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The Sound of One Hand Texting

At an old Buddhist temple, piety lurches into the 21st century

Author James Dorsey Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

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CAMBODIA – In many ways, the Wat Preah Prom Rath monastery in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap is a typical Buddhist holy site. Founded around 500 years ago, it bristles with golden statuary and tapering pagodas, its manicured garden practically screaming inner peace. The tranquility is quickly shattered, however, by a roar echoing through the grounds: “Goooaaal!”

Bout Pranang, the monk who oversees the monastery and its 50 or so initiates, shakes his head and casts a withering gaze toward a group of shaven-headed teenagers wrapped in saffron robes, who are gathered around a laptop watching a soccer match. “That was awesome,” says novice monk Thom Sav as the boys high-five. The elderly monk rolls his eyes.

But then, Pranang has had to get used to this sort of thing. In recent years, Internet use has become widespread at temples across Cambodia. It is common to see monks toting iPads and smartphones. Many have their own Facebook pages. To deny young initiates media access, as everyone here understands, would likely lead to a severe drop in the number of monks.

At Wat Preah Prom Rath, there are two satellite dishes on the temple roof and a big-screen television in the communal dining room. “They used to eat in silence. Now they want action kung fu movies from Hong Kong,” Pranang says. “There are just too many distractions.”

Pranang admits to having difficulty accepting the newfound worldliness of his young charges, but he tries to keep an open mind. “One can still pursue the path to enlightenment while living in the modern world,” he says. “It is just harder with so much access to pornography.”

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