In Monk’s Robes, a Foreign Wanderer Courts Western Donors

Huang Hung meandered through Phnom Penh’s tourist strips, alms bowl in hand, collecting money for his Buddhist pagoda thousands of kilometers away—or so he says.

The aging Taiwanese wanderer, a monk for “five or six years,” has been forced to travel far from his temple in Hubei, China, to solicit donations.

“It’s very hard to collect alms in China because people don’t believe,” Huang Hung said on the tourist-heavy Street 172. “Here, a lot of people believe—especially the Americans, Australians and British. They really believe in it.”

“It” is Theravada Buddhism, explains Huang Hung, who was in Thailand before making his way to Cambodia for a week on his temple’s behalf.

But despite practicing the most prevalent form of Cambodia’s national religion, Huang Hung doesn’t quite fit in.

It could be the neon-yellow robes, or his practice of collecting alms in the afternoon, or the fact that he doesn’t stay in one of the city’s many pagodas.

“I try some hostels and hotels,” he said when asked where he will reside while in the city. “And if they don’t give me accommodation [for free], I will look for something else.”

“I can’t communicate with [other monks] because I don’t speak Khmer. We don’t understand each other,” he said.

Huang Hung also has a much more aggressive style of collecting alms than his Cambodian counterparts. He engages his targets in conversation before removing jewelry from his own body to place on theirs.

Only as the exchange comes to a close with a blessing does Huang Hung tell his subjects that they have to pay for their new necklace or bracelet.

“A Khmer monk would not act like this. It is against the doctrine of Buddhism,” said Som San, 85, a monk of 30 years who lives at Wat Lanka.

“This kind of practice does not look good in the eye of worshipers. When people see foreign monks do this, they will devalue Khmer monks also,” he said.

Buddhist clergy and government officials say they have noticed a rising number of foreign monks in the city.

Khim Sorn, Phnom Penh’s chief monk, said that as long as Huang Hung did not force anyone to hand over money, he was not violating Buddhist doctrine.

But Phan Davy, director of the municipal department of cults and religion, expressed a less tolerant sentiment.

“This kind of practice is wrong,” Mr. Davy said when told of Huang Hung’s tactics.

“We consider this cheating,” he said.

Mr. Davy said he was not aware of any “fake monks” operating in Phnom Penh, but that his department would “take action” if they found any.

“We will cooperate with the immigration police to call them for educating and inform them to not to practice like this,” he said.

Huang Hung said such threats didn’t bother him, as his weeklong stint in Cambodia ends Friday, when he will fly to Hong Kong and continue to collect money for his temple.

“I am leaving in one week. What can they do?” he said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)

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