Piety, Profits Mix During Pchum Ben

Despite the loudspeaker’s warn­­ing, business was brisk Tuesday at Wat Tuol Tom Pong:

“Do not leave your shoes with children! If they get lost, the wat will not be responsible,” cautioned the unseen voice.

But there was 14-year-old Bun Vantha at the temple’s entrance, asking the pious to entrust their footwear to her.

“I got six pairs this morning,” she confided, rivulets of sweat running down her forehead. “They pay me 100 riel or 200 riel or even 500 riel for two pairs of shoes.”

Bun Vantha said she works the temple entrance during every Pchum Ben, the festival of the dead, because her family is poor and she needs the money.

“Yesterday, I made 4,300 riel [about $1.07],” she said. “Making money from guarding the shoes is easier than begging.”

The 15-day festival, which started Monday, is not only a good season for families who will gather in two weeks for the annual ceremony of honoring their an­cestors with food and prayers.

It also marks good times for the poor, the disabled and the homeless, who crowd into pagodas to ask the faithful to share a little of their good fortune.

“Last year, I got around 100,000 riel ($25) from begging in this pagoda,” said Kang Phuon, 31, a disabled soldier and father of six who had stationed himself in Wat Tuol Tom Pong.

He said he made 10,000 riel ($2.50) on the first day of the holiday this year. He said the money will go to buy rice for his family in Sa’ang district.

“We are very poor. None of my children have been to school, because we do not have the money to pay the school,” said Kang Phuon, who lost a leg to a land mine in 1988 while fighting with the Khmer Rouge in Battambang province.

Those who beg on a regular basis say Pchum Ben is a profitable time for them. Kang Phuon said he usually makes 3,000 to 4,000 riel a day begging in markets, but more while the holiday lasts.

“During the Buddhist festival people gather at the wat, and they want to give alms to poor people like us,” he said. It’s not just money, either—many people bring good food, cakes and fruit to the pagodas to honor their ancestors.

“All of these offerings are not for monks and deceased ancestors, but part of them go to those poor children and people,” said Phork Kun, 67, the administrative chief for Wat Tuol Tom Pong.

“Some children eat, and then wrap extra food to take home. They are very poor.” He said about 300 poor people have remained at the pagoda since Monday.

The holiday also marks a period of prosperity for the pagoda. Last year, Wat Tuol Tom Pong took in donations worth about 2 million riel ($500). He said the average contribution is between 500 riel and 5,000 riel ($.12 and $1.25).

“We spent part of the budget to help flood victims in Takeo, Kandal and areas around Phnom Penh,” he said. The Cambodian Red Cross also puts a box in pagodas during Pchum Ben; last year, the Tuol Tom Pong box yielded 500,000 riel ($125).

Some pagodas are having a more difficult Pchum Ben this year. In Kratie province, floodwaters have cut off many people from their pagodas.

“The water reached into some pagodas, and people could row boats” inside the compounds, Kratie Governor Loy Sophat said. He said the waters are receding now and many will be able to get to their pagodas for the ceremonies.

But he asked that those who are lucky enough to be living on  dry ground remember the less fortunate at this generous time of year.

“As people escape from the flood, and they are busy preserving the rice for seed, the monks will lack food,” he said.




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