Cambodia scams: Fake monks

Been stopped by a monk asking for a donation? They’ve been spotted all over the world, so it’s no surprise that Cambodia hasn’t escaped those greedy pests, fake monks. Although you’ll find them from Melbourne to San Francisco, fake monks are especially insidious in Cambodia, a Buddhist country and home to thousands of real monks.

cambodia fake monks

This is not a real monk. Do not give him money.

Tourists here delight in seeing monks, and a photo of a saffron-clad monk at the temples is a coveted holiday treasure. Because tourists are so keen to see real monks, it’s no wonder that the fake-monk scam has taken off in Cambodia. You’ll find faux monks anywhere in the country where there are tourists — Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap — and their goal is to rip off tourists.

How to spot a fake monk in Cambodia: Fake monks are usually Chinese and are often (but not always) dressed in brown or mustard-colored robes, unlike the bright orange garb of their authentic Khmer counterpart, and will wear pants underneath their robes. They are usually middle-aged, while most Cambodian monks are in their twenties or even younger. Fake monks don’t usually speak any Khmer and very little English, other than to demand more money. They often wear wooden prayer beads and offer people bracelets or amulets. Fake monks will often collect money well into the night, unlike real monks who only collect in the morning. Perhaps most importantly, it’s reported that they don’t seem to know anything about Buddhism.

What’s the scam? Fake monks ask for cash donations and are rarely satisfied with what they are offered. They sometimes have bracelets that they’ll tie around your wrist, or amulets that they will give you and then demand cash for. Tourists are told that monks in Cambodia must be treated with respect, and most responsible tourists try to do just that. So when a monk demands a donation, it can be very hard to say no. It’s being reported that the fake monks are asking for donations not just from tourists but from Cambodians, who, as Buddhists, have an even harder time saying no to a monk.

cambodian monks

The real deal: Cambodian monks in Phnom Penh.

One of the precepts for Cambodian monks states that they must not handle money. Traditionally in Cambodia, Buddhists donate food or medicine as the monks go on their morning alms rounds. This tradition is eroding, though, as Cambodia becomes a more cash-centric society, and it’s common to see people giving a few hundred or a few thousand riel to visiting monks. However, taking cash is still a violation of the precepts for Cambodian monks, and you will never see a “real” monk begging or asking for money.

In a New York Times article about fake monks in Manhattan, Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at UCLA, said, “Aggressive begging is utterly unheard-of in the Buddhist tradition. The monks typically do not even acknowledge the offering.” In Cambodia,  real monks stand quietly outside homes or businesses, holding their begging bowls, waiting to be noticed. They do not beg.

Say no to fake monks. While this scam isn’t the most harmful one around — it does nothing worse than relieve tourists of a little of their money — it puts real monks, and Cambodian Buddhism generally, in a bad light. Cambodian monks have enough of their own real-life dramas and scandals to contend with; they don’t need a bunch of fake Chinese monks sullying their reputation even further. Giving money to a faux monk and later finding out that you’ve been scammed is an unpleasant experience for a tourist, and  people who give money to fake monks are less likely to give to real organizations that will actually help Cambodians. The experience would be even worse for a Cambodian, whose donation may represent a much bigger sacrifice. So say no to fake monks, and spread the word.

Wondering what fake monks look like? Artist John Weeks captured this video and has more great photos on his blog.

Have you been scammed by a fake monk? Tell us about your experience in the comments section.

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