Many students from provinces across the Kingdom flock to the capital to obtain higher education. As some of them struggle financially, pagodas in Phnom Penh open their doors to provide shelter and food so they can focus on finishing their studies.
In the past, education systems in Cambodia generally operated within Buddhist monasteries, where only men could attend classes.
A pagoda was considered the centre of moral and social education where villagers sent their male children to learn about life and basic literacy by memorising Buddhism chants in the Pali language.
Though the education landscape in the Kingdom has changed, many young men continue to reside in pagodas as part of their education and as a way to reduce living expenses while focusing on their studies.
In particular, a considerable number of university students who come from low-income families and remote areas find sanctuary in pagodas, where they have access to free shelter, meals and Buddhist education.
Ry Ly Ouy, 23, an Information Technology student at Royal University of Phnom Penh, says he moved into Botum Pagoda in Daun Penh district after finishing high school in 2014.
Originally from Battambang province, Mr Ly Ouy says he was unwilling to stay in his hometown and preferred to pursue further education in Phnom Penh for a better chance at finding a decent job in the future.
He notes that many of his siblings who stayed in the province struggled financially even after graduating from university.
Mr Ly Ouy says students living in the pagoda mostly come from the provinces and experience financial hardship.
“My uncle used to be a monk here, so about a year before my high school graduation, I asked him for permission to stay here,” he explains.
Sitting down on a bench on the pagoda grounds, Mr Ly Ouy says he prefers staying in the religious sanctuary than renting a room or a share house with friends.
He says that while renting could be affordable, it was still inconvenient and demands additional costs, such as for electricity as well as food. Renting also poses risks, since some places lack security, he adds.
On the other hand, Mr Ly Ouy says a pagoda provides a peaceful environment, where he can focus on studying. Not only is he able to save money, he adds that he is also surrounded by people of similar backgrounds and goals, which he says also enriches his education experience.
“We share our knowledge and contribute what we can to help each other,” he says. “Living here is safe and I can concentrate on my studies, and we can also learn about Buddhism, which helps both our physical and mental well-being.”
While a pagoda welcomes students to stay for free, monks residing in a pagoda also require that students fulfil certain qualifications to be permitted to reside.
Venerable Chi Vanna, a deputy resident manager at Botum Pagoda, notes that not every student from the provinces gets a chance to stay at the pagoda.
“Only students with a good character and background who come from an impoverished family and has a strong passion to obtain education are permitted to stay here,” Ven Vanna says.
He adds that there are also young people who stay in the pagoda while they earn money to be able to afford an education.
Wat Botum is among 45 pagodas in the capital that accept students from the provinces to reside for free. Located a few kilometres away in Boeng Keng Kang district, Mohamontrei Pagoda also opens its doors to students.
Lon Phally, 24, who studying for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions, is residing at Mohamontrei Pagoda, where he also helps out by overseeing student residents.
He says currently there are 170 students living in the pagoda, noting that some of them are high school students, while there are also those who are pursuing a master’s degree like him.
He says that each room is occupied by four to five people, including a monk. While students stay for free, they have to help to maintain the pagoda, including by preparing and serving meals, as well as cleaning the grounds.
Mr Phally says students also take part in ceremonies with monks.
While showing the grounds of the pagoda, Mr Phally says residents must follow the rules, including taking care of the pagoda’s property and returning to the building no later than 11pm.
He says monks will close the gates of the pagoda in the evenings for security and those who did not manage to arrive on time are left to sleep outside.
Mr Phally says that while staying in the pagoda helps to save money, some students still have to work outside of school hours, including during weekends, in order to afford other expenses.
“Despite free accommodation and food, some students are still struggling with university fees and transportation expenses,” he says. “So they choose to work after classes in order to support their expenses in the city, and also dedicate time for volunteering in order to help with future job opportunities.”
Mr Phally adds that he is grateful that pagodas provide support and opportunities for struggling students to pursue a better future.
“Residing in a pagoda has enabled many young scholars who come from low-income families to improve their living condition in the hope of successfully finishing their college degrees,” he says. “We are extremely fortunate to have a warm place that is free of charge to stay during our studies.”