For Phout Chreach, a 66-year-old former rice farmer from Kompong Speu province, the 15-day Pchum Ben festival is a way to supplement her income after she had to give up her crop this year due to seasonal drought in her hometown.
“I tried to beg in the province but no one gave me anything, so I thought that because Phnom Penh has plenty of rich people they might give me some money,” she said as she courted donations outside Wat Koh in Daun Penh district earlier this week.
Ms. Chreach, who was begging with a friend from her province, said that she hoped to make $2.50 on each of the festival’s 15 days, and that she would stay in the city past Pchum Ben if she could make enough money.
“Begging is not as difficult for me as before, when I was rice farming,” she said.
The former farmer is among many impoverished rural Cambodians who see the religious celebration, during which people honor the spirits of their ancestors, as a potentially profitable time.
Competition at major pagodas in the city is fierce, as many beggars have traveled to the capital from the countryside to take advantage of devotees’ benevolence during Pchum Ben.
Leang Pek, a 59-year-old rice wine seller from Svay Rieng province, is another who has taken a break from rural life to try her hand in the city.
Each day during this year’s celebration, she will position herself—surrounded by several of her children and grandchildren—outside Wat Lanka in Chamkar Monk district to beg for money from devotees.
“If a lot of people give money, then I can get 5,000 riel [$1.25] a day, but if not, it’s more like 2,000 riel [$0.50],” she said, adding that any profits will go toward settling a large debt amassed while paying for her grandmother’s funeral two years ago.
While some white-clad worshippers, laden with food and drink—consumed by monks and then passed on to the departed through prayer—ignore pleas for cash from beggars, others relent.
Sie Pheara, a senior monk at Wat Ounalom, is less sympathetic. While he said he pities the poor, he did not want large numbers of beggars at his pagoda.
“It can be annoying when there are beggars at the pagoda because sometimes they interrupt people attending here,” he said, adding that the temple employed a security guard to keep beggars in check.
Sok Ra, a full-time beggar in the capital, usually targets foreigners around Phnom Penh’s riverside area. But during major holidays, she switches her attention to her fellow countrymen.
“Cambodian people are more generous during Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year. A lot of people give money then,” the 30-year-old said outside Wat Ounalom with a collection bowl in one hand and her infant son in the other arm.
Ms. Ra, who has five children with her husband, also a beggar, says she can make $2.50 in a single morning at the pagoda during Pchum Ben.
In comparison, Un Chan Thoeun, a 36-year-old coffee-seller, says she makes about the same amount during a morning moonlighting outside the pagoda selling lotus flowers.
“I sell flowers every Pchum Ben, but it’s not very good because my profit is just small,” she said.
Si Vanthorn, 68, who handed out small of amounts of riel to beggars lining the entrance to Wat Koh, said she normally only gave money to the disabled.
But at festival times, she said, she tries to spread her wealth further as many of the poor had no alternative way to make money.
“I think it is a real shame that they need to beg for their children,” she said. “There are a lot of beggars everywhere. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen says that all Cambodian people have enough rice to eat but clearly, they don’t.”