in. I have to take pictures of the receipts I get to show I am not wasting funds.

Later in the evening, when I get back to the wat I feel very hungry so I eat huge amounts of dried fish and watermelon. I eat so much and feel so full I cannot sit down and have to lie down instead. I feel like a sausage that is about to split. I fall asleep studying biophysics and French.

DAY FIVE
I awake at 4.30 am. I feel less energetic today, but I go for a run anyway. After about an hour I get back to the wat and read about biophysics and have a bath. I wash my uniform for school and hang it out to dry. I leave for the market and buy some morning glory and fish to make a soup. I’m still hungry after I eat it, but not hungry enough to go all the way back to the market. I study biophysics for a while and hang out with other pagoda boys.

Later, I go to the wat and buy some chicken and lime to make a soup. After eating, I study biophysics until very late.

DAY SIX
I awake at four, and study biophysics, but it is difficult to study because I am nervous about the exam I have today. I take a bath at 6.30am, bike to school and chat with some friends until it is time for the exam. The exam is stressful, but when it is over I feel I did quite well. I go back to the temple and have beef with bitter-melon soup.

Two of my fellow pagoda boys have very strong political opinions and we discuss politics for a while. I take a bath and then chat with the monks about studying at university and about charity. The monks collect a lot of books to give to people.

I get very annoyed by two monks in my building who smoke around two packs a day. The other pagoda boys and I make jokes about them trying to get honey out of our building because there must be some bees they are trying to smoke out. Sometimes I say to them that I will build a room with no windows and they can smoke in there, and they could save on cigarettes because the smoke would build up and they can just sit in the smoke-filled room.

DAY SEVEN
I wake up at 4am and study histology for awhile. I get a haircut and talk with another pagoda boy. We eat fish, pork and cabbage soup. I look into scholarship options at various universities including Harvard. I read a biography about Marie Curie and then lift some homemade weights.

To me there seems to be a kind of despondency in some aspects of Cambodian culture, it seems almost a mindset. Often Cambodian people will think poorly of their own capabilities because of a perceiaved lack of education or wealth.

I think this can affect Cambodians in a negative way because in my communications with people from some other cultures it seems that they have greater belief in their own abilities. I think this greater self-confidence is empowering.

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