In search of Buddhist monks on the back of motorbikes

2014-03-19 Cambodia

This evening spotting and photographing Buddhist monks in their vibrant orange robes became the activity of choice. As we walked to explore some of the sights Phnom Penh has to offer and gulped at the technique of crossing very busy roads without pelican crossings (just keep walking, stopping makes it more dangerous), this became a little side line.

It is a very different activity than that which we’ve come here to do. While in Cambodia we’re aiming to tell you the stories of the work Tearfund is supporting and which is helping communities across this country. But sometimes the dissonance is striking, like when we take photos of brightly dressed monks in circumstances we find incongruous, like a capital city full of motorbikes and mobile phones and Burger King and Costa Coffee.

This morning we met with staff at International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), who are one of Tearfund’s partners in the country and the one who run the project we’re visiting. They spoke of their remarkable way of working with communities, by refusing to give money and resources to communities but training facilitators and working with church leaders to help communities identify the problems they face and assess how, using the resources they have, they can address them.

What’s remarkable is that this is so unusual, what is it about solving people’s problems for them that seems so attractive? Have we become so attached to the goodness of aid, that we are blinded to its limits, or it’s potential to do damage as well as great good?

Cambodia is a country that has known great damage, and is still affected by it. In 1975 Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime were greeted as liberators when the marched into Phnom Penh. Four years later they were ousted after killing around 2 million people through torture, execution, disease and starvation. Families were forced from the cities and made work on agricultural projects, they were fed minimal amounts and refused water throughout the heat of the day. It’s not as hot as Cambodia gets but today’s temperature was in the high 30s.

The horror inflicted is hard to imagine. If it wasn’t for a guide at Cambodia’s genocide museum who was fifteen at the time of Pol Pot’s revolution and part of a forced labour project, it would have been hard to believe. The cruelty that man can do to fellow man is phenomenal. I wondered before I came at the point of the trial last year, with verdict still pending, of a couple of high profile members of the regime, now in their old age. When I read the testimony of one of the few, very few – 7 adults and 4 children – to have walked out of the complex we visited today alive (21,000 left dead, buried in unmarked graves), I wondered no more.

The forced labour projects were done to make everyone alike, everyone poor, everyone the same. Togetherness became a word loaded with venom. And yet togetherness is at the very heart of ICC’s Village Integrated Development Programme. It is by the church and the community working together than needs can be identified and problems solved. It is by working with the local authorities and the Buddhist monks that development can be more than a check box ticked by a well-meaning charity.

Christians make up a small minority of the Cambodian population, it is unusual, official figures suggest only a fraction over 1 per cent, but as we found out today many who are committed Christians are still Buddhist according to official documents. For many if you’re Cambodian you are Buddhist. It’s not unusual, being a Christian is what makes you different. What seems unusual to you and I from far away is very normal here. Even two Buddhist monks on the back of a motorbike.

You can keep track of our adventures in Cambodia at and I would love it if you could give £3 a month to help support the work here. By training and supporting more facilitators more villages can benefit from the ongoing and lasting development it brings.

2 thoughts on “In search of Buddhist monks on the back of motorbikes

  1. […] I mentioned it before, but the non-revolutionary, revolutionary part of this process is that the communities are not given the resources to solve the problems they identify. They are encouraged to see what they already have, and how using that, they can change their circumstances. Yesterday we visited a village using Umoja since 2009 and one of chief problems the church pastor identified was the good intentions of other charities who had given the community things in the past, chickens to start a chicken rearing programme, seed to start growing, and the chickens had been taken to market and sold. It had not lead to sustainable development. […]

  2. Usually I don’t read article on blogs, but I would like to say that
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