Friends and Relatives Gather at Wat Preah Ream to Prepare for The Festival of The Dead
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series of stories about life in Put Sar, a typical rice-growing village, about 30 km south of Phnom Penh. The stories follow the course of this year’s rainy season rice crop. The village is home to 1,408 people in 350 families and lies 6 km from the nearest market. We hope to show the importance of rice to Cambodia’s mostly rural population, to describe the hardships and rewards of village life, and to listen to voices not often heard.
put sar village, Takeo province – Pheap Eng, a crab basket slung around his neck, is heading for the paddies when he hears the monk’s voice booming through loudspeakers.
He sees men moving through the rice towards Wat Preah Ream Put Sar, walking slowly in the midday heat.
He is torn, but not for long. Catching crabs can wait.
Pheap Eng joins the small crowd gathered to watch the pagoda committee erect a festive gateway of braided palm leaves over the main entrance to the temple.
“I came to see the decorations,’’ he confesses. “People come from all over. Some even sleep at the pagoda. We come to see our friends and relatives.”
Wat Preah Ream, sleepy and shabby, is being burnished by the villagers for the Festival of the Dead, or Pchum Ben, the most sacred of the year’s Buddhist festivals. Despite the name it’s a happy time of family reunions and homecomings. As September’s moon grew fat and golden, people put aside their worries to prepare for the holiday.
The 15-day festival begins as the full moon starts to wane, and culminates on the night it disappears entirely. The devout believe the spirits of their ancestors draw closer and closer as the nights grow darker.
This Thursday, families across Cambodia will visit pagodas to offer food and flowers to their dead and missing relatives, lighting candles and incense to guide the spirits to the offerings.
By then wealthy people will have visited seven pagodas, making offerings at each. Few in Put Sar can afford such extravagance. Instead, they give their time and devotion to the modest Wat amid the rice fields.
If a family doesn’t honor its ancestors, the spirits may be bothersome during the ensuing year, appearing in dreams crying for food and leaving the whole family jumpy and unsatisfied.
Nobody wants that, so a gaggle of yiays works busily, fashioning palm leaves and scarlet hibiscus into intricate floral decorations.
“All of the dead people in hell can come out and eat food,’’ explains Yiay Khur, one of eight old ladies working and chattering together. “They also come from heaven,” she hastens to add. “All the ancestors come from all over, regardless.’’
People think about those they love who have died, and about the long line of ancestors stretching back through time. They pray for the ancestors, and cook for them, cooking also for the monks and their families.
“I pray to Buddha to protect me, and when I go back [home], to keep me safe,’’ says Yiay Khur with satisfaction.
Wat Preah Ream, built in 1952, fell on hard times during the Khmer Rouge regime. Its monks were scattered, its school destroyed, the wood in its buildings used to construct warehouses and pigsties.
Leuk Ta Chan remembers that time with sorrow. He had served as a monk for seven years as a young man, before his natural exuberance led him back into the world in 1961.
He was married with five children, growing rice in Put Sar, when the Khmer Rouge destroyed the pagoda. “That hurt me very much, but I didn’t know what to do,’’ he says. “This was the place where I worshipped the most.’’
For centuries, pagodas had been centers of scholarship for Cambodia, the place where poor young men could go to become educated and devote themselves to the life of the mind. During the French protectorate pagodas preserved Buddhist-based popular education and protected Cambodian culture.
The Khmer Rouge tried to smash them flat, and all but succeeded. Of the 65,000 Buddhist monks and novices alive in 1969, only 5 percent (about 3,250) survived Pol Pot’s regime. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 3,369 wats were destroyed.
By 1979, the temple at Wat Preah Ream had no roof and the walls were badly damaged. Villagers began doing what they could to clean up and rebuild the pagoda, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the first monks returned.
TODAY THE wat has six resident monks, four novices, and three more coming soon. It is still very poor, but only in terms of money.
Neap Lay, a 61-year-old lay leader, says the spirit is stronger than ever. “The people had a bad experience during the Pol Pot time,’’ and now the pagoda means even more to them, he says.
Choeun Saroeun, 47, agrees. Abandoned by her husband, she has two daughters and one 19-year-old son, whose help she could use in growing the family’s rice.
But he is studying to be a monk in Kandal province, and she couldn’t be happier about it. Her 16-year-old nephew is a novice too, she says proudly—right here at Wat Preah Ream.
