Cambodians who flooded into Phnom Penh’s pagodas during the Khmer New Year holiday this week carried with them a range of offerings for their ancestors.
One thing devotees did not bring into the city’s temples was their shoes, piles of which amassed outside the entrances. And for some enterprising individuals, guarding these shoes presented an opportunity to make some extra cash.
Sokhunnavid, a fifth-grader at a local primary school, said he had been guarding shoes at Wat Botum in Daun Penh district for three years now as a way to earn spending money during his school’s long holiday.
“I came here to work because I am free and I have no money,” he said, as a man handed four other young boys a 100-riel note each for watching his shoes.
Sokhunnavid said payment varied from person to person—a particularly generous visitor might give him 1,000 riel—and that he earned about 5,000 riel, or about $1.25, per day.
“I plan to use the money I make on snacks at school,” he said.
Cheak Saven, a monk at Wat Botum, said that shoe theft, a problem in past years, had been all but eliminated by the boys’ presence.
“They come every year, but we didn’t ask them to come,” he said.
A few blocks away, at Wat Ounalom, Hem Sokmean, chairman of the pagoda’s leadership committee, said he did not allow strangers to guard the footwear of patrons.
“We would not allow the kids to watch the shoes because we don’t know them,” he said.
Instead, the daughter of the pagoda’s custodian keeps track of the shoes there, supplementing her income as a cook.
Chou Chhivneath, chief of the municipal Buddhist monk discipline committee, said the city’s religious authorities had no role in preventing shoe theft.
“There is no appointment of shoe watchers. They come themselves and most are homeless,” he said.
But pagodas still benefit from the vigilance of the shoe guards, noted Chraek Somneath, a monk at Wat Saravoan.
“If people kept stealing shoes, people would stop coming here.”