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Pagoda housing throws lifeline to poor students

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Phnom Penh pagodas offer free accomodation to poor but talented students from the provinces who otherwise couldn’t afford to complete their degrees

Heng Chivoan

Kang Rotha, a second-year information technology student, lives at Svay Popey pagoda. He says his family is so poor that a university degree would be out of reach without free accomodation at the pagoda.

M

TEMPORARY residence in one of Phnom Penh's many pagodas remains the best and sometimes the only way for provincial students with limited resources to pursue their dream of a university education.

"I was worried after graduating from high school because I had no relations in Phnom Penh," said Kang Rotha, a second-year information technology student at the University of Sachak Asia.

In a book-lined room filled with hanging monks' robes, the young scholar considered his good fortune to have been given accommodation at a pagoda.

His parents came to the capital to find him housing at one of the capital's temples. They eventually found space at Svay Popey pagoda.

"My family is poor, so without the option of living at the temple I could never achieve my dream of attending university," Kang Rotha said.

He added that life at the pagoda can be strict. The gates close at 11pm, so stragglers could find themselves out on the street for the night.

Despite such restrictions, Kang Rotha is quite happy living with the monks. "It is quiet here and good for studying. The monks always give us good advice," he said.

The pagoda boys

Chea Ly, secretary general of The Khmeng Wat Association, said that some 4,000 students currently live at pagodas in the capital while they complete their university studies. Children in Cambodia's provinces have few opportunities for higher education, and the cost of living in Phnom Penh makes the goal of a university degree a difficult one to achieve.

Even students with family in the capital find that life as a "pagoda boy," as the poor scholars are commonly known, has its advantages.

"I have family in Phnom Penh, but I don't want to live with them because they always disturb my study time," said Veng, who lives at Dam Dek pagoda.

Tip Sao, a monk at Wat Botum, explained the basis by which students are chosen for residence at a pagoda.

"They must come from poor families, mainly in the provinces," Tip Sao said.

"They also must be committed to their studies."

Residents live at the pagodas during their four years of university study, after which they move on to make room for a new crop of needy students.

In addition to their course work, residents must spend one day each month - at the full moon - studying the Pali language, Tip Sao said, adding that about 1,000 students currently live at Wat Botum.

"We have a great concern for students from poor provincial families who have such a strong desire to continue their education," said Tip Sao. "We are happy to help them as best we can."  

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