Thol Chenda doesn’t mind that she can’t be in the Buddhist dining hall – due to the Covid-19 pandemic – to make her food offerings this year or receive the blessings of dharma (Buddhist instructions offered by the monks) at the pagoda either.
Truth be told, in some previous years she shortened her visits anyway by leaving the offerings at the pagoda entrance instead of going inside due to her busy schedule and life in general.
Chenda, 56, lost her father long ago when he was murdered by the Khmer Rouge after they took power, but she feels certain that he comes and accepts the spiritual offerings she gives at Ottara Vatey pagoda in Phnom Penh's Russey Keo district every year.
“Covid-19 doesn’t matter to the dead. I believe my father’s soul will receive my offerings whatever the safety procedures are and even with restrictions on entering the pagodas because none of these earthly concerns will trouble the ancestors,” she said.
The government decided to suspend the Pchum Ben festival’s public observance at pagodas this year in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to avoid inadvertently causing any large-scale outbreak through social gatherings.
However, Buddhists are still permitted to bring offerings to the monks and leave them at the pagoda’s outer gates while replacing their typical visit by making their pilgrimage digitally.
“We follow the new normal including offering money to monks by transferring via Wing [electronics payment service provider] and banks.
"If we want the monks' dharma [teachings], we must watch online only. I believe the spiritual benefits of these activities will be the same,” said Or Vandine, secretary of state and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health.
“We must do whatever we can to cut down large gatherings and crowds to the maximum extent we can with only essential personnel at the pagodas,” she said during a recent trip to Siem Reap province to wrap up its initial vaccination campaign for adults.
A devout Buddhist who never misses a religious ceremony or holiday, Yung Vandy, 69, said he originally planned to visit the pagoda on the seventh and eighth days of the 15-day festival in the early morning when there wouldn’t be many visitors there.
For offerings, he was planning to bring foods that were non-perishable such as instant noodles and canned fish so that they would be useful to the monks beyond their immediate needs during the festival.
“I wanted my child to drive me to a pagoda in Kandal province’s Punhea Leu district. Now all pagodas are closed to the public. So I decided to call the monks there and told them that I transferred money to them since I could not visit the pagoda.
“I keep my parents’ ashes in their funeral urns there and I plan to eventually build a stupa for them at that site. I can’t visit them this year but I can still make offerings to the monks there like cash transfers with apps,” Vandy, a retired civil servant, told The Post.
The new normal has taken shape across Cambodia largely following the same rules and guidelines no matter what corner of the Kingdom a pagoda is situated in thanks to central guidance from the health ministry and very clear and unambiguous messages from the nation’s leaders.
Kampong Sleng pagoda in Rokar Krao commune of Takeo province's Doun Keo town has also adapted its holiday festivities this year to the realities of Covid-19. Monks are receiving offerings at the entrance while just a handful of people are permitted onto the premises at a time to take part in ceremonies.
“In previous years Buddhist worshippers gathered in the dining hall but now – since the government issued the restrictions – we can only receive offerings outside at the entrance. We’ve prepared tables for rice offerings in alms bowls for just a few representatives,” said Venerable Sam Vichea, who serves as chief of the Kampong Sleng pagoda.
Vichea said all of the pagodas in Takeo continued to receive offerings from the Cambodian public, though they are far fewer overall in total than in previous years.
“Good deeds come from the genius of your heart rather than the greed of your stomach or the cunning of your head,” he intoned.
The good deeds he was referring to are the offerings of food and so forth that are still being made at the pagoda entrances despite the absence of any immediate blessing from a monk for those bearing them.
“We ask Buddhists to have faith in the monks and in their compatriots and know that the good deeds they do by making their offerings may not be met with an immediate blessing ceremony, but the monks will receive the offerings in the dining hall and their blessings will reach you anywhere.
“They will dedicate everything to the giver’s ancestors so that the souls of both the living and the dead may prosper,” he says.
According to Vichea, some Buddhists have been avoiding the pagodas during these pandemic years and making offerings remotely in cash through digital transfers on their turn during the festival, but many seem to be neglecting their spiritual obligations this year, perhaps under the presumption that things will be back to normal the next time around.
