Monks, with their vivid-colored saffron robes, are interesting subjects for photographers as they provide a striking contrast against the sandstone of Angkor temples.
According to history, Buddhism in Cambodia dates back to the 5th century from a king in the Funan Dynasty. However, it was then that during the reign of King Jayavarman VII of the Angkor Empire when a certain type of Buddhism, called Mahayana Buddhism, was established. Then there was another form called the Theravada Buddhism that took over the former one after the death of King Jayavarman VII.
In the present days, about 95% of people in Cambodia practice Buddhism. Buddhist monks are also referred to as “bonzes”. There are two types of monks, the Novice and the Bhikkhu. Novices can be as young as 7 years old while Bhikku should be at least 20 years of age. Converting into a monk is a matter of personal choice but theoretically speaking based on religious rites and beliefs, Cambodian male above 16 years old should at least serve some terms as a monk. Though they are not compelled to serve as a monk for their entire life, others opt to take the vow and serve otherwise. They live in a simple lifestyle and they are normally prohibited from participating in activities outside their religious practices. However, there is a bit of gradual change in their traditional observance due to the fast-changing contemporary lifestyle influences.
At present, there are about 4000 monks in Cambodia, however it is not an exact figure as there are many Cambodian monks living in Thailand. This number was much higher not so long ago as most of Buddhist monks were murdered between 1975 and 1979 by the Pol Pot regime. In 1969, it was estimated that 53,000 monks and 49,000 novice monks were serving in more than 3,000 temples.
Monks can be spotted in temples and pagodas by the altars praying, some are walking thru the gates and corridors of Angkor Wat or in the maze of Bayon temple either alone or in groups, while others are interacting with ordinary people and tourists. Taking good pictures of monks in these conditions could however be challenging as good lighting and composition is often proved to be difficult.
We had an unexpected opportunity on the 19th and 20th of December 2015, to witness a ceremony with 4100 monks in the temples of Angkor. After the offering ceremony which took place at the Terrace of the Elephants, we met and chatted with some monks and were able to learn about their religious beliefs and observances.
Taking photos of monks from afar in their saffron robes is already enchanting. Being closer made it more a delightful encounter as one can see more intricate details like the position of their hands inside the robe, the elements of the robe, and the silver alms bowl inside the monk bag.