His name is Sok Niang, and he has worn the saffron robes for three years, since his mother died and his father took another wife and became a soldier in Pursat.
“No one forced me to become a monk,’’ he says, his voice barely audible. “I came to pay gratitude to my parents, who raised me since I was born.’’
He says he thinks he will stay at the pagoda for two more years, and then maybe continue his studies elsewhere. Then he thinks for a minute more.
“I could be happy, spending my whole life here,’’ he says finally.
INSIDE THE pagoda grounds, more than 100 villagers buzz with anticipation as they prepare for the midday feast. For 15 days during Pchum Ben, women from surrounding villages dress in their best and bring choice dishes for the monks.
The feast will be held in a rudimentary pavilion with open sides and a corrugated metal roof. It shelters statues of the Buddha, surrounded by flowers and incense; a raised platform along one side is reserved for the monks.
The women arrange the food along the front of the platform, and the array is staggering. Scores of bowls are heaped with rice, noodles, meats, vegetables, soups of all descriptions, platters of fruits and puddings, towers of cakes and cookies.
Blue tendrils of incense float through the hot, sticky air, as hundreds of tiny pennants torn from colored cloth hang motionless from the rafters.
After sonorous prayers and chants, the monks eat sparingly before retiring to their afternoon duties. With their departure, the gathering turns into a huge neighborhood picnic, as the bowls are shared among the villagers and the air fills with noise and laughter.
The villagers hope to build a new, permanent pavilion, as soon as they can raise the $10,000 needed. “Be sure you write that down,’’ one old lady directs.
“If some NGO wants to give something to the villagers, tell them to come here and give it to us directly, or we’ll never get it.’’ Gifts that come through regular channels—such as village officials—have a way of disappearing, she says.
OUTSIDE THE pagoda, the rice continues to grow. There’s nothing uniform about it; one paddy is waist-high with lush green spikes, another is yellowing already, the stalks curving under the weight of the grain. Still others are empty pools, the crop lost to flooding.
Sao Eng, for example, is having an excellent year, so good that his nephew and helper, Pheap Eng, was able to take the afternoon off to visit the pagoda.
“There’s been a lot of rain, but we haven’t had flooding,’’ Sao Eng says, noting that his paddies are on high ground. “There’s been no problems with the rice yet.’’
His cousin Phad Phat hasn’t been so fortunate. Two of his paddies are closer to the river, and have flooded, although the third and biggest is still all right. If the water goes down in the next few weeks, some of the rice may survive, he says.
The family seems dogged by bad luck, says his wife, Marng Khan. She has been ill; last night, the cow was tied in the wrong place and ended up crushing 13 eggs that had been about to hatch.
Worst of all, the family seems unable to agree on whether the two children—Phad Khan, 19, and Phad Soeun, 22—should go to Phnom Penh to find work.
“I’d rather have my children than the money,’’ says Marng Khan, as the children glower in the background.
About the only progress to report, says Phad Khan with a bitter laugh, “is that the pig got castrated.’’
SUCH WORRIES and emotions drove Leuk Ta Chan out of the world and back into the pagoda four years ago, at the age of 59. Today he is the head monk at Wat Preah Ream.
With all due respect to his family, he says, he wishes he had spent his whole life in the pagoda.
“To be a monk means to get away from jealousy and passion,’’ he says. “We sacrifice our lives to be the sons and daughters of Buddha.’’
He says the resurgence of Wat Preah Ream, in a poor district where people have practically nothing to spare, shows how central the pagoda is to Cambodian community.
He, too, wants to send a message to any well-heeled Westerners who read this story and might want to help out: he could really, really use $10 to fix his broken radio. Or a new radio would be fine too.
“The pagoda is where the people worship, where leaders can rally the community,’’ he says. The monks’ removal from the stress and conflict of daily life makes them sought-after as judges and counselors.
He says he takes seriously his responsibility to counsel the villagers and to teach the boys who come to the pagoda. “As the head monk, I take care of these young children as if they were my own,’’ he says.
“If we follow the teachings of the Buddha, it will strengthen the people,’’ he says. “We don’t have material wealth, but we are strong in spirit.’’
And he is certain of one thing: Cambodians will never forget what Pol Pot did to the pagodas. “We won’t let it happen ever again,’’ he says. “We will resist.’’
Reporting by Jody McPhillips, Ana Nov and Ham Samnang