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A Chinese ‘monk’ offers a bracelet to a couple in front of the Royal Palace. Kimberley McCosker

Brown-robed scourge

"Do you speak Chinese?”

It’s only after the fourth time the question – asked in Mandarin – is repeated that the man responds with a nod in the affirmative. He continues to hold out a beaded bracelet, smiling.

“Are you a real monk?”

The smile fades, but the man nods again. He says he is from Wuhan – a province in Eastern China – then re-pockets the beads, turns on his heels and walks away.

The scourge of “fake monks” is a worldwide phenomenon, not just in traditionally Buddhist countries but as far afield as Melbourne, Vancouver and New York – where the New York Post recently ran an article urging otherwise cynical New Yorkers to wise up to the racket being run by the city’s new “squeegee men”.

In Phnom Penh, the “monks” are distinguishable on sight: they wear trousers and shoes under their robes, and they request donations at any time of the day.

They speak no Khmer, limited English and only reluctant Chinese.

According to the Ministry of Cult and Religion, it’s a problem on the rise.

“I am preparing a report for the minister to inform him about the problem, and all the ministries in the provinces, to make sure they know about this,” said Seng Somony, spokesperson for the Ministry of Cult and Religion.

Last month, a Chinese man dressed as a monk was taken to a police station in Mondulkiri for questioning after refusing to accept donations of under 10,000 riel, about $2.50.

But Somony said that arrests would remain rare. “We don’t have any law that says we can arrest those monks,” he explained.

“Right now, we are trying to gather those monks and give them some discipline about this problem – they should not force people to buy their stuff."

While these monks have been known to target locals asking for donations, they find that tourists are their safest bet.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The ‘monks’ are initially friendly but do not like to be photographed. Kimberley McCosker

“When myself and others see them, we never respect them in the way we respect our Cambodian monks,” said Soun Sorn, a tuk-tuk driver who plies his trade outside the Giant Ibis bus station.

Sorn has seen the routine a thousand times: a monk approaches a freshly disembarked traveller, he smiles, and with the dexterity of a magician he has somehow wriggled a beaded bracelet onto the tourist’s wrist.

Still smiling, he makes his request in English: somewhere between $5 and $10 for the blessing inferred by the prayer beads.

Giving back the bracelets is far trickier than acquiring them – the monk will haggle his customer down aggressively rather than take back the beads.

According to Khim Sorn, the chief monk in Phnom Penh, it’s a phenomenon that threatens to “ruin the reputation of Khmer monks” among foreigners.

“Local people, they can tell the difference between the two types of monks, but for tourists it might be hard for them to tell the difference,” he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sorn said he reserved judgement on whether the monks were “fake” or simply foreign.

“I’m not sure where these monks are from, but I know that they are Mahayana monks,” he said, referring to a set of practices distinct from the Theravada Buddhism that is observed in Cambodia.

“I’m not sure if this kind of action is wrong or not according to their religious rules as we follow two different kinds of Buddhism.

"I know the rules of Mahayana Buddhism are not as strict as our rules.”

He added that he thought pestering people for money was “a very inappropriate thing to do regardless of which version of Buddhism they follow.”

At the ministry, Somony agreed with Sorn that the monks may be genuine – a fact that made arresting them as impersonators more difficult.

Somony argued that, either way, the monks’ distinctive garb made it unlikely that anyone would confuse them for their Cambodian counterparts.

“I don’t think it will affect the reputation of Khmer monks,” he said.

Elsewhere, the monks’ spiritual status remains unclear. Erik Davis, a professor specialising in the study of Buddhism, said that for most Buddhists, regardless of their denomination, the worthiness of monks as recipients of donations depends very strongly on proper ordination.

Along the riverfront promenade, which serves as a popular stalking ground for the monks, local distaste is made abundantly clear.

“He’s not a good man,” one vendor says, gesturing towards the retreating mustard robes.

An old, toothless woman, her gums stained red with betel juice, gestures dismissively towards the retreating figure. “Money, money, money!” she spat.

Additional reporting by Brent Crane.

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