Cambodian Monks Struggle for Alms as Pchum Ben Festival (end of Vassa) Nears

The Buddhist Channel, 14 Oct 2023

Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- In a poignant twist on an age-old tradition, this year's Pchum Ben festival in Cambodia's Kampong Tralach district is tinged with sorrow, as local monks face a shortage of food offerings amidst economic challenges. The 15-day festival, marking the end of Vassa (Buddhist Lent), typically sees devotees prepare food for monks and offer alms as a way to honor their deceased ancestors. However, the economic slowdown has cast a shadow over these cherished rituals.

Residents in Kampong Tralach district have struggled economically, with some seeking higher-paying jobs across the border in Thailand. Consequently, local monks, who rely on the generosity of the community, find themselves in dire straits.

Neang Eth, the abbot of Samrong Raingsy, lamented, "We are facing difficulties in supporting the monks. We have 13 monks, but we don't have the money to support them."

The situation is particularly stark in two nearly deserted villages – Ta Ches commune, Kampong Talach district, and Cheung Kreav commune, Rolea Bier district. Here, two pagodas, Wat Samrong Raingsy and Wat Sovannkiri Potikaram, stand unusually quiet, with their monks receiving minimal support during this year's Pchum Ben festival.

Recently, the pagoda's 13 monks conducted a ceremony, but only ten local residents attended. With no scheduled events between October 12 and 14, the monks face a bleak outlook, uncertain of where their next meal will come from. Abbot Neang Eth expressed concerns that the economic hardships may erode people's enthusiasm for the traditional religious festival.

The monks residing in Sovannkiri Potikaram Pagoda are also grappling with food shortages. Located approximately 10 kilometers from the nearest village, only a handful of locals attended this year's event, according to Abbot Moul Sai. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, these monks have been deprived of adequate sustenance. On most days, they only have enough food for their midday meal, with some days passing without any meals.

Moul Sai remarked, "We asked for food from houses, but the villagers said they could not schedule times to come to the pagoda."

Sar Leang, the provincial department head for Cambodia's Ministry of Cult and Religious Affairs, expressed his office's helplessness in resolving the food shortages but promised to visit the monks to assess the situation.

Koet Saray, President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association and a former Buddhist monk, pointed out that food shortages for monks are becoming a nationwide issue due to a decline in visitors during the religious festival. He pondered, "Monks rely on people to offer food and clothes, so when people don't even have the money to spend in their daily lives, how can they give food to the monks?"

In response, monks in Kampong Chhnang province have appealed to officials for assistance in alleviating poverty among the villagers, hoping to restore their ability to participate in traditional religious ceremonies. The plight of these monks highlights the challenges faced by Cambodians as they navigate economic difficulties during this sacred festival.
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