Festival Offerings Become Communal Feast

Kong Kim Heng, 62, carried a mesh bag packed to the brim with home-cooked food, candles and incense as she arrived at Phnom Penh’s Wat Mohamontrey pagoda on Thursday morning.

Along with her husband, Bun Mong, 63, she spent the previous night preparing khor sach chrouk, a traditional caramelized pork and egg soup, to bring to the pagoda as an offering. In the first 12 days of the festival, they had visited nine pagodas, bringing home-cooked food with them each time.

2015, 10, 1 - - Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The Cambodia Daily
Worshippers gather around platters of food during a Pchum Ben ceremony earlier this month at Wat Samraong Andet in Phnom Penh. (Jens Welding Ollgaard)

“I bring the food to the pagoda to offer it to my ancestors, because I hope to receive blessings from them for me and my family,” Mr. Mong said.

With the vast majority of Cambodians celebrating Pchum Ben over the past two weeks, the country’s pagodas have filled with worshippers each morning— most of them leaving behind food that, together with meals prepared at the pagoda, ends up feeding entire communities.

At Wat Botum pagoda, Chhuth Raksmey, 33, joined a group of cooks on Thursday to prepare breakfast and lunch for the 481 monks and more than 700 students who live there.

“Today, we are cooking four kinds of different food: Vietnamese soup, dried fish with mango, fried vegetables and salted fish,” he said.

Near the back of the pagoda, beggars waited for leftovers, which Mr. Raksmey said are shared between local vagrants and patients at Kantha Bopha hospital.

Some pagodas, such as Wat Opot in Takeo province, have made arrangements with those living in nearby areas to make sure leftovers don’t go to waste.

The Wat Opot Community, a center for children infected with HIV or AIDS, gets a steady supply of food from the nearby pagoda during Pchum Ben, according to its director, Wayne Matthysse.

“They feed the people in the community [first], but if there’s an excess of food they bring it over to us,” he said. “We have a very good relationship with them; they’ve always been generous to us.”

Food is carried to monks as an offering for the Pchum Ben festival earlier this month at Wat Samraong Andet in Phnom Penh. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Food is carried to monks as an offering for the Pchum Ben festival earlier this month at Wat Samraong Andet in Phnom Penh. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh earlier this month, monks at Wat Samraong Andet formed two lines facing the community members who had brought offerings of platters overflowing with food, which were placed in front of the monks.

As the crowd bowed their heads in prayer, the monks feasted, consuming as much food as they could before noon, when they would fast until breakfast the next morning.

“The monks can eat as much as possible, it’s OK,” said Sovan Khemara, a layman who organized food at the pagoda during the holiday.

When the monks finished eating, new platters were laid on the floor throughout the pagoda, where locals sat, ready for lunch.

“Everyone—beggars, everybody who works outside—are also here,” Mr. Khemara said.

“If we have leftovers, we give it to the hospital. But normally there is none left, just enough for the poor and everybody [here].”

Mr. Khemara said about 20 local police officers and soldiers also dropped by once the food had been blessed to pick up a portion before the rest of the locals began eating.

The dishes on offer included chicken curry, sour soup, khor tumpaing (a traditional dish made of bamboo, eggs and pork), bountiful bowls of rice and num akao, a balled-up rice cake coated in coconut.

Once the food had been served, Ly Chhay Chou, one of the worshipers who contributed to the feast, loaded enormous pots into the bed of her truck.

Her ancestors—along with her community—had been fed.

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