THE morning sunshine splays over Pok Chhma primary school in Battambang, giving the orange robes of the monks who work there an especially vivid sheen. The festival of Pchum Ben has only just finished, but there will be no rest for these holy men.
The monks, along with many other volunteers, tend giant grills set up to dry thousands of rice cakes left over from the festival of the dead. These savoury treats will ultimately be distributed to prisons all over Battambang, where they will feed famished inmates.
Battambang’s Dhammayietra centre runs the initiative, which is the brainchild of one of its workers, 30-year-old Sek Sarom. She conceived the idea in 2000, while working as a volunteer language tutor in Battambang’s prisons.
“We taught languages to the prisoners, and in that time I observed that people did not have enough food in the prison. I know that after every Bonn Pchum Ben, there is a great deal of waste in terms of food at the pagodas, so we decided to begin collecting rice cakes for prisoners,” she said.
Sek Sarom felt there was not enough understanding from the wider community when it came to the inmates. This manifested itself in a great deal of hostility when she first floated the idea almost a decade ago – something for which she was not prepared.
A labour of empathy
“When I first sent letters to ask for rice cakes, even some monks complained and asked why we should help them. Prisoners are the bad guys; they attack, rape and even kill people, they said. Some monks even cursed me before handing over the rice cakes,” she said.
Yet Sek Sarom was determined to get her idea off the ground, with much of her resolve emanating from an empathy she was able to build for the inmates while teaching them.
“I think prisoners are human beings, just like me. I noticed that most of the prisoners are from poor backgrounds, and many of them fell into crime because of poverty and a lack of education,” she said.
Racing against time
With all of the good will in the world, though, Sek Sarom admits she would not be able to carry out the initiative without the help of the monks and other volunteers. It is a huge operation, with bamboo for the grills supplied by local villagers and small groups of volunteers speeding to pagodas on motorcycle, in order to meet the relatively tight time frame between the end of Pchum Ben at around midday and a 2pm deadline when many of the temples close.
“Collecting the rice cakes allows many people to get involved. Not only monks, but also members of Dhammayietra, as well as the local community,” Sek Sarom explained.
“After I finish sending them to the prisons, I do have moments where I think I don’t want to do it next year because it’s so tiring. But I know I will because I feel so much empathy for the people we are helping.”