Perhaps after 2,540 birthdays, the celebrations have become routine. Around Phnom Penh it was hard to guess from the empty pagodas—and indifference even among those in them—that Monday was one of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar.
Visak Buja marks the 2,541 anniversary of the birth of Buddha, whose followers make up 95 percent of Cambodia’s population. Although several celebrations are scheduled for this morning, it seemed all day Monday that Buddhists were in the minority in Phnom Penh.
At Wat Koh High School and pagoda, Meas Sophally, 17, a 7th grader who said he hopes to be an English interpreter, said he was grateful for the holiday, but not exactly for the reasons a devout Buddhist might appreciate.
“I just know that today is Visak Buja, so I can have a day off and I can play football. I’m very happy,” he said, sweating at a drink stand near the steps of the pagoda. “I don’t know what it’s about. You better ask the monks.”
Meas Sophally said he thought the holiday was like Halloween, or a day to honor the dead.
The teen sported a baby blue T-shirt with “Gospel” written across it, and a quotation from the Christian Bible: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the gentile.”
When asked if he knew what the shirt meant, Meas Sophally shrugged.
“He got it second-hand for 200 riel,” his friends said.
But Meas Sophally’s indifference was not just the folly of youth. Several older folks had the same sentiments.
Narin, 32, was passing through the walkway at Wat Phnom with several of his friends and two children. Although he said the holiday was an important one, he said he had not been to a temple to celebrate or acknowledge it.
“I didn’t prepare anything. I just came here for a walk,” he said.
At Svay Porpe pagoda, near the Russian Embassy, young monks were stringing Italian lights and a middle-age woman swept dust and rubbish into piles. Around the grounds, novices had set up red-, gold-, and flesh-colored scenes of the Buddha’s life with half-size wooden cutouts of the Buddha and his ancient worshipers. Khut Cheun, 75, was preparing incense at a scene celebrating Buddha’s immortality. While she said she was glad to do it, she also said she wasn’t sure why she was doing it.
“Today is a big day. But I don’t know anything about this. You better ask the nuns,” she said.
There were several devout followers marking the holiday, but they were not crowded for space around the city.
Rin, 23, said she has come to Svay Porpe with her grandmother, a nun, since she was young. Buddha’s birthday is a chance to wipe her moral slate clean, she said.
“I heard from the old people that I can wash away all my previous sins,” Rin said.
For You Sary, 59, Visak Buja is a sacred day. Carrying a red plastic shopping bag filled with incense sticks, jasmine, dragon eye fruits, bananas, and grapes, she said she celebrates Buddhist holidays often, although not always at Wat Phnom.
She used a broken bamboo shoot as a cane as she walked out of the Buddha’s temple, having made offerings to the gods.
“I want to pray to the Buddha because I want to have happiness in my family,” You Sary said.
Still, she voiced skepticism. When asked if she thought the prayers worked, though, she said, smiling a toothless grin, “Maybe.”
Lek Heng, 50, a Buddhist novice, was sitting on a concrete bench in the shade of the pagoda at Svay Porpe, waiting for the afternoon ceremony where worshipers were to march around the temple’s Banyan tree 6 meters in diameter.
“This is the greatest day of Buddhism. It makes the religion prosper. It’s important to boost Buddhism,” she said, pointing to the cut-out pageants.
Even so, Lek Heng said the public response to the holiday was tepid.
“This year is quieter than last year,” she said. ”I don’t know why.”