Finale of Pchum Ben Draws Uneasy Crowds

The 35-year-old sparrow vendor sitting in front of Wat Botum in the bright morning sun of the last day of Pchum Ben, Cam­bodia’s 15-day festival honoring deceased relatives, had a slightly grim look on her weathered face.

Children were eagerly pressing their faces near her bird cage, crammed with about 60 tiny brown- and white-flecked sparrows, which she was selling for 1,500 riel each. But few parents were buying.

“Last year business was better,” Bopha grumbled. “Last year there were more people coming to the wat, too.”

Bopha’s customers released the sparrows into the skies in hopes that their family illnesses and problems would fly away with the birds.

On the surface, attendance at Phnom Penh’s major wats was not that different from last year, but visits revealed a lingering un­ease among visitors and monks. Many monks who have fled since the government crackdown on protests have not yet returned.

“For Cambodian people this festival is very, very important. Even when the situation is bad, they struggle as hard as they can to go to the wats,” said Um Suom, the second-highest monk of the Mohanikay sect and head monk of Wat Mohamantrey, who said that usually the festival is a happy occasion.

But according to Um Suom, attendance was down 10 percent compared with Pchum Ben last year, although devotees gave enough food for the monks. And he said not everyone who had fled Wat Mo­haman­trey during protests had returned.

Police had surrounded the wats during the first week of the holiday during the demonstrations. On the last day of Pchum Ben, the police were nowhere to be seen, but many who came to pay their respects at the wat said the police had cast a continuing shadow on the festivities.

“The police surrounding the wats frightened the people, they were not happy,” said 20-year-old Chha Win, who had come to Wat Botum to pay respects to the royal family. “Those kind of people can make people feel bad and spoil religion.”

In the soothing shade of the trees growing in the Wat Botum enclosure, dozens of visitors, many in their white silk shirts, lined up to ladle rice into metal bowls to symbolize feeding their deceased ancestors.

While the festival custom is to visit as many wats as possible to store up good deeds for the next life, some reportedly altered their wat-visiting habits this year.

“Some people don’t want to come because they’re busy, or they don’t have that much money, and also because with this situation going on they’re afraid to leave home,” said a 25-year-old off-duty military policeman who said Wat Botum was his third and last wat—two fewer than he visited last year. “There have been more people than usual going to the provinces because they think it’s safer.”

Meas Saeng Hun, 27, a drink vendor at Wat Ounalom, said the unease showed because few would stay long enough to sit and sip her drinks. Last year at Pchum Ben she made 80,000 riel a day. This year, she made only 40,000. “People now just rush to go home.”

An 84-year-old monk sitting in the courtyard of Wat Langka was even more blunt: “I’ve been [living here] for 20 years. This Pchum Ben, with decreased at­tendance, monks demonstrating, fleeing, is the worst I’ve seen.”

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