PHNOM PENH – Chris Kelly spent years following the Venerable Luon Sovath for his new documentary, A Cambodian Spring.
But when Sovath toured the UK for two months last year to help promote the movie, the Northern Irish filmmaker found himself taking on a new role: pagoda boy.
As Sovath strove to adhere to his strict monastic routine while staying in Kelly’s London apartment, Kelly, 37, tackled many of the tasks performed in Cambodian temples by the youngsters who serve as live-in monks’ helpers.
when we screened the documentary A Cambodian Spring and there were Q&A sessions, I answered confidently, whereas in Cambodia if we had that kind of session, the person who asked and the one who answered would be afraid or worried that something may happen to them.
Buddhist monks traditionally do not procure or prepare their own food. Instead, they seek rice and alms from Cambodians, who believe feeding monks is an important ritual that brings them merit. Extra cooking, laundry and temple upkeep are performed by pagoda boys or devout laypeople.
Or, in this case, a friend. Kelly and Sovath became close over the course of the six years the filmmaker spent in Cambodia documenting the stories of several local activists, including the monk, who was just beginning to explore how he could support marginalized communities affected by land conflict.
Today, Sovath has become a prominent figure in Cambodia, while A Cambodian Spring, released last year, has been screened at film festivals across the world. This month, Kelly was nominated for a BAFTA award for outstanding debut as a director and producer.
Although sending his film’s subject to beg for food in the streets of London was not a viable option, Kelly did wake up every day at the crack of dawn to prepare breakfast for Sovath, who spent much of the UK tour as a guest in his apartment.
"Because he is a monk, he obviously doesn't prepare his own food or anything, so I would get up in the morning and start washing rice and preparing food, which would usually be chicken and rice and steamed veggies, or I would make him noodle soup with egg and fish,” Kelly explained.
“He was really sweet about it. I was kind of learning on my feet. He would be like, ‘Oh, Chris, is the rice maybe burning there a little bit?’”
“I felt like a pagoda boy, but quite happily.”
Getting in a hearty morning meal was especially important because Sovath also stuck to another monastic stricture: consuming food only between dawn and noon.
Kelly said he mostly tried to cook foods the monk would be familiar with, like the traditional Khmer breakfast of thinly sliced pork over rice, which the filmmaker prepared using bacon. He taught Sovath how to use a coffee machine for mornings when the monk woke up too early for breakfast.
“He fell in love with espresso. I have a machine and he was always making himself espresso,” he said.
The duo also spent time on the road in Scotland and Ireland, where they sampled some of the more traditional foods of the region.
"He had a lot of fried breakfasts, which he got sick of," Kelly said.
“He was quite happy to eat a burger. He really liked Turkish food and we got really into eating lamb kofta and chicken skewers with rice and salad, and the bread. He was really taken by that.”
The monk had a slightly different take.
“In general, it’s not like our country,” he explained. “They don’t have Khmer food, they only have hamburgers, pizzas, and stuff like European food, so it’s quite difficult for me to eat.”
Like most monks, Sovath is a low-maintenance dresser and arrived in the UK with just one pair of sandals and two spare orange robes, which Kelly carefully laundered for him. But he was ultimately forced to upgrade his wardrobe to contend with the damp, chilly English climate. Kelly took him shopping at the retailer H&M for socks and sweaters in the appropriate monastic hue.
“It wasn’t that hard—saffron seemed to be the big seasonal color,” he said.
“He bought a pair of shoes in Galway because it started raining, and he borrowed a coat when it got cold. He was walking around in this Harris tweed.”
Wow! Dear all, this building is for journalists! It is huge and tall and just for journalists. In Cambodia do we have such buildings for journalists? I don’t think so. Even such a school for journalists we may not have yet.
Sovath, who has become known for his innovative use of social media in his activism, goes by the nickname “The Media Monk” and carries a saffron-colored alms bag emblazoned with a picture of a smartphone camera. He meticulously documented his trip through photographs and videos posted on multiple social media accounts.
Broadcasting live to tens of thousands of Facebook followers, he used a selfie stick to document his movements through ancient churches, rose gardens, and city streets, offering viewers both tourist information and pointed social commentary. In one video from Leeds, he marveled at the size of the city’s Hyde Park.
“In this country they love natural resources, land, water, and wildlife, and everything is well preserved,” he told his viewers. “Compare this to our country, our cities: We have no huge parks and most parks are narrow and small without any big trees.”
In another video, he visited The Times of London and asked a staffer there, “Is this a news building for government or a company?”
When she explained she was a journalist, he turned to the camera and began addressing his Facebook viewers in rapid-fire Khmer.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “Wow! Dear all, this building is for journalists! It is huge and tall and just for journalists. In Cambodia do we have such buildings for journalists? I don’t think so. Even such a school for journalists we may not have yet.
“Oh, very proud! This is suitable for a country that has full press freedom and gives value to the press, so even the place they work is huge and tall.”
While the monk learned many lessons about British history, cuisine and life in a cold climate, he also imparted some of his own.
“In London I am used to running—things are quite hectic—but he just saunters around in his sandals at his own pace and I had to learn to slow down,” said Kelly.
“I kind of appreciated it. It was frustrating at the time because I wanted to get places, but when I thought about it, he was teaching me a lesson about patience.”
The UK tour was often fun and cemented the strong friendship between the men, Kelly said. But it also laid bare a hard reality: Venerable Sovath is no longer fully at home in Cambodia, where he has been banned from almost every pagoda in the country, but he would also struggle to adapt to life as a monk abroad.
“To be totally honest, he was a bit lonely,” said Kelly. “He didn't have any Khmer people to talk to, and he made a big sacrifice.”
The monk agreed that life in London sometimes made him feel isolated.
“They don’t have a Khmer community [in the UK]” he said. “As a monk I am supposed to stay in a pagoda, but unfortunately there was no pagoda so I had to stay in a house.”
Even more difficult for Sovath was experiencing firsthand the broad array of rights enjoyed by British citizens, and comparing their lives to those of Cambodians back home.
He was impressed by everything from the safety of the UK’s road and rail system—“I never heard of any accidents in my time there!” he said in wonder—to London’s many green spaces. But the nation’s civil liberties were what struck him the most.
“In England they give people full freedom of speech, so you don’t have to worry when you say something that you will be arrested,” he said.
“For example, when we screened the documentary A Cambodian Spring and there were Q&A sessions, I answered confidently, whereas in Cambodia if we had that kind of session, the person who asked and the one who answered would be afraid or worried that something may happen to them.”
“Comparing Cambodia and England is like comparing sky and land,” he concluded.
Ty Aulissa and Neou Vannarin contributed reporting.