“We’ve come up with a ‘menu’ of four types of offerings at different amounts of money and when people send in a certain amount we know what they want us to do and what blessings to chant for these distant people and that’s worked fine,” the monk said.
To ease the process for those who wish to do good deeds this holiday by providing offerings to the monks, many delivery companies are offering door-to-pagoda services where they pick up your offering at your home’s front door and take it straight to the monks, all while avoiding human contact to the greatest extent possible.
“For this Pchum Ben festival we also have prepared offerings for Buddhist followers who want to have them delivered to the monks. Customers can also order in advance if they want to offer the monks roasted meat or other higher quality items for their offerings,” said Cheun Cheu Heng, digital marketing director at Seng Hok Heng Catering Services and Heng Mart, which recently launched a new online delivery service for groceries and meals.
Heng said people make orders via Hengmart’s Facebook page and their service takes over from there. They hope to have mobile apps for Android and iOS ready for consumers to use soon.
Seng Hok Heng managing director Touch Ratha said some customers have always ordered food from their catering division for home delivery and then brought it themselves to the pagoda as an offering to the monks on their own.
“But some people want us to take over the whole process from making the food to delivering it directly to the pagoda. In fact, a few days ago, we took enough food for a banquet to offer to monks on behalf of a customer that ordered it be sent over to Russei Sanh Pagoda,” he said.
In order to reassure the customer that the offerings were delivered to the intended monks at the correct pagoda, the delivery man presents the invoice to the recipients and takes a few photos of the monks with the offerings to give their customers proof and peace of mind.
One of Cambodia’s most popular local delivery apps – Nham24 – also advertised on its Facebook page that customers can place orders for "food-as-offerings to the monks free of delivery charges if the pagoda is within 3km of the restaurant".
Venerable Vichea said that in these hard times there’s no shame in making your offerings at a distance and that it doesn’t affect the Buddhist rituals either way.
He said people can send digital cash offerings and the monks will bless them and their ancestors all the same, and that it’s no different than what many people living overseas have been doing for many years now with wire transfers through banks or services like Western Union, Moneygram, World Remit, among others.
“Some people may think that their kindness towards monks won’t be able to reach their ancestors if they didn’t come into contact with the monks directly.
"Actually, they can rest easy knowing that the universe will take care of things for them and be able to correctly address their good intentions so the blessings are delivered to the right people just as the delivery man will read the address label on their offering and know the route to take there,” he explained.
Yeang Sokmeng, 59, visited her local pagoda on the first day of the festival and wanted to visit more pagodas in provincial rural areas as well since she knew that some temples were falling short on offerings compared to past years.
“When I heard that the festival was suspended, I asked my children to bring rice, noodles, water and soy sauce over to the monks,” she said, adding that before the pandemic she never failed to visit seven temples for the holiday each year to help out the ancestors.
She said because she’s very devout and the community of monks at her pagoda is familiar with her, she was able to make arrangements in advance and have full confidence in the diligence of the monks in carrying them out.
“We knew the monks so we got them to take the offerings from us at the entrance. The monks chanted and we stood distant from them and poured water to dedicate everything we did and to bring our ancestors into the next world.
“I am still wondering if it’s okay or not that we cut things that short but we have no choice amid this pandemic. I can only pray that Covid-19 meets its end somehow and the threat fades as soon as possible so that life returns to normal and I can visit the pagodas as I used to,” she said wistfully.
Cambodian Buddhists observe Pchum Ben for 15 days, which typically starts the day following the harvest moon.
Based on the Khmer lunar calendar, Pchum Ben falls on different dates according to the Gregorian calendar each year, but always around September-October.
This year it takes place from September 22 to October 6, with the principal festivities celebrated from October 5-7. The festival’s main day of “great offering” called Ben Thom is on October 6 and coincides with the new moon followed by the festival’s final day on October 7.
The holiday is unique to Cambodian Buddhism, though it does bear some similarities to other religious traditions in East and Southeast Asia such as the Qingming “grave sweeping” festival celebrated in China and many other countries that have large and vibrant ethnic or culturally Chinese minority populations, like those of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, among others.
Pchum Ben and Qingming are both broadly dedicated to honouring one’s ancestors and also traditionally an occasion for families to gather for reunions. One big difference between the two traditions is their timing during the year as Qingming takes place earlier around the Spring equinox.