Millions of Monks

Cambodia has an impressive total of 28 national holidays per year.  That’s another 5+ working weeks of days off added to the annual leave people can take.  Not that most people are entitled to annual leave given that less than 20% work in occupations which follow the labour laws.  Most people work seven days per week, 52 weeks per year, just to feed themselves, many managing this in a less than adequate way.

Yesterday was not a public holiday but provincial towns including Kampong Cham held a big annual event of dragon boat racing.  Between 40 and 50 rowers per massive canoe raced on the river outside of our house during the day.  This was a lead-up event to the famous Water Festival which has it’s main celebration in Phnom Penh in November.  Unfortunately I only saw a very brief glimpse of the racing en route to work.  Over my year here I have seen many of these beautifully decorated boats sitting under shelters as we’ve cycled through their owner villages.  The purpose of yesterday’s event was to put the boats and rowers from these villages onto the water in preparation for the bigger event in Phnom Penh, where they will all travel downstream in about a month’s time.  It was quite a sight, with dozens of oars on one boat moving in chorus, propelling the boat at some speed over the current of the Mekong.

In the evening small homemade boats decorated with food and candles were floated onto the river, apparently in order to send the ancestors back to their other-world after they visit as ghosts during the observance of the two week Pchum Benh festival.  It was a big and busy day for Kampong Cham, followed by a big and busy evening.

I went out in the evening to check things out, starting at a riverside restaurant where the young wait staff were busy decorating their paper and banana leaf boats and preparing to join the procession to the riverbank.  Variously adorned skiffs appeared from behind the bar amidst a lot of excited commotion.  At one point a young waiter appeared with a ceramic dinner plate bedecked with a bunch of bananas and a candle in the centre, which sent his workmates into spasms of laughter.

Processions began to make their way along the promenade, including one large ornamental boat carried on the shoulders of a crowd of men who chanted as they marched along.  Most others were small and humble, but there were swarms of people everywhere, both on foot and oozing out of vehicles which purred along the crowded esplanade at snail pace.  I found a place on the walled embankment to sit and watch the full moon rise as these symbols were released onto the water, enjoying the sight of two big boats cruising nearby, one of them a new riverboat with fairy lights and light music playing to a subdued crowd who I imagined probably had champagne flutes in their hands; the other a big old wooden barge with a crowd concentrated on the bow, clanging steel on steel in rhythm and shouting out boisterously.  As the symbolic boats were released some people were jumping into the muddy water to swim them out into the current; other groups were on small fishing boats, collecting the rafts wafting on the shores and transporting them into the middle of the river to release them again.

It was a busy, interesting event to be amongst and as I was sitting enjoying the spectacle, Chom called me and shouted into the phone “I am at the front of your house!”.  I shouted my location back to him and he said he’d join me.  Moments later he appeared with his wife and son and we sat for about an hour watching the small and large boats, swimmers etc in the river under the moon’s reflection.

This morning a million monks weaved their way in single file through the busy streets of town, collecting alms from shopkeepers in a slow procession which stretched for many blocks.  The sight of monks collecting alms is not unusual but I have never seen them in such numbers before.  Apparently during the Wet Season (which has been disappointingly dry this year), monks stay at the pagodas and do not seek their regular donations from the general public.  This gives farmers and others reprieve to grow crops or save their produce without having to make regular donations from crops which are not yet ready to be harvested.  Today was the beginning of the new season in Buddhism and so the monks appeared in full force to begin their alms collecting again.

Monks collecting alms in Kampong Cham today
Monks collecting alms in Kampong Cham today

Yesterday while cycling through town to get Dara his daily treat I noticed a woman I have seen before in the same spot, sitting quietly with two naked children.  Clearly hungry, I bought them a fruit shake and took it to her.  Ineptly I asked if she had clothes for the children and she indicated no.  She then lifted her sleeve and showed me a badly infected, cellulitic arm.  Horrified, I asked if she had been to the hospital and was told no.  Payment of user fees in the health care setting here is an issue which keeps many Cambodians indebted and I understood why she was wary of my suggestion.  I said I would return in the afternoon but by then it was raining heavily and she was no longer there.  Meanwhile I recruited Win who provided me with some hand-me-down clothes from his son and I had these in my bag ready to clothe the babies.  Today at lunchtime I managed to locate her and she immediately clothed the children who were rapidly transformed – it’s amazing how good a clean pair of shorts can look on a little grubby, raggedy street-dwelling body.  I rang Chom who agreed to join us and while waiting for him, I cycled to the market and got some fried rice and coconuts for them.

As I arrived back at their tree Chom pulled up alongside us at the same time as a man on a bicycle who parked up and joined her on her park bench.  The ensuing conversation revealed this was her husband and they had four older children who were in the streets with sacks on their backs, scavenging for recyclables.  Chom explained that we knew somewhere she could go to have her arm seen to and when she initially declined, we explained that there would be no cost attached which immediately changed her mind.  She left the 3yo boy with his father and boarded Chom’s tuk-tuk with the baby.  We traveled in tandem, bicycle and tuk tuk, and made our way to a clinic where she was able to see a doctor who dressed the wound and provided her with antibiotics as well as de-worming tablets for herself, her husband and their six children as a precautionary measure due to their living conditions and the childrens’ malnutrition.

We all returned to the same park bench about an hour later and the older children appeared, two stunningly beautiful girls and two stunningly handsome boys aged 13yo down to 6yo, all dressed in filthy rags.  Dad immediately dispensed the de-worming tablets to each of his children and they dished out the two serves of fried rice between them.  Chom talked to me about his perceptions, which were much like mine, that this was an impoverished and uneducated village family eking out a form of a living by scavenging in the city.  As I am leaving next week there is little I can do for them and I am learning that there are very few NGOs here who can help in any meaningful way.  I am also learning that this is not an unusual situation for people to find themselves in, as I realise that there are hundreds of sack-bearing scavenging children on our streets.

Children scavenging along the embankment during a tropical downpour, yesterday.
Children scavenging along the embankment during a tropical downpour, yesterday.

Around 4pm this afternoon I was in a meeting when a text arrived from Chom “How are you?”.  I replied “Fine thanks and you”, to his “Me too, no customer and lonely”.  I suggested a 5pm drink together and we met at a riverside restaurant to catch up.  We spoke at length about some of the things we’ve done together, helping Dara and his family, the lady who sold her hair, and the family we saw today.  He said “I feel like my life is really changed now.  Before I thought so much about money and how I want the car and I want the nice things, but I don’t think about that anymore, I just think about my family and my friends and I really like having you as my friend and to help people with you”.  Doch knea – same here!  He then told me that his mother-in–law’s neighbour was widowed recently and has no way of feeding herself and “I told her that maybe you can help”.  To which I agreed and with a grand total of $10 we were able to ensure she has a stock of one month’s worth of rice, soy sauce and other extras including some eggs and fish for protein.  He rang her to tell her and there were tears and many thank yous.

I think about the charity Cambodian Childrens’ Fund a lot, as they are doing such remarkable work in Phnom Penh with families and individuals such as those I encounter here.  Interventions such as ensuring children attend school while giving their parents alternative choices, caring for the elderly and widowed, providing much-needed health care, etc.  How amazing it would be to come up with a plan to implement something similar for the people of Kampong Cham and other provincial towns, who have so little with no alternative but to live on the streets, begging and scavenging.

Meanwhile, these are all little things I am going to miss being involved with over the next few months while I catch up with family and friends and take a holiday back in the parallel universe that I call home.


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