Water Festival

November 18, 19, 20 were the annual Water Festival holidays. This year, though, because of Covid-19, the boat races on the Tonle Sap River were canceled so the migration of two or three million people to Phnom Penh didn’t happen.

There are always aspects of Cambodia culture that we foreigners will never understand or fully appreciate. For me one of those is the association of the flower decorations pictured in the photographs with the Water Festival. They are of a Khmer style but their meaning, the origin of the design, how they are used is a mystery to me

These specialized designs were widely available in the markets and from street vendors.

And people bought them, maybe adding a bit of holiday cheer to a major Cambodian festival that suffered in its celebration in a pandemic year.

Pchum Ben in a pandemic

Pchum Ben is a fifteen-day religious celebration, the Khmer equivalent of All Souls Day for Christians. After thousands of people flocked to the pagodas initially–and the Covid-19 infection rate shot up, the government suspended all ceremonies. Four or five people at a time were allowed into special areas set up at the gates of the pagodas, as seen in this photo from a week ago.

Yesterday was a different story. It was the last day of the holiday and people jammed up at the pagodas. At least they’re wearing masks. Everyone is waiting now to see what those who traveled to the provinces to commemorate with their relatives bring back with them. A surge in Covid-19 infections is expected.

Pchum Ben Holidays

Today is the first day of the three-day holiday for Pchum Ben, the Khmer equivalent of All Souls Day. Hundreds of thousands of Phnom Penh residents left the city to return to their home villages for scaled-down ceremonies honoring their ancestors. Most shops are closed. But for the people remaining in Phnom Penh—you still need bread!

And bananas!

Baby Monks

Monks are a large and prominent part of Cambodian culture. There are many, many wats throughout the country, and there are thousands of monks. There are men who are monks for one week; there are men who are monks for many decades. There are monks who are educated; there are monks who have little school learning. There are elderly monks; there are young boys who are studying to become monks.

Here are some pictures of young boys who are part of the monk society. They live in the wats (pagodas) and go with the monks as they make their rounds begging each day. In this era of concern about the sexual abuse of children, the presence of the young boys living with the adult monks seems strange. There is very little abuse mentioned but it may be that the culture covers it up and does not talk about it if it happens.

Khmer New Year–Day 2

On the way to a hospital to get our first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine, the Maryknoll group passed Wat Phnom, the spiritual center of Cambodia. It was decorated for the new year but no one was there because yesterday afternoon the government imposed a lockdown on Phnom Penh with just five or six hours notice.
The government rarely does things simply and clearly. Yesterday they announced that the lockdown would start at midnight. Today the papers said it started at 12:00 April 15th. Was that yesterday midnight or tonight midnight? The police apparently thought it was yesterday midnight because they had streets blocked off when we finished getting the vaccine.

Will the spirits be offended?

Many times over the years Catholics have come to me wondering what to do with old, sometimes damaged, religious objects they no longer want. Maybe it’s just old palm from last year’s Palm Sunday, or maybe it’s a rosary broken into three pieces, or maybe it’s a saint’s statue with the head broken off. All of these things, what the church calls sacramentals, become part of our religious environment. And sometimes they take on a much bigger role, almost like something magical.

For Catholics I’d say just be respectful in a minimalist way. If it’s an old statue, wrap it in an old rag and smash it with a hammer and then put it in the rubbish. That’s better than throwing it out with old watermelon rinds and beer cans after a summer picnic.

The Buddhists seem to have similar qualms and anxieties about disposing of old objects used in Buddhist spirituality, e.g., old spirit houses or holders of various kinds of offerings. Near many wats (Buddhist pagodas), especially on the back side, people dump old spirit houses, household shrines for ancestors, and other devotional objects–not wanting to offend the ancestors or spirits but also wanting to get rid of no longer useful objects.